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The next double dissolution

June 29th, 2005

Right now, it doesn’t look very likely that Labor will win the next federal election. But a week is a long time in politics, and the fortunes of the government are so closely tied to the real estate market and therefore to the unpredictable course of world interest rates.

In defending the Howard government’s plans to centralise Industrial Relations, one commentator (link lost) argued that Labor couldn’t reasonably expect control of the Senate before 2011, so there was no medium-term risk associated with the plan as far as business was concerned. I immediately thought about the double dissolution option.

Today I was thinking about this again and I realised that the combination of a Labor government and an anti-Labor Senate would almost certainly lead to the blocking of supply within a three-year term. The precedent has already been set, and every government goes through rough patches when such an option would look appealing to the other side. It follows that, regardless of its desire for specific legislation, a newly elected Labor government would need to find some popular double dissolution triggers as rapidly as possible (otherwise the blocking of Supply might require a Reps election, but leave the existing Senate in place).

Once the triggers were in place, we would have an unstable situation where an election would be postponed only as long as neither side felt sure of a win. In the nature of things, that couldn’t last forever, and a double dissolution election would be more or less inevitable.

Of course, all of this is contingent on a hypothetical Labor victory, but I’d be interested to see what others think.

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  1. June 29th, 2005 at 23:33 | #1

    I might guess 2011 as well, but would like to see the sums underneath this (the respective retiring senate cohorts in terms of parties).

    The reasoning in wondering is that my comprehensive straw polls since the last election keep telling me about folks who switched from other parties to the government because they expected an ALP win, and this was insurance. I’m therefore convinced that if another senate election was held tomorrow, the government majority would be immediately reversed, or hung. This is a freak accident.

    I’d therefore anticipate some correction next time, and even more so if the government disgraces itself with an i/r p/r nightmare (endless stories of brutal sackings), perhaps with a telco p/r nightmare (endless stories of bung phones). Unless the numbers are more than normally steep, an ALP win or more likely a hung senate might quickly return, regardless of the lower house.

  2. observa
    June 30th, 2005 at 00:55 | #2

    “Today I was thinking about this again and I realised that the combination of a Labor government and an anti-Labor Senate would almost certainly lead to the blocking of supply within a three-year term. The precedent has already been set, and every government goes through rough patches when such an option would look appealing to the other side.”

    I think it’s highly unlikely in an ALP govt’s first term John. You need to recall the extraordinary circumstances of 1975 here. Basically, unprecedented stagflation with unemployment and a Govt that appeared to have lost the plot. Khemlani loans affair, Cairns affair, etc and it was a second term govt, with no sunlight on the immediate horizon. IMO it would take such exceptional circumstances again to make an Opposition consider bringing down a Govt again, particularly a first term one. Pollies are now well aware of the electoral backlash dangers of cynically and opportunistically going early to the polls at a time of their choosing. Blocking Supply even more so. That’s why I felt Beasley’s Clayton’s Supply dabble with the Budget tax cuts was so stupid. It was flirting with an important long term principle, for little short term tactical gain. Better to have kicked up an ideological stink and then abstained from voting in a show of distaste. Beasley toyed with an important principle instead and simply gave the Dems and Greens oxygen here. Another glimpse of the poor brains trust of the ALP at present, which the punditry understood implicitly.

  3. jquiggin
    June 30th, 2005 at 06:37 | #3

    Observa, there was a double dissolution in 1974, also brought about by a threat to block supply, the pretext being the “Gair affair”. So it happened twice in three years under Whitlam.

  4. Guardian of the Faith
    June 30th, 2005 at 08:45 | #4

    As of the first of July, the Coalition will have a majority of one in the Senate, thus at the next election the Opposition parties need only gain a seat or two to regain control. For this to not happen requires the 2004 results to be accepted as a new norm, whereas in fact the 2004 results were unusual.

    At the 2004 election the Coalition picked up a couple of extra Senators in several states. This was more than their usual number. The Democrats lost a lot of support and the ALP vote was down a little (though the main impact seems to have come from preference directions).

    If Senate voting reverts towards 2001, 1998 or even 1996 trends then the ALP shouldn’t do too badly. As CS points out, IR reforms or the sale of Telstra could cause a negative response to the Coalition, and hence a swing away from them towards the ALP and minor parties.

    Even on the night of the 2004 election I heard Liberal voters saying that Coalition control of the Senate was not a good thing and that had they known the outcome they would not have voted for the Libs in the Senate. Add these Liberal voters to traditional swing voters and there is a chance of a substantial swing to Labor.

    Then again, with employers using the Courts to prevent protests against the Howard IR changes, there’s every chance that CS’s IR PR disaster will never eventuate…

  5. Homer Paxton
    June 30th, 2005 at 09:04 | #5

    This is silly.
    Fancy speculating about the next election now.
    what could happen in the meantime?
    Commodity prices fall quite a bit form their present montainous highs, $a falling
    pressure on the commonwealth budget, persistent current account problems, et al.
    some may happem some may not.

