Australian election timing

An election is likely in Australia this year. But will it be House and half the Senate (as is usual), or a double dissolution?

Antony Green goes over the various calculations that the government will consider.

27 thoughts on “Australian election timing

  1. It will certainly be a double dissolution. The Rudd government is already in a position to wait upon Her Excellency. The government has a much better chance in the Senate if they dissolve both houses than if they just go for a half-Senate election.

    I suspect the election will be called as late as possible, which probably means August. There’s an electoral penalty to be paid for early elections. It is 80 years since a first term government lost an election. Indeed it is longer than that since a government lost a double dissolution.

  2. Tom may correct me, but as far as I know, no government that ever held a double dissolution trigger has failed to fire it. That does not mean they always dissolved both houses immediately the trigger was available.

  3. Alan,

    John Howard had a double dissolution trigger on unfair dismissal laws, but never fired it or the actual gun!

  4. Chris

    That’s true, but his penchant for early elections meant that he only possessed triggers for relatively brief periods if he was not to hold a separate half-Senate election.

  5. In semi-related news… former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has resigned from the Liberal Party of Australia (this being roughly equivalent to, say, George Bush Senior becoming a registered Democrat) on the grounds that under Tony Abbott the party has become too conservative.

    This is rather ironic since the late Australian Democrats (1977-2009) were formed when former Cabinet Minister Don Chipp resigned from the Liberal Party 33 years ago on the ground that under Malcolm Fraser the party had become too conservative…

    And speaking of ironies and the death of parties, how sarcastic were the Fates to make it that the by-election that reduced the conservative National Party of Australia to single figures in the House of Representatives was won by an Independent named Oakeshott. It would be as if Tony Abbot were to be exposed having an affair with Salma Hayek.

  6. ‘… There is a statistic hidden deep in Saturday’s results in Penrith that, ultimately, is even more dire for Labor than the fact its primary vote was half that of its opponent, or that it suffered a record 25.5 per cent swing against it on the two-party-preferred measure.

    That statistic is the “exhaustion rate”: the proportion of voters who, under NSW’s optional preferential voting system, chose not to allocate preferences.

    On Saturday, more than six out of 10 of those voters who supported minor party candidates and independents chose not to preference either major party. At 62 per cent, the rate of exhausted ballots in Penrith on Saturday was more than 10 percentage points above the statewide average at the 2007 general election.

    This will terrify Labor strategists in NSW, on two fronts. Because preferences are the only way to snaffle a seat once you are behind on primary votes, the higher the exhaustion rate the greater the advantage of leading on primary support.

    The latest Newspoll, published in The Australian in April, had the Coalition in NSW leading Labor on primary support by 42 per cent to 31 per cent. But Saturday’s vote indicated that O’Farrell’s key strategy of the past two years – to make himself tolerable to Greens voters – is starting to bear fruit.

    O’Farrell knows that preferencing the conservative parties is a bridge too far for most Greens voters. All he asks is for them to exhaust their ballots….’

    – Imre Salusinszky, “Libs’ Greens strategy leaves Labor all alone,” The Australian (21 June 2010).

    But presumably a lot of these Green voters who can’t bring themselves to vote [1] Green [2] Labor (or even [7] Labor – there were 8 candidates) would be happy to vote [tick] Green [tick] Labor so as to block the Natlib party from winning the seat. Once they accept that the Greens can never win seats under IRV

  7. There is to be a spill of the leadership of the Labor Party at 9:00 am tomorrow Australian Eastern. The candidates will be Kevin Rudd and the deputy prime minister, Julia Gillard. It appears the most likely outcome is that Australia will have its first female prime minister tomorrow.

  8. This is off the topic of electoral systems, but why? I’m curious.

    I happen to like Gillard, to the very limited extent I’ve gotten information on her (not much coverage of Australian cabinet ministers in the US), and have learned to loath the Blair/ Rudd/ and now Obama model of the leader of the party on the left who gets into office after the failure of the previous government, and doesn’t do much other than to shore up the policies of the government he replaced.

    But are parties getting quicker in replacing leaders? There seem to be no obvious triggers to this than a dive in the opinion polls. I remember when parties waited these out in the hope they would turn around before the actual election, which they often did.

  9. In a recent interview with Australian television Obama described Rudd as the leader he most resembled.

    Six months ago Rudd was the most popular prime minister in Australian history. His standings collapsed, to the point where he was in danger of becoming the first prime minister to face electoral defeat in his first term for 80 years, after Rudd announced the emissions trading scheme would be postponed for 3 years. The most telling, if most exaggerated and anonymous, quote is ‘This crypto fascist never bothered to build a base in the Party and now that his only faction, Newspoll, has gone, so has he.’

