Australia’s political climate

The Labor government of PM Kevin Rudd appears to have secured the votes of enough opposition Liberal Senators–the government lacks a majority in the Senate–to assure passage of its emissions trading scheme (ETS) bill.

The Liberals are in the midst of a leadership crisis over the issue. The price of support from within the opposition has included offering seven billion dollars in assistance to the coal and electricity industries.

Update: The Liberals have a new leader, Tony Abbot, and the voting was pretty exciting, with a 42-41 final round of voting. Abbot staked out the clearest anti-ETS position, so there is presumably still more excitement to come in the Liberal caucus.

Update II: As noted in comments, the ETS bill failed, because too few Liberal Senators crossed over. And so now there is talk of a double dissolution (new elections for not only the House but also all of the Senate. This is indeed interesting!

38 thoughts on “Australia’s political climate

  1. This is deeply embarrassing.

    The Liberal Party of Australia has now lapped the US Republicans in the race to absurdity on climate change. Abbot’s press conference was excruciating. Asked about his statement that ‘Climate change is crap.’ he said it was just hyperbole and not everything he said in the past should be taken seriously.

    About the only thing delaying a double dissolution (where Abbot’s own seat would be in doubt) is that the prime minister is in Washington and can’t very well race home to wait upon the governor-general.

  2. Do you expect a double dissolution? If so, it would be fun to watch an election fought over climate change. (I assume there are other matters at issue about now, too.)

    When was the last double dissolution?

    While the Liberals may be “lapping” the US Republicans in their absurdity, you have the advantage of being able to hold them accountable to the ultimate principal. No such democratic device exists around these parts.

  3. I do expect a double dissolution with the election for all members of both houses in February or March. Turnbull, the former opposition leader spoke quite directly at his press conference of ‘if this House ever comes back’. The Senate remains in session and in theory the ETS bill could be sent to Committee until March, but there is precedent to treat a committee reference as failure to pass. There is High Court authority that if a double dissolution is found to have been granted invalidly that does not call the dissolution or election in question, only the validity of any laws made by a joint sitting of both houses after the election.

    The polling is simply astounding. The Coalition is facing oblivion and the Rudd government has a serious chance to be the first Labor government with a majority in the Senate since the 1940s.

    Just for the record, Abbot, a former Catholic seminarian, is known as the Mad Monk and I do not, judging by his press conference, think that nickname is going away any time soon.

  4. The last double dissolution was 1987. There were only two in the first three-quarters of a century of Federation (1914 and 1951), but then 4 in a 13-year period (1974, 1975, 1983 and 1987).

    In 1988, the Constitutional Commission (arguing for a change from 6-year rotating Senate terms to 4-year concurrent maximum terms for both Houses) noted that, at the time, the last Senators to serve a full 6-year term were those elected at the 1967 (separate) half-Senate election! However, the 1990 House and half-Senate election re-established the normal pattern of regular triennial rotation which continued in 1993, 1996, 1998 (31 months after previous election), 2001, 2004 and 2007.

  5. “If so, it would be fun to watch an election fought over climate change.”

    In the 2008 Canadian election, the Liberals centered their campaign on the need to take measures to stop climate change, and lost pretty badly. It was one of the worst federal Liberal results in the history of the Confederation.

    However, the Canadian Liberals were the opposition, and there is some evidence to believe that when the opposition and its program becomes the main issue in the election, the opposition is going to lose. The Australian Liberals are also the opposition.

  6. Peter Brent, at, has argued persuasively that Australians have tendency to keep reelecting governments in multiple elections until they grow tired of them, which usually happens just over a decade after they are first elected.

    The relatively short terms (three years) of Australain parliaments may have something to do with this. The US has a similar pattern with majorities in its House of Representatives (only a two year term), despite having a very different political system.

    One thing I’ve noticed about Australian politics in recent years is that opposition parties have become very quick to dump leaders after the first sign of trouble, often before they get a chance to fight an election. This happened to Crean, Beazley (the second time), and now Turnbull.

    I’m not sure why this is the case, given that Australian electoral history indicates that the government will get relected the first time it goes to the polls anyway (Whitlam is the big contrary example but I’m pretty sure there are no others). I’m also not sure why anyone would want to be Leader of the Opposition of an Australian party that just got thrown out of government, the odds indicate that you will have to spend a year or two fighting against inter-party intrigue and get dumped, and if you make to the next election you will lose anyway. It seems to be a good way for an ambitious politician to guarantee that they will never be PM.

