Double dissolution ahead

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.

38 thoughts on “Double dissolution ahead

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. “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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. John

    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.

  8. JQ@24 & 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.

  9. “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.

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

  11. 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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