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May 25th 2009 print

David Flint

A double dissolution election: not much room to move

Kevin Rudd has only a short window for a double dissolution election early next year – and the result is not guaranteed.

There seems to be an assumption that a double dissolution election would be fought on the bills which triggered the dissolution. This is unlikely. The idea that the government should be frightened about an alcopops election or Malcolm Turnbull about an ETS election misses the point.  

This is that once an election is called, the debate will move to the principal concern of the electorate. This is more likely to be who is better suited to manage the economy, Kevin Rudd or Malcolm Turnbull, or possibly Peter Costello.

It is very much in the government’s interest to have an early election, and preferably a double dissolution. They would hope to increase their majority in the House and weaken the Coalition in the Senate.  But there is only a narrow window for this, between 6 February and 7 August next year.

There are three factors which encourage an early election.  One is economic competence. This is becoming the issue it should have been when the government finally woke up to the fact that the problem wasn’t inflation.  The electorate is taking note of the massive debt the government has created and wonders about the effectiveness of its scattergun stimulus packages. This concern will no doubt increase if the recession deepens.

The second factor is that at some stage an increasing number of journalists will begin to do their job – subjecting the government to robust scrutiny.  They did this to John Howard, and properly so. But with some prominent exceptions, the media hitherto has seen its role as little more than publishing government press releases. Even the terminology the spin doctors use is repeated on the evening TV news.

An egregious example was when the Treasurer recently called in four senior journalists to give them a Treasury costing of Malcolm Turnbull’s proposed tobacco tax plan. The costing said the tax would not produce sufficient revenue to avoid means testing the Medicare rebate.

The extraordinary aspect of all this was not that the journalists were asked to refrain from doing their job, and getting comment from the Opposition before publication.

It was that they actually agreed.

The Press Council would take a very dim view of that indeed.  (Incidentally the Council exists on the smell of an oil rag. So why are the publishers trying to impose a draconian cut in its budget? Perhaps they want a government run press council?)

The four journalists who agreed to Mr. Swan’s dictat now have egg on their face, as Piers Akerman pointed out.

The Treasury forgot to include the figures for 2009-2010. This left out well over half a billion which the Turnbull plan would have produced. Had the Opposition been asked, the journalists would have been saved their embarrassment.

The third reason for an early election is the Costello factor. The overwhelming majority of Australians believe that if anyone can run the economy, Peter Costello can.

At some stage the coalition may do to Kevin Rudd what the ALP did to Malcolm Fraser in 1983: change the leadership. Remember that Malcolm Fraser went unannounced to the Governor-General to advise an election not knowing that Hawke had just been made leader.

I return to the timing of a double dissolution election. This could be held before 6 February, but because redistribution is underway the law requires there be a temporary “mini-redistribution”. The net result would be that Labor would lose one seat to the Coalition.  And as Imre Salusinski points out, Labor hopes that in the final redistribution three Coalition seats will turn into notional Labor seats. Better to wait until February for that.

As to the other side of the window, a double dissolution election must be held before 7 August 2010.

The Constitution says the Governor-General may dissolve both Houses of Parliament if the Senate twice rejects or fails to pass a bill from the House, or puts up amendments the House rejects. Three months has to elapse. But a dissolution is not allowed during the last six months of the House. This means it has to be by 12 August 2010.  

The Governor-General has a discretion whether or not to grant an election, so there was some disappointment in the ALP when the Governor-General Sir William Mckell, a former ALP Premier of New South Wales, granted a double dissolution to Sir Robert Menzies in 1951. In fact no double dissolution apparently complying with the Constitution has ever been refused.

And if the Governor- General is wrong in assuming the constitutional requirements have been fulfilled and an election is held, this cannot be undone. The High Court found that one of the bills used for the 1974 election did not comply.

So if Mr. Rudd wants to have a more sympathetic Senate, he must move between February and August. But who knows how the polls will be going then, and who will be leading the opposition.