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Double dissolution ahead

September 5th, 2008

A week ago my Fin column (over the fold) predicted a double dissolution over legislation to establish an emissions trading scheme. The rejection of the government’s changes to luxury car tax shortens the odds considerably. The government made a number of compromises to satisfy the Greens and Nick Xenophon that highly fuel-efficient vehicles would be excluded, but that only made it harder (in the end, impossible) to deal with Steve Fielding of Family First. The same problems will emerge, in spades, with an emissions trading scheme.

It seems likely that lots of legislation will be rejected between now and the time an ETS becomes a trigger,. If the government can hold its nerve, and its popularity, a double dissolution will look very attractive by then.

The Rudd government is less than a year old, but it is already looking possible that it will not run a full term. Rather, we may see the double dissolution mechanism, the first time in Australian history, used as originally intended. Designed as a device by which a government could ensure the passage of vital legislation, twice blocked in the Senate, it has been a tool of political convenience for a century.

The first double dissolution in 1914 set the pattern. Prime Minister Joseph Cook was elected in 1913 with a one-seat majority and faced a Labor-dominated Senate. He quickly obtained and used a double dissolution trigger, but was defeated.

The next double dissolution was called by Robert Menzies in 1951 and, oddly enough, was motivated by the Communist Party Dissolution Act, which had been passed by the Senate without amendment. When the High Court ruled the Act unconstitutional, Menzies wanted to push a constitutional amendment through the Senate. So he used an unrelated banking bill as a double dissolution trigger. Menzies won, but his referendum was (fortunately) defeated.

The double dissolutions of 1974 and 1975 were brought about not by governments but by decisions of the Senate to block supply. The 1974 dissolution was followed by a joint sitting (the only one so far) which allowed the passage of measures including the establishment of Medicare, but this was merely a fortunate by-product.

The 1983 and 1987 dissolutions saw a return to the old pattern in which the device was used for the political convenience of the government. In neither case did the ostensible cause of the election play any significant role in the campaign. But things will be different this time around.

Regardless of any modifications, the Rudd government might make to its proposed emissions trading scheme, the Opposition will not support it. The maxim ‘the first duty of an Opposition is to oppose’ has lost none of its force. Despite its general incoherence, the Opposition has been consistent in rejecting anything remotely controversial the government might propose.

These incentives are amplified by the fact that much of the Opposition, along with virtually all of the rightwing commentariat, has convinced itself that the whole problem of global warming is a fraud, fabricated by grant-grubbing scientists, fanatical environmentalists, and sinister forces in the United Nations.

The independents, Nick Xenophon and Steven Fielding have not been reflexively oppositional. But they have shown no presumption in favor of legislation proposed by the government. They will support or oppose bills based on their own judgement and the horsetrading that has traditionally been the stock in trade of independent Senators.

For the moment, on issues like Fuelwatch and the alcopops and luxury car taxes, it seems likely that the government will get by. On some of these points, such as the Budget measures, they can probably make deals with the Greens and independents. On others, such as Fuelwatch, they can accept defeat and blame the Senate next time there’s a fuss about fuel prices.

Neither of these possibilities looks appealing in relation to the emissions trading scheme. To make the scheme work, the government needs the support of business. But the response of the Business Council Australia to the Green Paper has been reminiscent of the worst days of the tariff debate. Every possible loser must be compensated, it seems, while the fact that large sectors of the economy will benefit has been ignored.

Trying to produce a scheme that is acceptable not only to business but to the Greens and to two independents with radically different views already looks like an impossible task. Given an ambitious target for emissions reductions, the government could perhaps get the Greens to accept (over)generous compensation for industry, but that would make the task of providing adequate help for households, and bringing the independents on board, exceptionally difficult.

A double dissolution fought on the issue of climate change would be a high-risk option for the government, and for the Opposition. The most likely outcome would be the re-election of the government, perhaps with a reduced majority in the House of Representatives, but with a stronger position in the Senate. Labor would be able to pass legislation with the support of the Greens and perhaps also with the votes of independents. Against this is the fact that every election gives voters a chance to change their minds.