    Until 1983 there was a strong presumption in federal politics that party leaders could go at a time of their own choosing. It was eroded in that year when prime minister Malcolm Fraser had the unpleasant experience of discovering the labor party had changed from a failing opposition leader to the most popular politician in the country while Fraser was waiting upon the governor-general to ask for an early election. Fraser lost.

    Bob Hawke, who won that election, was himself replaced in 1993 after a threatened electoral collapse similar to that which now afflicts Rudd.

    I am as taken by surprise as anyone else. At 7:00 pm Australian Eastern Time the AVC reported that factional leaders were moving to depose Rudd. By 10:30 pm that had become a statement from Rudd that he was calling a leadership ballot for 9:00 am today. Calling the ballot on such short notice is itself the kind of manoeuvre that Rudd has become notorious for. There’s been some mention int the media that members of Rudd’s staff had been canvassing votes in caucus which would be a serious breach of the idea that MPs, and MPs alone, elect and remove the leader.

    Oddly enough, we’ve seen frequently that plurality parties in Westminster systems almost invariably claim to be majority parties or to have ‘won’ the election. Rudd’s statement last night was that he elected by the Australian people, which is, of course, untrue. And also the very last claim that a beleaguered party leader should make.

    The media, apart from scrambling like fury to try and stay on top of the story, seem to be unanimous that the ballot will make Gillard prime minister.

    On these occasions opposition parties invariably insist he prime minister is ‘unelected’ and should call an immediate election.

    The federal parliament only has 3 more scheduled sitting days this month and it is possible that the general election will happen before the parliament can return from its winter break. It’s very likely that Gillard will have to face her first question time in about 9 hours from now.

  10. In the comments to the last post about Australia, “Australia’s political climate”, I see that the Australian Labour Party was likely to win a majority in both chambers, and that the Liberals were doing very poorly in the polls. What have changed in the last half a year? And I guess Rudd is regretting not having called an election half a year ago!

  11. Rudd abandoned the emissions trading scheme instead of calling a double dissolution. He also took a series of decisions on other that alienated his supporters and gave the impression of policy timidity.

    In the event he did not nominate for the leadership of the party today and Julia Gillard was elected unopposed. She was sworn in by the governor-general at 12:30 pm today. From the ABC:

    Mr Rudd has pointed to Parliament’s apology to the Stolen Generations as a pivotal moment in his leadership, as well as the overturning of WorkChoices and his handling of the global financial crisis.

    But those achievements don’t mean history will judge him kindly.

    His rhetoric over climate change – “the greatest moral challenge of our time” – will perhaps be the line that most comes back to haunt him.

    He jettisoned the emissions trading scheme when the going got tough in the Senate, instead of fighting on or pulling the trigger for a double dissolution election.

    The public punished him in the polls.

    And in the end not even his party knew what Mr Rudd stood for.

    Rudd’s reaction to the leadership issue exemplifies the problems he created for himself. He provoked it by using his staff, not his ministers and MPs to canvass, caucus support for the leadership. Despite overwhelming weakness he insisted he would continue as prime minister. When it came to the caucus ballot he did not nominate. I suspect there was too much time talking to staff and not enough time talking to anyone else.

  12. 1. Norwegian Bloke, while Australia normally uses British spelling, the ALP spells it as “Labor Party”. There was a brief trend of interest in Americani[z]ed spelling around the time, a century ago, when the ALP was founded. Likewise, a “Naturalization [sic] Act” was passed around that time.

    2. For the second time, Australia has a Welshperson as PM (the first was Billy Hughes, who was PM during the First World War, which started in 1914, or as Daniel Webster would spell it, “Nineteenforteen”).

    3. Interesting that Craig Emerson says he is voting for Rudd. He and Gillard were personally involved some time ago. Google “Kernot” and “Biggles” to see how these sorts of mésalliances play out for the ALP after they go pear-shaped.

  13. Two other interesting parallels between Rudd and Obama:

    (a) Both are considerably more intellectual than most other politicians, and especially compared to their immediate predecessors, who were both mainly interesting in balls being hit with wooden bats. Rudd has a MA from Aust Nat Univ and speaks fluent Chinese. Obama was editor of the Harv LR. Both have published philosophical mediations that were not (unlike most politicians’ books) ghost-written.

    (b) Both have “racially mixed” families which combine ethnic backgrounds that are, historically, very sensitive in their respective nations. Not only is Obama of course of African and white ancestry but his children are descendants of African-American slaves. Rudd is (literally) as white as they come but his daughter married a Chinese-Australian bloke and his son recently got engaged to a young lady with a “Middle Eastern” name; news reports did not specify her religion but it would be interesting if she is Muslim. So both Rudd and Obama will have “rainbow” grandchildren.