  7. Ed, of course, you are right about the 2008 Canadian election (discussed rather extensively here, but it was over a year ago and I guess I temporarily forgot).

    Your observations about governing vs. opposition parties and their programs are interesting. I am sure there is research on that very question…

    As for the effect of short terms on total party tenure in government, I would think it would be just as likely to be the opposite. The government has so little time to show positive effects of its policies. But you may be on to something when referring to the dynamics of intra-party politics in a just-defeated party. Perhaps three years is too short a time for a just-defeated party to gather itself, and then having to fight an election when not yet “gathered” means that 6 years is too short, too. I am not sure why the pattern would continue, however, and produce longer tenure overall than what a party gets in a parliament with 4-5 year terms.

    It is an interesting hypothesis, and here I am less sure that there is a literature. Of course, the only other parliamentary systems with 3-year (or shorter) terms are Denmark and New Zealand. I do not think the effect could be present in the USA, given that until recently, hardly anyone in the general public cared about who led a congressional party, and the question of what party would control the House was far less important. In fact, I suspect that the long sequences of continued rule over the House by one party is more a factor of presidentialism and the (related) lesser importance of party to House elections than it is of term length.

    (By the way, Ed, I assume you meant “intra-party” in the next to last sentence of comment #7.)

  8. What Ed said, but with 2 emendments:

    “… the government will get relected the first time it goes to the polls anyway (Whitlam is the big contrary example but I’m pretty sure there are no others).”

    Whitlam was elected in Dec 1972 and re-elected at the May 1974 double dissolution. He was defeated at the December 1975 double dissolution. True, he served only three years in total but he did win two successive elections.

    One-term Aust govts are indeed rare but have occurred Federally 1929 to 1931, South Aust 1979 to 1982, and Queensland 1995-96* to 1998.

    [* General election held July 1995 gave a 45-43-1 result. Result in one Govt-won district was annulled by the court – won by Opposition at special election in Feb 1996, making it 44-44-1. Independent then sided with Opposition to turn out Govt.]

    One-term US party control of the Presidency is also rare when one takes into account that Truman, LBJ, Ford and Bush Senior immediately succeeded a President of the same party. In the past century, I believe only Jimmy Carter qualifies for “change of governing party after one single term”.

    > “not sure why anyone would want to be Leader of the Opposition of an Australian party that just got thrown out of government, the odds indicate that you will have to spend a year or two fighting against inter-party intrigue and get dumped, and if you make to the next election you will lose anyway.”

    True, but the caveat is that a dumped leader may well make a comeback later – eg John Howard federally (lost 1987 but won 1996, 1998, 2001 and 2004) and Jeff Kennett in Victoria (lost 1985 and 1988 but won 1992 and 1996, after being replaced by Alan Brown 1989-91).

  9. Just to update everyone, the Liberals have voted not to back the climate change legislation, but given that some Liberal senators may cross the floor today when most of the bills go to a third reading vote (the other two are being sent back to the House of Representatives for amendment requests), we are yet to see what will happen.

  10. Good point, Tom: changes of party that last only for one term are probably pretty rare across established democracies, of any type.

  11. If one takes out Carter and Reagan-Bush, the US has had neat octennial party alternations for the past 65 years, since FDR died.

    Possibly seven years is roughly the time it takes for voters to “distance” themselves from their last decision to switch sides… or simply the time it takes for older voters to die and new voters to become eligible.

    Labor and Coalition have divided the quarter-century since Hawke won in 1983 almost exactly equally (13+ years to <12), although the famous “arrested pendulum” certainly applied from 1949 to 1983 (3 years of Labor, 30 years Coalition).

  12. One anonymous Liberal MP was quoted as saying that when the Howard government won a Senate majority in 2004 it was the end of the government, and now the Senate majority will be the end of the Opposition. The rebellion was led by one Nick Minchin, leader of the opposition in the Senate. (Note, there is no majority leader the leaders of the government and the opposition in the Senate are determined by who holds government in the House) Minchin made himself famous before the republic referendum in 1999 by submitting to cabinet that the ballot paper would have 10 questions and achieving a republic would require you to vote No to the first 9 questions and Yes to the tenth question.

    Turnbull was leading the Liberals away from the Howard legacy and Abbot and Minchin are now seeking to reverse that. Indeed Abbot has just declared, on unknown authority, that the government’s mandate for an emission trading scheme has ended.