As matters are developing, it seems likely that we will soon be asked to decide.

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  1. STT
    September 5th, 2008 at 11:08 | #1


    I’m not sure about your statement that a double dissolution election would leave Labor stronger in the Senate. I would guess that the lower quota for Senate seats would presumably give the Greens in particular, and other minor parties/independents in general, a good chance of winning a few extra seats in the Senate, at the expense of the major parties.

    While the Greens may have supported the ‘luxury’ car tax increase, I would guess that they would be pretty difficult to deal with in the longer term.

    Maybe it’s just a reflection of the fact that I’m young enough to have never voted in a D-D election, but I just can’t see it happening, as I can’t see how the government would emerge in a better position than they are at the moment.


  2. Tony G
    September 5th, 2008 at 11:32 | #2

    Ditto STT, bring it on so the ETS can be confined to the waste bin.

  3. STT
    September 5th, 2008 at 11:45 | #3


    I suspect that a D-D would lead to the passage of ETS legislation, becuase such an election would leave the Greens with more seats. I would guess that Greens + Labor would be enough to get the ETS legislation through. The problem is what the government does when it wakes up the next day, and realises that it now has to deal with a big bloc of Greens for the next two terms. I would guess that they wouldn’t like that idea.


  4. September 5th, 2008 at 12:27 | #4

    I agree that the first two weeks of the new Senate suggests a double dissolution is quite possible.

    Labor won’t call an early election unless they think they have a good chance of wining it, but most new governments look for a credible reason to go early. Every new federal government since at least Menzies has gone early – none have lost as a consequence, although arguably some of them (eg Hawke in 1984) could be said to have been tactically unwise.

    The more things that get blocked by the Senate besides an ETS, the more Rudd could make an early double dissolution about enabling the government to implement their overall economic agenda rather than just about the ETS, which I think would be an easier sell for Labor.

    Also, every party other than the Coalition is likely to come out of a double dissolution better – at least in terms of their Senate position. It would certainly suit Fielding, wouldn’t hurt Xenophon, would almost certainly increase the Greens numbers, and even if Labor’s overall Senate numbers don’t go up, if the Coalition’s nubmers decline (which is almost a certainty under a double-d), the Senate makeup is likely to be such where Labor would only need the support of the Greens to get things through, rather than their current requirement to get support from a grab bag of different people.

    Just one quibble with the post – I’m not sure its right to say the 1974 double dissolution election was brought about the Senate’s blocking of supply. I think this was a genuine case of the Whitlam government using a double-d for its original intent – to enable a number of Bills to get passed which had been blocked by the Senate. Supply Bills were not amongst these. That’s why the 1974 election is the only example in over 100 years where a double dissolution election was actually followed by a joint sitting to enable the blocked legislation to pass.

  5. Socrates
    September 5th, 2008 at 13:00 | #5

    Can anyone make sense of Senator Fielding’s claim that the luxury car tax would hurt the tourism industry? I can understand the motor industry objecting, but the reason for the vote looks spurious to me.

  6. ALan
    September 5th, 2008 at 13:13 | #6

    Fielding’s inability to think past his next media opp makes a DD all but inevitable. His performance on the luxury car tax shows he is just a dope. Road to Surfdom castigates the MTM for its failure to pick up Fielding’s assertions about who the tax will hurt. And then when he goes to the Senate yesterday he doesn’t offer up any amendments he just goes and sits with the Libs.
    I think Labor can let it run for a few months though and blame all the country’s woes on the Libs being poor losers who are just blocking for blockings sake.

  7. Tony G
    September 5th, 2008 at 13:14 | #7

    Fuelwatch, alcopops tax,luxury car tax, condensate tax and an Emissions tax, With an agenda like coupled with labour in NSW imploding, you guys honestly believe the Australian people will give KRudd control of the senate.

