Mar 24 2016

Prime Minister hits Control-Alt-Delete in Canberra

After weeks of speculation, the Prime Minister has revealed his hand, in the form of a press conference on Monday at which he announced his strategy for the election.  It is now clear that he was waiting for the Senate reform bill to pass (which will have the effect of preventing the much maligned micro-parties from obtaining seats at the next election by using preference deals) before doing so. 

Now the PM has asked the Governor-General to recall both Houses of Parliament on 18 April, for an additional three week sitting.  This is an unusual move, albeit one contemplated by section 5 of the Constitution.  The PM is effectively giving the Senate one last opportunity to pass two contentious Bills - related to the re-establishment of the construction industry watchdog the Australian Building & Construction Commission (ABCC) and the establishment of the Registered Organisations Commission to replace the Fair Work Commission as the union enforcer and investigator.

This announcement has enabled the PM to reboot the political conversation, and left the question of a DD election for the Senate to decide.  The Senate’s fate is now in the hands of its Senators - one might say that there has never been a more exciting time to be an independent Senator!

Background to DD elections

There have been just 6 DD elections in Australia: in 19141951197419751983 and 1987. However, a joint sitting of Parliament following a double dissolution to deal with the ‘trigger bills’ that enabled it, has only taken place once, and that was in 1974.

Because all Senate seats are contested in the same election, it is easier for smaller parties to win seats under the Senate’s proportional voting system: the quota for the election of each senator in each Australian state in a full Senate election is 7.69 per cent, while in a normal half-Senate election the quota is 14.28 per cent.  Overall it is likely that small independent parties such as Senator Xenophon and the Greens would be likely to do well in a DD election, as ‘micro-parties’ will be hampered by the passage of the Senate reform laws which prevent them from gaming the system. 

There are technical reasons why the DD would need to be called on 11 May 2016 for 2 July, rather than alternative dates:

  • the dissolution of the Senate may not take place within six months before the expiry of the House of Representatives. This means that each house of parliament would have to be dissolved by 11 May at the latest, which in turn necessitates the delivery of the Budget a week earlier (3 May) than it normally would be (10 May) so that Mr Shorten has time to give his Budget in reply speech, and the Parliament can pass the necessary Supply bills; and
  • a DD held before July 2016 holds no appeal for the Government.  This is because of technicalities relating to how Senate terms are configured after a DD, which in short would require the next election in just two years, rather than three.

In addition we note:

  • A 2 July double dissolution election is not a foregone conclusion.  Whilst Labor will certainly oppose the passage of the trigger bills, the Government would be able to pass them if the Greens or six of the eight crossbench Senators vote for them. 
  • If the Bills are passed, the PM has indicated that we would revert to the normal election cycle.  This means an election sometime between mid-August and the end of November and just for half of the Senate.  A normal half-Senate election is potentially problematic for the Government.  Seven of the eight crossbench Senators are not up for re-election in the ordinary course this year (Senator John Madigan is the exception), and none are likely to be co-operative with a returned Turnbull administration, even if it does have a refreshed mandate. 
Senators for and against the IR bills

Expect plenty of colour and movement during the extra sitting weeks from mid-April.  The independent Senators feel that they have been ambushed by the PM, whilst at the same time the reality for each of them (with the exception of Senator Xenophon and the possible exception of Senators Lambie and Lazarus) is that a DD election would not see them returned to the Senate.  Self-interest may enable some of the eight Senators (and note that the Government needs the support of six) to see their way clear to vote to pass the Bills.

However, much will depend on the Government’s preparedness to accept proposed amendments to the Bills.  The Minister has already indicated that she will not consider any amendments which the Government considers would ‘substantially alter’ the Bills.  The Government is unlikely to be open to generous concessions.

At the present time, we anticipate the eight crossbench Senators sit in the following camps:

SUPPORT

  • Family First's Bob Day

AGAINST

  • Independent John Madigan
  • Independent Jacqui Lambie
  • Independent Glenn Lazarus

MAYBE

  • Independent Nick Xenophon (has been broadly supportive in the past)
  • Palmer United Party's Zhenya Wang
  • Motoring Enthusiast Party's Ricky Muir
  • Liberal Democrat's David Leyonjhelm
Election issues

The PM has decided to fight initially on the grounds of industrial relations, claims of union militancy and corruption and an obstructionist upper house.  However this cannot be sustained as the sole policy platform during a long DD election campaign (or a normal one for that matter).  The PM’s broader economic agenda will emerge in the Budget and over the coming weeks.  

Given the Labor party continues to see climate change as a point of difference, energy policy will also feature.  Labor Leader, Bill Shorten, in response to the PM’s announcement this week outlined key areas Labor would fight the election on, which included “climate change and real action to tackle climate change through prioritising renewable energy”.  Last year the Labor party flagged a 50 per cent aspirational target for renewables by 2030.  

Since Monday’s election announcement the government has also announced the establishment of a $1 billion Clean Energy Innovation Fund, to be jointly managed by the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA). The government also plans to retain and reinvigorate the CEFC and ARENA as part of its commitment to clean and renewable energy in Australia. An interesting announcement since the Bill to abolish the CEFC has already been rejected twice by the Senate - a DD trigger. We are set for an interesting and prolonged few weeks of campaigning.

 

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