  14. A major difference, and I suspect the one that ended the Rudd premiership, is micromanagement. From personal conversations, many minor proposals, and more than under previous governments, had to go to the prime minister’s office for approval and once there simply sat waiting for action. It’s one problem to centralise decision-making that way and another to slow government as a whole by not acting on anything. That also built a level of resentment among ministers and bureaucrats who felt they were being supervised by (I won’t give the source of this quote) ‘excitable twenty-somethings in the PM’s backroom’.

    I’d guess the issue of Rudd’s staff checking up on Julia Gillard’s own loyalty to the PM was the last straw. Historically the labor caucus (all ALP MHRs and senators) elected the ministry as well as the party leadership. Rudd was the first leader with the power to appoint ministers. Using that power to transfer authority from the ministers to his staff was not wise. Nor was engaging his staff in caucus decisions.

  15. Interesting contrast between UK’s present coalition government and Australia’s single-party majority so far as regards “revolving-door government”. Okay, Camerlegg’s only had six weeks, but…

  16. The parellels between Rudd and Obama are pretty obvious and also pretty disturbing, because the US has no mechanism mid-term to replace a President who is obviously not up to the task.

    One of the strengths of parliamentary government is that the leaders are supposed to have spent time running ministries, but in recent years there has been a trend away from that. We are getting quite a few PMs without previous ministerial experience, and I don’t think its a coincidence that we are seeing some bizarre managerial practices (ie “sofa governments”) on the part of some recent PMs.

    And again, I think Obama is hurt by not having any executive experience at all. If you count being Vice President as executive experience (admittedly stretching it), this is the first time this has been the case for a U.S. president since McKinley. The three Presidents whose only previous executive office was VP (Truman, Johnson, and Ford) all had substantial careers in the national legislature and were better known quantities than Obama.

    The other disturbing trend that was apparent with the Rudd government was an opposition party defeating the government party, coming into power with a platform to do things differently, and then just confirming the decisions of the previous government. There have been periods of consensus politics in the past, but recent examples have gone beyond them and weakens the value of having contested elections.

  17. In a brief nod to the original heading of this thread, the term of the House of Representatives is 3 years from its first meeting, not the day of the election. Rudd stumbled in an interview some days ago by saying the election was due by March next year, and then had to deny several times he was going to hold the election more than 3 years after election day.

    Gillard faced the same question and answered that the election will be in 2010 and promised the interviewer he would get his annual holiday in December.

    It would seem that 5 of the 6 prime ministers who held on past 3 years from election day were defeated in the general election, so it seems that the electorate ‘knows’ about the 3-year term but not what day it runs from.

    Now it gets nasty. In theory Gillard could ask for a double dissolution, citing the emissions trading scheme as a trigger. The AEC lays out the possibilities:

    A double dissolution cannot take place if the term of the House of Representatives will expire within 6 months, ie after 11 August 2010.

    Note that it is only the dissolution which may not occur after this date. The writs must be issued within 10 days of dissolution, and polling day follows between 33 and 58 days after that.
    Therefore, a double dissolution election could occur as late as 16 October 2010 (based on maximum timetables), but with the usual minimum timetables, the latest date would be 18 September 2010.

    Rudd’s standings collapsed after he abandoned the ETS. Gillard presumably wants those voters back. A double dissolution may be one way of achieving that.

  18. I hit the “plant seed” too quickly on the last post, actually Harding’s career (newspaper editor and then Senator for a short period) was not too different from Obama’s. I don’t think the error weakens the overall point.

  19. Rudd was quite different from Howard in terms of economic policy, much more so than Obama or Blair. Australia passed more or less unscathed through the GFC because the Rudd government acted very early to stimulate the economy and did so to a greater extent than any other OECD government. Rudd repealed the previous government’s industrial relations laws. His great problem was his workstyle, over-centralisation and his unwillingness to take on the Senate.

  20. Interesting contrast too between Rudd and McChrystal, on the same day (give or take a time zone). Had the Labor spill happened 22 months earlier, it would have involved the head of govt handing his resignation to a general, as opposed to a general handing his resignation to a head of govt.

  21. There’s also a strong resemblance to the official histories of dynastic China where one way to get up written up by the literati as a bad emperor was giving too much power to the inner court (eunuchs) instead of the outer court (literati bureaucrats). In the early 90s then treasurer and deputy prime minister Paul Keating referred to the prime minister’s staff as the ‘Manchu court’. Keating went on to depose Hawke.

    The triggering incident for Rudd’s demise was an encounter between the national secretary of the labor party and Rudd’s chief of staff. The secretary wanted to show Rudd some seriously bad polling research. The chief of staff (1) refused to show it to Rudd (2) ordered (both improperly and ineffectually) the secretary not to show the research to anyone else and (3) started canvassing the numbers for and against Rudd in the labor caucus.

    And then everything fell apart.

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