    Now that is delusional.

  8. jquiggin
    September 5th, 2008 at 13:15 | #8

    Andrew, I disagree regarding Fielding. I think he’ll struggle to get to 7 per cent, and he won’t get Labor preferences this time. The best outcome for the government would be one where they could get through by dealing with either the Greens or independents; the most likely that they will have to deal with the Greens.

    As regards 1974, following the Gair affair, Snedden announced that the Opposition would block Supply, and they voted accordingly (10 April) on a procedural motion which the govt regarded as a blocking of supply. That made a double dissolution a forced move for Whitlam – the alternative would have been to dissolve the Reps and half the Senate, which was obviously less favorable.



  9. Tony G
    September 5th, 2008 at 13:16 | #9

    Fuelwatch, alcopops tax, luxury car tax, condensate tax and an emissions tax. With an agenda like that coupled with labour in NSW imploding, you guys honestly believe the Australian people will give KRudd control of the senate.

    Now that is delusional.

  10. Socrates
    September 5th, 2008 at 13:26 | #10


    Yes Fielding only got 2% of the vote last time and was elected on a bizarre preference deal with Victorian Labor. I’m not aware that Family First has polled 7% in any election since.

  11. Socrates
    September 5th, 2008 at 13:32 | #11

    There has been some discussion on the Pollbludger site and Possum Politics about the relative lack of political success calling Double Dissolutions in the past. However those DDs that were unsuccessful (i.e. reduced government margin) were generally when they had been called for opportunistic reasons. I think if the coalition blocked the ETS it would work, since that was a key policy Rudd was elected on.

    If a DD were called, Andrew I hope you might consider standing again, as I think this mess has underlined that the Democrats were muhc better than the alternatives.

  12. conrad
    September 5th, 2008 at 13:37 | #12

    “Can anyone make sense of Senator Fielding’s claim that the luxury car tax would hurt the tourism industry”

    I think you need give up on the presumption that members of Family First need to make sense or have logical reasons for doing things.

  13. Tony G
    September 5th, 2008 at 13:46 | #13

    “since that was a key policy Rudd was elected on”.

    The only reason Krudd got in was work choices. Next time he won’t have his union comrades working so hard for him. Look what happens
    in NSW if you cross the unions.

    A third of the country is ready with the baseball bat for labour.

  14. Tony G
    September 5th, 2008 at 14:09 | #14

    Garnaut says electricity would rise 40 pct

    Sounds great, lets vote for it!

  15. Hermit
    September 5th, 2008 at 15:09 | #15

    At $20 a tonne starting price for CO2 black coal fired electricity will go up 2c a kilowatt hour, less than 10%. But you might get a cheap or free smart meter or rooftop HWS. People want it now and they will want it later. Particularly if they think it means saving the Barrier Reef for their grandkids. The Senate spoilers might get this one wrong.

  16. snuh
    September 5th, 2008 at 15:12 | #16

    Sorry to threadjack, but the events in NSW politics today seem to show the unraveling of the formal faction system in the labor party.

  17. jquiggin
    September 5th, 2008 at 15:32 | #17

    Tony, can you stop with the Krudd stuff, please? It’s against the policy of the site and it makes you look silly.

    As general advice to other posters, I’m not going to jump on every instance of a pejorative nickname, but I don’t think anything is gained by discussing politics in terms of Rodents, Chimps and so forth.

  18. ALan
    September 5th, 2008 at 17:10 | #18

    Over at Poll Bludger today the Morgan Poll has Labor at 58 coalition at 42. Baseball bats seem to be back in the rack for now at least.
    I can’t understand the opposition to Fuel Watch and Grocery watch What’s wrong with knowing what things cost? The basket does need adjusting but if they had a Coles Woolworths basket and then an ALdi basket I think we would see cheaper groceries. As for petrol my service station down the road raises and lowers prices seemingly at whim I can never work out why petrol that was sitting in their tanks on Tuesday is worth 142c a litre on that day and then 162c the next day. But I am not an economist.
    Alcopops tax. It is just a start in breaking the drinking culture in Australia. And, if it is having pushing buyers over the spirits then why are the grog makers complaining?
    My bet is that the tax is doing just what it was supposed to do.