    I am not completely sure the parliamentary term is a major factor. NSW has had a four year fixed term since the early 1990s, but that did not save the NSW Liberals from what one NSW ex-leader of the Liberals called an ‘annual decapitation of the leader”. The Minchin/Abbot group grew used to being in government. They were favorites of the former prime minister. They saw their party moving away from the policies of that government on both climate change and multilateralism. Imagine the reaction among the Republican base if say Bloomberg were to become the party leader.

    I do not know that Turnbull is necessarily a dead duck. If the electoral catastrophe predicted by the polls happens, Turnbull will be looking quite good when the Liberal caucus assembles after the election.

  13. The Senate has now rejected the ETS legislation and the government has a double dissolution trigger. The dates are complicated:

    If Prime Minister Kevin Rudd wanted an early double dissolution election he would have to consider its timing because of several factors surrounding the fixed terms of the Senate.

    If he calls an election before July 1 next year another Senate election would have to be held in 2012, meaning the Government would have to decide whether to have a only half-Senate election at that time or take the Parliament to another early election.

    If Mr Rudd wants a double dissolution election that gives the Government a three-year term they have wait until after July 1 but must dissolve Parliament on or before August 10.

    A normal election can be called after August 7.

  14. Yes, Bloomberg is a close analogy to Turnbull. For an American Tony Abbott, you would need to imagine Rick Santorum channeling Newt Gingrich. And Hockey is a bit of a Huckabee…

  15. This is off the topic of Australian politics, I just wanted to respond to #8 and #9, and the question of when voters turn out governments is interesting.

    Tom Round is correct in that Carter is a unique case for defeated US presidents. Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison lost reelection after only one turn, but Cleveland won the popular vote, and Harrison’s defeat four years later (to Cleveland) can be seen as a correction to the error. The other five cases of incumbent presidents being defeated, their party had controlled the White House for at least eight years.

    One of my history professors pointed out that voters in Britain switched party control of the government in every election between 1874 and 1895, which he attributed to a chronically bad economy. But parliaments in that period lasted six years (legally they could extend to seven)! After the 1911 Parliament Act shortened parliaments to five years, governments have always won reelection at least once, with a few exceptions involving hung parliaments in the 1920s. In the German Federal Republic, the 2002 federal election saw the first change of government after only a single term, though the SPD remained part of the governing coalition.

    But Canadian voters seem relatively willing to dump governments after only one term.

  16. Ed, are Canadians really so eager to reject governments? The last time a federal party was in power for a single term was when twenty years of Liberal domination were interrupted by Joe Clark for 9 months. Before that, you have to go back to the 1930’s.

    I know that Quebec hasn’t had a party in power for just one term in decades, and of course Alberta hasn’t either. Looking at Wikipedia’s chart, I see just one example of this happening in any province in over two decades, Bob Rae’s term in Ontario.

    When we’re talking about how long it takes to sour on a party, I wonder how the presence or absence of other national elections changes things. Does the more frequent voting give voters the feeling that they’ve already given the party two or three chances, accelerating the desire to throw them out? Or does it let the voters vent steam, making them more willing to keep the executive around?

  17. For Canada, I was thinking of three short lived Tory federal governments, Bennett (1930-5), Diefenbacker (1957-62), and Clark (1979-80), but know that I think of it Diefenbacker called an election one year into his government and the Tories came back with a huge majority.

    Provincially, according to the great chart at the link there was a one term NDP government in BC and a one term Union Nationale government in Quebec, but the general pattern is more than one term.

    So Canadians do tend to not deny their governments a second term, if not quite as much as voters in Australia and the UK.

  18. I wouldn’t underestimate Abbott’s academic ability. He was a Rhodes Scholar and has written two (?) books – as far as I can tell, without a ghostwriter, because his style matches how he speaks on TV. I disagree with the content but likening him to Palin is too harsh.

    The Left has a tendency to regard conservative politicians as morons. It is true that the Right is on the whole less intellectual and academic than the Left, but conflating this with dumbness, however comforting, only leads to the Adlai Stevensons, the Gough Whitlams and Michael Dukakides getting regularly whumped at the polls while the Reagans, Bushes, Bjelke-Petersens, and Howards get re-elected.

  19. I was not really commenting on Abbot’s academic ability, but on his habit of being guided by his beliefs (conviction politician) rather than by mere fact. An example would be the last week where (on one of his climate change is crap days) he declared firmly that the Earth is cooling and each year since 2000 has been cooler than the year before. The interviewer than established that the record is the complete opposite of what Abbot had just claimed.