    JQ this column was the height of foolishness

  6. Darryl Rosin
    June 30th, 2005 at 09:29 | #6

    It’s a recipe for instability having a system where the only way to resolve a deadlock between the two houses requires the Government to put it’s existance on the line, but I don’t suppose there’s any chance of that changing anytime soon.

    I wonder whether blocking supply is one of those political tactics that required surprise and only works once? If Whitlam had seriously believed that Kerr would dismiss him, he could have sacked Kerr first. Hindsight also shows a range of legal options available to Labor, and modern communications would have let them execute a parliamentry strategy to block supply for Fraser on the afternoon of Nov 11.

    If dismissal of the government isn’t an option, what point does blocking supply have? I suppose we could get a US-style federal government shutdown…

    A DD election in 2008/9 is a certainty if Labor wins in 2004. A popular government doesn’t need a popular trigger for the election (remember the Australia Card in 1987), and a first term Labor gov is a good bet to prevail over the coalition 18mths after their first loss in 14 years. They’re certainly unlikely to make their Senate position any worse.

    Chris, you can look at http://www.pollbludger.com/sen2004.htm for the full story, but Labor’s problem is the conservatives got 4/6 in Qld and Vic (counting FF). I don’t think the progressive side has ever grabbed 4/6 in any state (or 2/2 for the territories). We might well return to a hung Senate in 2007 (it all depends on what the Democrat voters do) but when enough stuff gets blocked we’ll be back at the polls and gearing up for a joint sitting.

  7. Darryl Rosin
    June 30th, 2005 at 09:56 | #7

    Homer, all those things and many more might nor might not happen, that’s the truth. But none of those things change the fact that there are 19 Coaltion senators and 14 Labor Senators who’s terms don’t expire until 30/6/2011 (and 2 Greens and 1 FF). Labor getting the upper hand in the Senate would require the Lib vote to collapse in a way we’ve never seen happen to a major party in Australia (at least not since the 1920s).

  8. Razor
    June 30th, 2005 at 11:18 | #8

    Somebody slap me – I agree with Homer! (or is that an imposter?)

    This discussion is grasping at straws (especially CS’s straw polls).

    The Australian electorate is coming realise just how lucky we were not to elect Latham as Prime Minister. The question in my mind is how can the ALP be trusted to govern, when it’s leader selection method is so flawed that it allows somebody like Latham to be the alternate Prime Minister?

    Howard and his succesor is in power for at least this term and the next. The ALP factional system guarantees it.

  9. Dave Ricardo
    June 30th, 2005 at 12:23 | #9

    This is unprecendented, but I agree with Razor.

    Latham says the ALP is decrepit, useless and finished as a political force.

    What greater evidence for this proposition can there be than the fact that the federal Labor caucus elected Latham as leader, and the Labor Party presented Latham to the electorate as the alternative Prime Minister?

    As his post election behaviour has shown, Latham could have been, and probably would have been, a disaster as Prime Minister.

    I say this as someone who welcomed Latham becoming Leader and who voted Labor in the election.

    Throughout its history, the Labor Party has managed to plumb the political depths every 20-30 years. It has been written off yet managed to come back. It may come back again. But it may not yet have even hit the low point of this cycle. The climb back will be long, slow and painful, if it happens at all.

  10. wilful
    June 30th, 2005 at 12:50 | #10

    I’m still hung up on the first assumption, Professor: “the combination of a Labor government and an anti-Labor Senate would almost certainly lead to the blocking of supply within a three-year term.”

    Why almost certainly? Because the Tories wouldn’t gracefully accept opposition and its conventions?

  11. Ros
    June 30th, 2005 at 12:58 | #11

    Latham says the ALP is decrepit, useless and finished as a political force. What he had to say that led Labour to a hiding was mainly solipsist rubbish. Why would what he has to say now be of any more value.
    Yes they did choose him in some kind of mad group moment. But Beazley didn’t nor the roosters.
    The next election is a long long way off. It is not possible to know about that future time. Beazley has nearly got there in the past. And luck does play a part. Like the luck of not having Latham shafting you publicly whenever he can. Nobody will take any notice of Quick
    I will add my people said to the mix. People said of the class warrior from the Western suburbs, “God can you imagine him as Prime Minister�. Well Australians can imagine Beazley as Prime Minister and they wouldn’t mind. And they will forget that there was some kind of mental meltdown in Labour for a short while, if they are allowed to.

    I do have a particular problem with the notion that it is Latham’s post election behaviour that signalled he may not have done well. Like the instability, irrationality, selfishness and viciousness wasn’t noticeable before. Labour does have a problem if they put it down to as it turned out, rather than we did know better but lost it for a moment.