    Mr Quiggin, while I applaud your stand on civilised discourse you are starting to sound like the House of Reps where even calling someone a dud gets you sent to the naughty corner.

  19. September 5th, 2008 at 17:34 | #19

    For what it’s worth, Antony Green thinks a DD very unlikely because the ticket voting situation in the Senate makes a lottery out of determination of the final seat in each state.

    Alan, please don’t whinge about the way people choose to run their blogs. You can’t imagine how aggravating it is.

  20. Bobalot
    September 5th, 2008 at 17:40 | #20

    Why do people think calling Rudd “Krudd” is remotely clever? I suspect they don’t realize the laughs they get is not with them, but at them. It’s like all those people who called Howard “Coward”, it was just embarrassing to read.

    If they call a double dissolution, the Liberals will have to stick with Nelson. If they change leaders, they will look weak. Nelson is not popular. Labor would steam roll them.

  21. Ian Gould
    September 5th, 2008 at 21:15 | #21

    FWIW, the nick-name Krudd is long-standing here in Queensland and is often used by people who support him politically.

    I’m sure Tony G will be sorry to hear that.

    Anyone who thinks Labour will lose control of the lower house is simply fooling themsleves.

    The Senate can’t get any worse for them than it is now and will most likely get better – they’re unlikely to get out-right control but have an excellent chance of getting a Senate with the Greens holding the blance power which will make negotiating legislation much easier.

    Put simply, Labor’s got very little to lose and a lot to win.

  22. September 5th, 2008 at 23:18 | #22

    John Quiggin and Ian Gould are exactly right about a double dissolution I think. Labor need not gain a single seat in the Senate to benefit from an election. The coalition will probably lose seats ; if they go to the Greens, then Labor just needs to deal with the Greens. If they go to a new party or independents (or, God forbid, Family First), Labor will potentially have more options for who to use.

    A worst case scenario is no worse than the current election, unless something unimaginable happens that causes Labor to lose.

    I predicted that if Labor won the last election, we would have a double dissolution. They did, and nothing that’s happened since makes me think that’s less likely.

  23. Tony G
    September 6th, 2008 at 00:02 | #23

    “I don’t think anything is gained by discussing politics in terms of Rodents, Chimps and so forth.”

    A year ago the term ‘Rodent’ was in habitual use on this blog without any such complaints. Oh how standards change when the boot is on the other foot.

    This is, as far I can tell, untrue. A search of the comments reveals a grand total of four occurrences in the second half of last year. Before that I had one commenter who used the term relatively frequently, and who, IIRC, I eventually banned for comment violations. And, as a general point, I don’t welcome dispute over the comments policy – if you’re dissatisfied with the way I run the blog, you can a full refund on the way out.

    “can you stop with the ‘Krudd’ stuff, please” (I couldn’t of said it better myself)

    The only people that find ‘that’ term offensive are lefties, so if you want to become conservative in your old age, then regretfully I will comply with your conservatism.

    “My bet is that the tax is doing just what it was supposed to do.”

    And what is that, make things cheaper? We do not need big taxing oversized governments making everything more expensive by putting taxes everywhere.

    “Over at Poll Bludger today the Morgan Poll has Labor at 58 coalition at 42. Baseball bats seem to be back in the rack for now at least.”

    The grey line between federal and state might get blurred when the deputy premiers husband is one of the main federal players. NSW has a 3rd of Australian voters.

    NSW is going backwards and since this poll was taken, things have got significantly worse financially according to Mr Costa.