    TONY JONES: What evidence do you have then for saying that the earth has cooled since the late 1990s.

    TONY ABBOTT: Well, I am not setting myself up as the great expert here, but the Hadley Institute in Britain, which is apparently one of the most reputable of these measuring centres, according to press reports, has found that after heating up very significantly in the previous 25 years, there seems to have been a slight cooling, but at a high plateau I’ll accept that.

    TONY JONES: That is Ian Plimer’s argument. So when you actually go…

    TONY ABBOTT: This is the Hadley Centre – this is measurements.

    TONY JONES: I’m about to tell you what the Hadley Centre actually says. When you go and look at what it says about global temperatures you’ll find that they say that the years 1998 to 2006 include the hottest, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth and the sixth hottest years in recorded history.

    TONY ABBOTT: And the hottest one was at the beginning and the less hot ones have been since.

    TONY JONES: According to the Hadley Centre’s mean temperature data, 1998 was, as you say, the hottest year on record – 2005 was the second hottest year on record. The third hottest year on record since 1880 – since recorded temperatures were made – is 2003, the fourth 2002, the fifth 2004.

    TONY ABBOTT: Okay, fair enough Tony, but the fact of the matter is what should we do about this? Now…

    This embarrassment did not prevent Abbot repeating the cooling years idea the next day in a different forum or from adopting a climate change policy that will apparently reduce emissions without relying on an ETS, a carbon tax, or a treaty mechanism. In that sense, conviction over mere fact, he strongly resembles Palin. Moreover I am not sure the Australian media is going to let Abbot escape accountability for his statements in the way that has happened with Palin

    Once upon a time conservatives were hair-shirted types whose message was restraint and long-term goals, not burn baby, burn.

  20. Wow, in a desperate attempt to give the federal Liberals a little breathing space, the NSW Labor caucus just the premier, electing Christina Keneally to succeed him. Keneally is believed to be the first Ohio-born Premier of New South Wales.

  21. I see what you mean about convictions/ ideology vs latest scientific consensus. In that respect Gingrich is/was much more pragmatic than Abbott.

    Kristina, with a K. And further re Triple-K as NSW’s first female Premier (and also female Deputy Premier) – King O’Malley, federal Attorney-General shortly after Federation, always claimed he was Canadian-born but is now believed by historians to have been a US citizen instead… which would, if known at the time, have disqualified him from the Federal Parliament as a non-subject of the British Crown. Some nutters have argued this means any legislation he introduced as A-G should be retrospectively invalidated… And you thought Birtherism (whether about Obama or McCain) was confined to the USA…

  22. Sorry, meant to write that Triple-K’s deputy premier is also a woman (Carmel Tebbutt – wife of federal Minister Anthony Albanese), not that KKK had been NSW’s first female Dep Prem.

  23. And went to school with Katie Cruise nee Holmes. Thus being linked to “films about Nazis” in two utterly unrelated directions…

  24. There was a US-born senator in the 1980s. The ABC commentator on the radio broadcast of parliamentary proceedings seemed to take a certain joy in noting him as ‘Senator Norm Sanders, Democrat, Tasmania’.

  25. Former Liberal MHR Bob Charles was US-born – a descendant of Charles Carroll of Carrolltown, a signer of the US Declaration of Independence, no less.

    (If Alan mentions Andrew Peacock and Shirley Maclaine I will boycott this thread.)

  26. I will not mention the fairly public relationship between Andrew Peacock, then opposition leader, and Shirley Maclaine under any circumstances. It’s just occurred to me there is no constitutional impediment to Kristina Keneally becoming prime minister or governor-general in terms of our constitution, unlike some other democracies where naturalised citizens get somewhat harsher treatment. She cannot of course run for Queen. As a Catholic she would be debarred anyway.

  27. O’Malley could, of course, have become naturalised and been eligible to sit in the Aust Parl even if he were US-born – but he wasn’t; instead, he claimed that as a Canadian, he was already a subject of the Queen (neither Canada nor Aust having separate citizenship a century ago) so he was qualified by birth.

  28. More a graft than a seed, but fructovoters could be interested in the interview with outgoing Clerk of the Senate and ornament to the nation, Harry Evans.

