Recent media speculation and ponderings about the prospect of prime minister Tony Abbott calling an early election highlight the process for determining when an election will be held for the Australian House of Representatives.
Section 28 of the Australian Constitution provides that ‘Every House of Representatives shall continue for three years from the first meeting of the House and no longer, but may be sooner dissolved by the Governor-General’. However, this process functions in accordance with the convention that the Governor-General usually acts on the advice of the Prime Minister in setting the election date (Australian Electoral Commission, http://www.aec.gov.au/Elections/australian-electoral-system/Electoral_Procedures/Federal_Election_Timetable.htm). Conventions in this context have been deemed to be ‘a set of traditions, customs and understandings from which developed a set of practices about the exercise of political power and the relationships between the institutions of government’ (Singleton, et al, Australian Political Institutions, 10th edition, 2013, p. 51).
The capacity to make this decision could be regarded as an element of prime ministerial power in the Australian political system, for example, providing the opportunity to call an election at a time when it is deemed most favourable to the government to do so. For internal party purposes a prime minister may use the prospect of calling an early election to quieten dissidents within the party, particularly those who hold marginal seats (Singleton et al, p. 217).
Nevertheless, there are political constraints on when that power is exercised. A Governor-General has the constitutional power to decline to do so or may require the prime minister to justify calling an early election, but it is most likely the prime minister’s wishes will prevail (Singleton et al, p. 217). Most importantly the electoral climate must be favourable to the government’s chances of winning a majority otherwise there is the real prospect of losing seats and losing government.
Another constraint is the complication relating to the current practice of holding a half-Senate election at the same time as the election for the House of Representatives. Section 13 of the Australian Constitution states that an election to fill vacant Senate places ‘shall be made within one year before the places are to become vacant’. In the current parliament this means that a half-Senate election cannot be held until 1 July 2016. To call an early election for the House of Representatives before that date would mean a half-Senate election after 1 July 2016 which would be costly and may not be popular with voters. It also raises the prospect as Antony Green points out ‘of the government running the risk of voters treating a separate half-Senate election as a giant by-election’ (http://blogs.abc.net.au/antonygreen/election-date-speculation, 25 June 2015).
The other alternative for the Abbott government would be to seek a double dissolution of the House of Representatives and the Senate. However, the government would have to meet the requirements of Section 57 of the Australian Constitution (Disagreement between the Houses) under which a double dissolution can only be triggered if a government bill which has passed the House of Representatives has been rejected or failed to pass the Senate and again rejected or failed to pass when resubmitted after the constitutionally prescribed interval of three months.
The quota of votes needed to secure election in a double dissolution Senate election for 12 senators for each state is half that required for a half-Senate election for 6 senators for each state. This potentially would make it easier for minor parties and independents to secure a quota with the result that the cross-bench may be larger and more unwieldy than before.
The option of a double dissolution has only been exercised on 6 occasions since federation. It would be a risky move for a government and a prime minister not particularly popular with the electorate to take because even if the government was re-elected a larger and more complex cross-bench may make it more difficult to get government legislation through the Senate and nothing would be gained. Politically, the ascendance of Richard Di Natale as the leader of the Greens with an apparent greater willingness to enter into a discourse with the government on legislation may render any prospect of a double dissolution election in an immediate sense less likely.
In May 2014 in the context of poor public and media reaction to his government’s budget, it was reported that Abbott ‘backtracked from suggestions of a double-dissolution’ (Akerman Pia, 18 May 2014, http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/prime-minister-tony-abbott-stands-down-on-doubledissolution-election/story-fn5niix-1226921655-068).
Clearly electoral popularity of the government has to be a major consideration in any early election decision. The Abbott government’s second budget in May 2015 which was received better by the media and the public, combined with the Labor opposition’s relatively weak performance caused more speculation about an early election. Abbott reportedly told the Liberal Party room ‘that the government was coming good, just as the other lot was falling apart’ which drew the comment: ‘There may have been an element of “rah-rah” to that message as well given his heightened sense of mortality after February (leadership spill motion). There’s nothing like the prospect of an election to keep the troops focused’ (Kenny, M. 26 June 2015, http://www.theage.com.au/comment/early-election-not-expected-despite-rumours-20150625-ghxe2y.html).
Reports that MPs heading off to their electorates for the winter parliamentary recess last week were advised to get a new photo with the prime minister ‘to use in local electorate materials’ fuelled the speculation that Abbott was considering an early election, but he denied this was the case: ‘I would certainly advise anyone thinking that way to, in the old terminology, have a bex and a long lie down’ (Moss, D. 25 June 2015, http://thenewdaily.com.au/news/2015/06/25/early-election-claims-scuppered).
Recent polls showing a lift in support for Abbott as preferred prime minister over opposition leader Shorten, for example Newspoll-The Australian poll taken 10-14 June 2015 places Abbott at 41 per cent compared to Shorten at 38 per cent (www.newspoll.com.au/opinion-polls-2/opinion-polls-2) could be taken as encouragement for calling an early election. However, polls also show the Coalition trailing Labor in the two-party preferred vote. For example, a Newspoll-The Australian poll taken 10-14 June 2015 shows Labor leading the Coalition 49 per cent to 51 per cent (www.newspoll.com.au/opinion-polls2/opinion-polls-2). A Roy Morgan poll taken June 20/21 and 27/28 June is less optimistic for the government with Labor at 53 per cent and the Coalition trailing at 47 per cent (www.roymorgan.com/morganpoll/federal-voting-intention-recent-201302016). There may be grounds for thinking that Abbott could outperform Shorten and Labor in an election campaign, but would it be a risk worth taking?
Dr Gwynneth Singleton, 30 June 2015