    Unlike the AGW debate, we should be able to see the evidence of a bat actually swinging at a by-election here shortly.

  24. swio
    September 6th, 2008 at 08:41 | #24

    My guess of the outcome would be
    * Fielding gone. His election was just one of those weird preference deal flukes
    * Xenophon re-elected but becomes irrelevant because
    * Greens control the balance of power outright

    The fact that it would be a double dissolution changes the maths of the quota system significantly making it alot easier for smaller parties to get a share of seats that matches their share of the vote.

    The current system means that the bigger parties get more seats than their election results deserve and smaller parties get little or nothing. But significantly, the Greens vote is now large enough that they have outgrown that problem.

    … Year … … Vote … … … Seats Held
    2007 … | … 9.04% … | … 5
    2004 … | … 7.67% … | … 4
    2001 … | … 4.94% … | … 2
    1998 … | … 2.72% … | … 1

    There is no reason to think their vote will not continue to grow. In fact it might even accelerate. If they control the balance of power they will be in the news alot more and have a much bigger media profile. I think that the only thing a double dissolution will do is start an era where the Greens have the balance of power in the Senate, permanently. Will be interesting to see how the politics of that plays out. The Greens will not have to play the game the way the Democrats did. If the Democrats played a very obstructionist role it hurt them. I really don’t think the Greens would hurt their electoral position if they played the game as utter obstructionists bastards on alot of issues.

  25. ALan
    September 6th, 2008 at 09:44 | #25

    I wasn’t whinging. It was meant to be a humorous observation. Obviously it doesn’t work for people who had an irony bypass at birth.

  26. gerard
    September 6th, 2008 at 10:58 | #26

    I’m too lazy to google the details, but prior to the 2007 election everybody was expecting that the Coalition would lose its ACT seat to the Greens, which would have given the Greens the balance of power in their own right (and would have changed power in the Senate immediately, as ACT seats are not delayed by 6 months).

    Then Rudd, bloody fool, turned up in Canberra and started bellowing about taking to the public service with a razor gang! Well who would be surprised if that gave a few critical votes to the Coalition by Canberrans nervous about losing their jobs. Whatshisname Liberal retained his ACT seat, and the balance of power ends up with this know-nothing dope from Fundamentalists First. Good work Kevin. Of course maybe that was his plan all along – his own views probably have more in common with FF than the Greens.

  27. September 6th, 2008 at 11:47 | #27

    Gerard — people weren’t expecting the Greens to win ACT. They were noting the possibility. Even at the best of times, that’s a difficult seat for a minor party to win. Gary Humphries was always favourite to hold.

    And winning that seat wouldn’t have given the Greens the outright balance of power. The ALP would still have needed one of Xenophon, Fielding, Joyce (or somebody).

    I agree with Quiggin. Which isn’t suprising… because I predicted the same thing a few months ago. I think both sides will see a potential up-side to having an ETS election. One important element in the mix is whether Nelson stays as opposition leader.

  28. Ian Gould
    September 6th, 2008 at 12:29 | #28

    “One important element in the mix is whether Nelson stays as opposition leader.”

    If there is a Liberal leadership spill, expect Rudd to call a double dissolution shortly thereafter.

  29. September 6th, 2008 at 12:44 | #29

    does it matter that the rudd gummint shows signs of putting re-election ahead of adequate response to global warming?

    does it matter that comment here seems more concerned about parish politics than the fate of the planet?

    probably not, and probably not. the only public person with credibilty and consequence has tempered his report to his estimate of political possibility. that is the end of any respect he was due. there is no other figure whose speech on global warming is not suspicious for self interest.

    god help oz, for they are incompetent to help themselves.

  30. Jill Rush
    September 6th, 2008 at 13:18 | #30

    A double dissolution is always a risk and Kevin Rudd is a cautious fellow. However if the Coalition continues to be obstructionist and Steve Fielding continues to dance to the Coalition tune then both will pay a political price. Steve Fielding will become the Party of Rich Families First and the Coalition will seem stupid. If the Labor Party could wedge the Coaltion in this way and get a better result in the Senate and possibly pick up some seats in the Lower House why wouldn’t they?