  12. T. Alexander McLeay
    June 30th, 2005 at 13:01 | #12

    Wilful, they haven’t in the past. Also, I strongly suspect Beazely will find his threatened by feeble tax ploy will backfire on him if he or his party is granted Government in 2007.

  13. AlanDownunder
    June 30th, 2005 at 13:24 | #13

    There exist urgent reforms that would twice be rejected by a coalition senate majority. They should be part of the non-coalition (ALP or successor) platform for 2007 and should be tagged in that platform as core policies that, if frustrated, would warrant a double dissolution. The earlier they become opposition policy, the better the case for them.

    It’s not “small target” politics, but hasn’t “small target” politics been tried?

  14. Homer Paxton
    June 30th, 2005 at 14:30 | #14

    to even think of a double dissolution you need to point out who the latter day Lloyd George is.
    I can’t see one however a change of government wouldn’t see much talent on the other side either.

  15. June 30th, 2005 at 15:42 | #15

    Funny you should mention me Darryl, because about a month ago I put up a post arguing that an incoming Labor government would almost certainly call a double dissolution in its first term.

    http://www.pollbludger.com/archives0605.htm#030605

    The current Senate voting system was introduced at the 1949 election when Menzies came to power, and he called a double dissolution in 1951. The next change of government was 1972, and again the new government called a DD in its first term. It was not necessary for Fraser to do so after 1975 or Hawke to do so after 1983, because both came to power at double dissolution elections and therefore did not inherit half a Senate from an earlier election at which their party was defeated. Howard did not have to call a DD after 1996 because the Coalition did extremely well in the Senate in 1993 despite losing in the House, winning 17 seats from 36 (not counting the territory Senators who don’t serve six-year terms). Obviously an incoming Labor government in 2007 will not be in nearly so strong a position.

    I agree with Observa re blocking of supply. Yes, the Coalition was about to do so in 1974, but this was a mistake on their part. Their supply strategies in 1974-5 were a dangerous game largely inspired by a fear that Whitlam might gain a Senate majority and force through electoral reform and redistribution that would shaft the Country Party. Without that circumstance they would probably not have taken the risk. There was also a conjunction of political and economic circumstances at the time that are unlikely to recur (though it’s not impossible).

    Besides, as Guardian of the Faith observes, if the Coalition loses the next election they will most likely lose their Senate majority as well. Not definitely though – note the 1993 example, which if repeated would leave them with exactly half the numbers. I believe that would allow them to reject bills but not defer them like the Coalition did in 1975, since tied votes are resolved in the negative. In that case the bills would return to the House and the Coalition would not be able to argue that the GG should install them as the government on the grounds that only they could guarantee supply.

  16. June 30th, 2005 at 16:20 | #16

    John – Is this Crikey article the one that you were looking for? It mentions how the coalition will probably have senate control for some time.

  17. wilful
    June 30th, 2005 at 16:38 | #17

    This reminds me that if there is ever any electoral reform (a subject debated here regularly enough), Senate terms are about the first thing I want looked at.

    I cannot stand how both sides of politics are keen enough to extend intervals between elections, but aren’t at all interested in fixed terms. Utter scoundrels, the lot of them, trying to keep themselves from the hard work and cost of putting their policies to the public regularly, without giving up the manipulation of the political winds for their own base advantage.

    Which reminds me – does anyone have a view on the proposal floated by the rodent recently to make voting non-compulsory? Or perhaps I should raise it on the Monday thread (unless the good Prof has covered it already?).

    I used to believe that voluntary voting was a base attempt to disenfranchise the already politically forgotten, and I think that ‘freedom to not vote’ arguments are terribly weak. Given the level to which campaigning and political debate has fallen in recent elections (particularly the most recent), I’m now of the view that if you don’t care about politics and think that Howard will keep your interest rates lower (nad that this has something to do with the size of your mortgage), then you’re welcome to not debate.

    But I think I’m becoming more elitist the older I get. I can’t help it, I live in an inner suburb :)

  18. joe2
    July 1st, 2005 at 16:08 | #18

    J.Q.,reckon you are drawing a long bow on the possibility of a double dissolution. Mind you, as you suggest , a little bit of economic chaos might
    work wonders for Labors’ fortunes.

    More interesting is the ‘new opposition’. Broadbent,Baird,Georgiou and Moylan have shown what can be done in Reps on asylum seekers. There votes were hardly critical.

    In the Senate , there are surely, a few liberals contemplating new found power. For fame, conscience or struck by all the emails they get on a particular issue.

    A small walk ,for old syle small ‘ l ‘values, and the ship leans.

  19. Terje
    July 2nd, 2005 at 00:11 | #19

    I find it odd that blocking supply (ie preventing taxation) is somehow a terrible thing where as blocking tax cuts (ie preventing a little liberty) is fine and dandy.

    The senate has been an obstacle to tax cuts. “No Mr Executive you can’t have less power over peoples lives”. Its really very ridiculous.

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