Date: July 10 2012
Tomorrow, it will be a quarter of a century since Australians last voted in a double-dissolution election.
That election, the sixth such election in the history of the Commonwealth, was occasioned by defeat in the Senate of legislation to introduce an Australia Card, one of several measures proposed by the Hawke Labor government to combat fraud in the taxation and social-security systems.
It was the most straightforward of all double dissolutions: based on just one bill about whose defeat in the Senate in terms of section 57 of the constitution, there was neither doubt, argument nor dispute.
The Hawke government won with an increased majority in the House of Representatives (up four) but lost ground in the Senate (down two).
It was, thus, not in a position to secure the legislation by the usual means of passage through the two Houses of the Parliament. But it would have a comfortable majority if, after further rejection by the Senate, the bill was sent to a joint sitting of the two houses.
Had this occurred, it would have been only the second time that a joint sitting was summoned following a double dissolution. The previous occasion was 1974 when the Whitlam government was able, among others, to pass the Medibank legislation.
As has been frequently the case with double-dissolution elections, the legislation in contention did not figure greatly either in the government's decision to have the election, nor in the ensuing campaign.
In an uncertain economic climate, the government, in any case facing an election in less than a year - the previous House election had been December 1984 - decided to take advantage of discord in the ranks of its opponents wrought by the so-called ''Joh for Canberra'' campaign orchestrated by the National Party premier of Queensland, Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
As it happens, Sir Joh was abroad when the election was called and his ambitions to take the capital by storm barely got off the drawing board. One analyst of the election noted that ''In Queensland the anti-Joh backlash humiliated the much vaunted National machine.''
The Australia Card may not have figured prominently in the campaign but, with the election settled, it loomed increasingly large in political debate. Hostility in the community grew. There was perceptible unease in government ranks.
Battle was joined with great vigour. Prime minister Hawke complained about ''decibel democracy.'' But there was no joint sitting. In little more than two months the Australia Card was dead. Where the Opposition had failed at the polls, it most assuredly succeeded in Parliament, indeed, in the Senate.
Early in September a retired deputy secretary in the Attorney-General's Department and, more recently, a senior member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, had a look at the bill - he was ''surprised at its huge volume and complexity''. After a closer study he was ''appalled at the complexities it would bring to the life of every citizen, in the name of catching the comparatively few tax cheats and social security cheats and the handful of illegal immigrants''.
Repeatedly woken early by the light and the warbling of magpies, he contemplated the bill.
Eventually he detected what might be an Achilles heel. If he had read it correctly, it seemed that it required regulations to take effect. Such regulations could be disallowed and, if the opponents of the bill in the Senate - everyone except Labor senators - joined forces, it would be disallowed.
This was not a deficiency which could be overcome by a joint sitting. Under section 57, bills voted upon at a joint sitting must be as ''last proposed by the House of Representatives'' together with amendments, if any, suggested during the bicameral proceedings.
Smith contacted a newly-elected National Party senator from Queensland, the former Treasury secretary John Stone, and apprised him of his thinking.
They met. Smith handed him some written analysis. ''Sounds right to me,'' said Stone after reading it.
He took the matter to various party meetings. When the Opposition played its hand, the veteran journalist Laurie Oakes reported that ministers were ''running around like headless chooks''.
After some ineffectual parliamentary manoeuvres, the government abandoned the bill.
Since 1987, every Commonwealth election has been in the most frequent form - a general election for the House of Representatives combined with periodical election of half the Senate; indeed, the longest uninterrupted stretch of such elections in Commonwealth history.
At least one subsequent prime minister seems to have thought about a double dissolution - John Howard in relation to the Wik legislation. Kevin Rudd might well have activated section 57 to secure the emissions trading scheme developed by his government. Had he done so, his future in politics may well have taken a different course.
Nevertheless, it may not be long before Australian voters again have the experience of a double dissolution. Malcolm Mackerras has already suggested odds for a double dissolution election in April next year on the refugee legislation lately defeated in the Senate.
An Abbott government, elected in the normal run of politics late in 2013, may run into serious troubles in the Senate in seeking repeal of the carbon tax and the new mining tax, troubles which may persist even after new senators take their seats on or after July 1, 2014. In order to avoid an Australia Card disappointment, Abbott and his team will need to give the most careful consideration to both their parliamentary and their legislative strategies.
Likewise, were the minority Labor Government to find itself at the polls before Senate elections are possible after July 1, 2013, and without having established a double-dissolution trigger using Rob Oakeshott's refugee bill, a victorious Coalition government would have to contemplate a double dissolution or face that most treacherous of all national elections for an incumbent government - an election for half the Senate only by the end June 2014.
J. R. Nethercote is an adjunct professor with the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University.
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