    To do this however they would need to have the Education Revolution more about Education and less about Revolution. This means that the kick a teacher campaign that has been run by the Labor Party will need to become a lot more considered as their current approach is weakening their base of supporters. That is unless the long term goal is really to make the Greens a far more powerful force in the Senate.

    The bi -election in Mayo will be watched closely by all parties as a portent of the way that the political wind is blowing.

    Prof Q is right – name calling is childish and clouds thinking.

  31. gerard
    September 6th, 2008 at 21:19 | #31

    Temujin #27, be that as it may, I think Kevin’s election eve razor-gang threat in Canberra was a seriously dumb move politically. But much worse was the Victorian ALP’s preferences deal with FF in the previous election. that was just disgraceful.

    On the DD: Generally speaking most people are so lazy and apathetic that demanding that they go out and vote again so soon after the last one will just cause a backlash. I hope I’m wrong about that of course. but I think that if he wanted a DD he should have done it with the old Senate on scrapping Workchoices, which everyone hates. If he had made it a referendum on WC then Labor would have swept both houses. That opportunity’s gone.

  32. September 7th, 2008 at 21:20 | #32


    I take your point regarding blocking of supply in 1974, although I still wouldn’t say that election was brought about because of it. Firstly because it hadn’t actually been blocked at the time the election was called, secondly because there was already a stockpile of double dissolution triggers and an established political argument about the old Senate obstructing the new government’s ability to legislate its program, and thirdly because there was already a (half-)Senate only election due to be held. All of which made it far easer to just dissolve the lot under the justification of trying to resolve all the blockages.

    The threat to block supply assisted this, but (especially once the Gair as Ambassador to Ireland ploy failed) there were strong arguments that Whitlam would have called a double dissolution anyway. But fair to say it was a contributing factor.

    Anyway, to go back to your main point, blocking supply certainly won’t be an issue this time around, but there looks certain to be plenty of Bills able to be used to trigger a double dissolution. I doubt we’d be seeing it before mid next year though, and a lot can happen between now and then.

  33. Tony G
    September 8th, 2008 at 12:23 | #33

    [email protected] & 17

    “This is, as far I can tell, untrue. A search of the comments reveals a grand total of four occurrences in the second half of last year. Before that I had one commenter ….”

    Results 1 – 10 of about 76 from johnquiggin.com for rodent.

    “I don’t think anything is gained by discussing politics in terms of Rodents, Chimps and so forth.�

    “The actual description is, of course, false – the PM is clearly a primate”

    Anyway, it is your blog and I am not going to argue about a chimp not being a primate or about perceived double standards. You can run your blog to fit the times and we can put it down to this.

  34. charles
    September 8th, 2008 at 15:51 | #34

    “If there is a Liberal leadership spill, expect Rudd to call a double dissolution shortly thereafter.”

    I wonder such tactics don’t seem to have a great track record of success and there is now a good sample of recent examples.

  35. paul walter
    September 9th, 2008 at 02:58 | #35

    Yes, in the fullness of time…

  36. paul walter
    September 9th, 2008 at 03:21 | #36

    BTW, when Howard was in at one stage there was talk of a joint sitting. Why not in future, if no cooperation is forthcoming?

  37. September 11th, 2008 at 17:19 | #37

    I wonder how much Fielding’s vote has to do with the fact he feels stood up by the government not pandering to get his vote. I recall him saying something along the lines of the government didn’t get back to him about a question regarding the Luxury car tax so he decided to rejected it.

    I find it a little worrying the government isn’t doing more to win over those few balance of power senators to support their policies. The Insiders reported that Kevin Rudd hasn’t even met with Xenophon in person. Wouldn’t it be better for them to try to work together first before calling a double dissolution?

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