  29. […] The Liberal base in opposition is more complex than Labor’s because the Liberal Party, traditionally, does not lose office by big margins. Labor’s grassroots remains essentially urban. The Liberals, by contrast, have a broader geographical reach with two rusted-on constituents: the higher income and tertiary-educated urban voter and the lower-income regional voter. The affluent postcodes have given the Liberals their institutional clout. It is where moderate and conservative leaders alike are drawn. It is also where the money comes from. The poorer postcodes outside the cities give the Liberals their mass appeal. Big business and small business, doctor and cocky. The problem at the end of the Howard era was the largest Liberal bloc across all seats was grey – men and women aged 50-plus. Suddenly the party felt old. Today’s by-elections for the safe urban Liberal seats of Bradfield, in Sydney’s inner north, and Higgins, in Melbourne’s inner east, will pit the Liberals against the Greens. Newspoll shows that among some younger voters, the Greens are almost as popular as the Liberals. […] (p 1).

    – George Megalogenis, “Base jumping,” The Australian (5 December 2009), Inquirer pp 1-2.

  30. I think there has been a significant misreading of Australia’s post-war political history, which has deceived the Liberal Party into thinking it is the natural party of government and which has made it hard for that party to cope with being in Opposition. The Liberals governed Australia from 1949 to 1972 – 23 years. They governed Victoria from 1955 to 1982 – 27 years. They find it hard to adjust to the end of these “glory” days, particularly in Victoria, which has become “the jewel in the Labor crown”. The key is the Labor Split of 1955. Had that not occurred, there would have been far more Labor governments and far fewer Liberal ones, and the Liberals would adjust better to periods in Opposition. I have developed the theme further here

    I have developed some thoughts on the Labor ascendancy in Victoria here

    It has been clear to me since the 2007 election that Labor would win the 2010 one with an increased vote and the 2013 one with a reduced vote, after which Kevin Rudd will make way – one way or the other – for Julia Gillard, who may or may not win the 2016 election, which has always been the first opportunity for the Liberals to return to power. (If four-year terms come, the election years will change, but the order of events will not.) It has never mattered who the Liberal leader is. The Liberals federally are following the same pattern they set in Opposition throughout the states and territories.

    [Chris: thanks for the comment, and your concern over the long links in your first posting of the above. The url length is actually less an issue now, as newer versions of Word Press wrap long urls. In the past, it would just expand the width of the central column to as far as necessary to accommodate the url on one line–which can be pretty far! But still it looks nicer when they are embedded as hyper-links, so thanks much!–MSS (yes, still here).]

  31. Didn’t the long twenty-three year period of federal Liberal dominance come about in part due to a few elections where Labour got more votes but the Liberals still won more seats?

  32. Ed,

    There were two elections which the Coalition won with a smaller two-party preferred vote than the ALP – 1961 and 1969 – both of which Labor would certainly have won if it had not been for the Split.
    One reason for this is that seats were not equal in numbers of voters in those days.

  33. Also, the Electoral Commission only began officially checking all votes, to work out the national two-party-preferred totals, in 1984. Before that, the official count in each electoral district stopped once one candidate passed 50.1% – which means the 1961 and 1969 reversals are only estimates (albeit highly likely ones).

    The debate was complicated by the fact that, even after the Split, the ALP usually polled a plurality of first preferences at nearly every federal election, which led many Labor supporters to support first-past-the-post voting (and then, after Whitlam, optional-preferential AV), and to complain about the electoral system “cheating” Labor of the majority of seats to which its “majority” of votes entitled it. Apart from 1961 and 1969, as noted, Labor did not have a “majority” of votes in the US and Australian sense, but only in the British sense. And since most Australian voters (even ALP supporters) seem to grasp and understand the logic of preferential voting, especially for single-seat contests, Labor’s complaints were (as far as I can tell, anecdotally, talking to swinging voters) rejected as sour grapes and/or misunderstanding of AV as “the Australian way”.

  34. Labor had an unfortunate attachment to a natural form of government that was parliamentary, non-preferential, unitary, unicameral, and where the Crown had zero powers. Obviously that form of government had never existed in Britain or elsewhere but it did lead to famous clangers like Whitlam, learning of his dismissal in 1975, declaring that no prime minister had been dismissed since George III sacked Lord North. It does not seem to have occurred to him that a premier had been dismissed in 1932 in NSW or to think that could possibly be a relevant precedent.

    Strangely enough the Labor mythology of parliamentary government is quite close to the golden theory of parliament in which government is actually accountable to and is frequently sacked by a legislature made up exclusively of high-minded and pure-hearted reincarnations of Edmund Burke.

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