Australia’s impending double dissolution

The latest news from Australia:

Electoral reform abolishing Group Voting Tickets and establishing partially optional preferential voting ‘above’ and ‘below’ the line was passed in both houses last week, and barring an unlikely High Court decision to the contrary, it will go into effect at the next election. Now that the electoral system is no longer an obstacle (and perhaps due to the electoral reform, which aroused the ire of most Senate crossbenchers), Prime Minister Turnbull has all but called the expected double dissolution election, threatening to do so if controversial industrial relations bills do not pass the Senate at the next session, scheduled to start on April 19th.

A double dissolution is the deadlock-breaking mechanism provided by Australia’s Constitution. Though half the Senate is usually elected alongside elections to the House of Representatives, the Senate has a fixed six-year term. This can only be shortened by a double dissolution election where all seats of both houses are up for election. A double dissolution can only be brought about by the government when triggered by a disagreement between the houses, as spelled out by section 57 of the Constitution; if the disagreement with regards to a bill continues after the double dissolution election, those bills can be put to a joint sitting of the houses, where the government is likely to prevail due to the houses’ relative numbers.

Although section 57 gives the government the power to threaten to dissolve the Senate if it does not pass its legislation, there are various factors that complicate this procedure, making it rather cumbersome for the government. There is, of course, also the risk of losing the election. The procedure has only ever been used six times, and the last double dissolution election took place in 1987.

New South Wales election

Today the state of new South Wales has a general election.

All of the legislative assembly and half the legislative council face election. The assembly is SMDs, the council is elected by STV with the whole state as a single electorate. The LNP government is very likely to be re-elected, but a hung parliament or a an LNP defeat would almost certainly have repercussions.

As the opposition leader expressed it, if Premier Baird goes on Saturday night then Prime Minister Abbot goes on Monday morning.

The text above was written by Alan at a comment on an earlier Australia thread. But we might as well give the election its own space.

The most dysfunctional and undemocratic parliament in the Commonwealth?

On, Frances Russell reviews Democratizing the Constitution — Reforming Responsible Government, by Peter Aucoin, Mark D. Jarvis and Lori Turnbull.

Russell begins the review by declaring that “Canada has the most dysfunctional and undemocratic parliament in the British Commonwealth.” She subsequently indicates that the book’s proposal is that:

Canada should follow the lead of its sister Commonwealth countries Britain, Australia and New Zealand and codify the principles of parliamentary democracy to ensure the players — voters and politicians — understand the playbook and stay within the rules.

Because themes of this sort are a frequent topic of discussion around here, I thought I would open up a new thread.

Thanks to Wilf Day for the link.

Western Australia Senate re-run and the Joint Committee on Electoral Matters

The following post was originally a comment by Chris Curtis.*

The rerun of the WA Senate election is to occur on Saturday, 5 April. General opinion from the “experts” is that people are horrifed that micro-party candidates (voted for by 23.5 per cent of the national population in 2013) actually won seats and that people will realise their “mistake” and flock back to the “proper” parties. They predict that the result will be two or three Liberals, two Labor, one Green and, as an outside chance, maybe one other. I say the 23.5 per cent of the population are delighted that their vote actually elected someone and that they will do the same thing again, though I do not predict how the preference flows will work in WA.

The Joint Committee on Electoral matters has started taking submissions and conducting hearings into the 2013 election, the one that led to so many complaints because the “wrong” sort of people managed to get into the Senate (with more initial votes than most of the “right” sort of people had won from without complaint in every Senate election since 1949).

Submissions can be found at Joint Committee on Electoral Matters Submissions. Mine has yet to receive approval and thus parliamentary privilege (not that it is the sort that really needs it). Submissions particularly worth reading are those from Malcolm Mackerras (no. 7) and Michael Maley (No. 19). One worth reading get the flavour of those who want to turn the single transferable vote into a party list system to shut the candidates of micro-parties out – the effect of which is to favour the Greens – is that from George Williams (No. 23). You can follow the links at the top of the page to get transcripts of public hearings. Malcolm Mackerras appeared on 7/2/2014 and George Williams on 13/3/2014. (BTW, they are Australian date orders, not US ones: as with “tomato”, you say 12/31; we say 31/12.)


* which somehow got intercepted by the spam filter. I was so close to clicking “empty spam” when I noticed this was most certainly not spam!

of governors-general and Labor leaders

[This post was put up by Alan; the new site does not appear to grant credit to collaborators who posted at the old site.]

The ALP has a new leader, Bill Shorten, who trailed in the member ballot but pretty much swept the caucus ballot. Shorten has form from the Gillard coup and the Rudd coup but obviously enjoys the confidence of his parliamentary colleagues. The new electoral process, a joint ballot of party members and MPs, worked well.

A small glitch is that Shorten is married to the daughter of the governor-general who offered to resign to avoid any appearance of bias. The PM issued a statement saying that he has rejected the resignation, although that may be news to Elizabeth II.

It looks like the ALP will probably extend its democratisation experiment to internal primaries and the election of state Labor leaders.

A second election in Australia?

The 2013 Australian election has not even come yet (it’s this Saturday) and already the news media are rife with speculation that there will be another one soon. The trigger could be set for a double dissolution (new House election and full Senate, rather than half of the Senate as on the regular cycle) if Labor and the Greens block the Coalition’s plans to reverse the carbon tax.

The Greens have reiterated what the Sky News headline writer calls a “stonewall” on the carbon tax. Environment Minister Mark Butler says Labor will not back off its emissions policy.

I have a certain personal fascination with the carbon tax not only substantively, but because I had the experience of being in the Senate gallery in Canberra on the day of the bill’s final debate and passage vote.

Greens as Abbot-proofing the Senate

In the launch of the Australian Greens’ campaign, leader Christine Milne acknowledged that polls showed that the opposition Coalition, led by Tony Abbot, was likely to defeat Labor and PM Kevin Rudd. Milne called a vote for the Greens one of “Abbot-proofing the Senate” and further elaborated:

‘Voting Greens is double value voting.

‘Not only does it return the Greens but it stops Tony Abbott getting absolute power in the federal parliament.’

It is an interesting case of a smaller party using the possibility of its holding the balance of power to its advantage. The Senate, unlike the House, is elected by a proportional system.

The Greens also have signaled a willingness to work to “improve” Coalition policies, specifically its parental leave program. ‘We have explained how much our paid parental leave policy will cost and how we would pay for it. It’s time for Tony Abbott to do the same’, said Green Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.

Marginal districts and “pork” allocations: Australia 2013 edition

“Pork-barrel” politics, strictly defined, is the geographic targeting of policy benefits by a governing or legislative majority, for the political gain of that majority. In comparative porkology, we expect that political systems differ in which geographic areas it is that get targeted. In single-seat district systems, where small changes in votes in a few marginal constituencies can make the difference between one party or coalition governing versus another, we can expect targeting of the marginal constituencies. At least we can expect that if there is a centralized party organization making policy decisions on behalf of the collective interest of the party (i.e., winning elections). Where parties are non-hierarchical and legislative organization more decentralized, it might be the safest seats, rather than the more marginal ones, that receive most of the attention. ((See, for example, Fiona McGillivray, 1997. “Party Discipline as a Determinant of Endogenous Formation of Tariffs”, American Journal of Political Science 41, 2 (April): 584-607. She shows a tendency of trade protection in Canada (disciplined parties, parliamentary government) to be directed at marginal districts, whereas in the USA most of it goes to safe districts.))

Australia, which has a general election on 7 September, should have a tendency towards porcine spending on marginal seats, given that one of the two legislative chambers is elected exclusively in single-seat districts and it is a parliamentary democracy that encourages collective action by parties. ((However much the ruling Labor Party has spent its current period in power attempting to refute this latter theory of collective party action.)) An article on alleges this is so: “Follow the money trail: Pork barrels point to campaign hot spots.”

The news item offers a list of Australia’s ten most marginal constituencies, and what local improvements the ruling Labor Party and opposition Coalition are promising. Example: “Tony Abbott [Coalition leader] has pledged an upgrade for the Great Ocean Road, which happens to run through the nation’s most marginal electorate.”


An analysis of campaign pledges in Australia’s 10 most marginal seats reveals Labor has splashed more than $105 million cash around the ten most marginal sets.

The Liberals have pledged $70 million.

This pattern would certainly fit the theory. However, in in comparative terms, this seems rather petty. Besides, much (maybe all?) of the evidence offered here is in the form of campaign promises. Fundamentally, campaign promises aren’t pork. Pork is in the actual provision of geographically targeted spending.

Do Australian parties have a record of following through on their commitments to marginal constituencies when they win elections? Actual pork is about being able to claim credit for improvements delivered when in power, not merely promising to do stuff if (re-)elected.

Finally, an observation: from the news story, it would seem that Australian parties’ campaign promises are remarkably specific as to individual projects and their locations.

how to elect a leader

In Australia, the Rudd Labor Government is now either dead even or leading, depending on which poll has most credence. Rudd and his cabinet (the cabinet are also the executive committee of the party caucus) just proposed a new plan for electing the parliamentary leader.

Leaders would be elected jointly by caucus and individual party members on a 50/50 basis, leaders could only be removed by a 75% vote of caucus, caucus would regain the right to elect the cabinet and the ministry. These are reasonably radical proposals for the ALP, although it looks like they will pass.

Partly the motivation is electoral, the electorate needs a guarantee that there will be no repeats of the Gillard disaster, or the equally disastrous leadership coups in the NSW branch, but I think the changes show a genuine concern for reform is well. Rudd was the first Labor leader empowered to pick the cabinet, so it’s interesting that he’s abandoning that in favour of a return to caucus election of the cabinet.

I guess it raises more broadly the question of how democratic parties should select leaders and candidates.

and yet again in Canberra

There is to be a ballot for the leadership of the ALP in about 3 hours. An influential cabinet minister, Bill Shorten, has shifted his support to Rudd. Rudd, unlike the last time, has declared he will stand. Both have said they will leave parliament if they are unsuccessful.

The governor-general, who strangely enough is Shorten’s mother-in-law, will have to decide whether to commission Rudd if he is elected, to send for the opposition leader,or to require Rudd to secure a vote of confidence.

Party identity in coalition

An Australian Green senator, Richard Di Natale (Victoria) has spoken of the importance of the smaller party maintaining its identity if it enters coalition. The remarks were made at the New Zealand Greens’ conference in Christchurch (NZ Herald).

Sen. Di Natale spoke of changes to the current Labor Party minority cabinet’s program that his party could claim credit for–putting a price on pollution, a new $10 billion investment in renewable energy, and free dental care for children–but also of the fear of the credit not being noted. “The key issue is knowing when not to compromise,” Dr Di Natale said. Moreover,

Maintaining your identity when there is a perception that you are part of the government is a huge challenge.

Such are the perils for small parties. However, based on polling in the run-up to this year’s Australian election, claiming credit for policy seems like the least of the Greens’ current concerns. Rather, they need to be more worried about keeping enough senators after the coming debacle for Labor to protect the few policy gains they’ve managed since 2010.