Is the time for playing games over, or has it just begun? Turnbull's double dissolution election is a risky strategy.

Brendan McCaffrie

Research Fellow at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra

For the past few months, followers of Australian politics have been speculating about when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull would call the 2016 Federal Election. Turnbull recently appeared to settle the matter, stating, “The time for playing games is over”, and threatening to call a double dissolution election. Double dissolutions, at which all Senate seats are up for election rather than half of them, are rare in Australia, and this would be the first since 1987. While Turnbull claims that the time for playing games is over, this does appear to be a roll of the dice. This unusual move gives him personal ownership of the election timing, and therefore, greater personal credit or blame for the outcome.

 

Sidelining Crossbench Senators

The risk for Turnbull derives in part from his apparent desire to sideline crossbench senators. He has had parliament prorogued in order to return the Senate for a previously unscheduled sitting in mid-April, allowing the crossbenchers to reconsider their opposition to two relatively obscure Government bills for further regulating unions. One bill would re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission – an entity largely designed as a construction union corruption watchdog – and the other, the Registered Organisations bill, would impose similar transparency obligations on union officials as those required of company directors. If the Senate fails to pass this legislation, Turnbull will call a double dissolution election.

This threat places considerable pressure on Senate crossbenchers, some of whom would not otherwise be up for election this term. Some may wish to pass the bills to avoid a double dissolution election, however, backing down in the face of government pressure would seem anathema to many crossbenchers, as well as to voters who support them. Additionally, the crossbenchers should consider aspects of the voting system that may come into play this year. Crossbenchers with relatively strong support may be advantaged by a double dissolution election at which the quota of votes they require to win a seat drops from about 14.3 per cent, to about 7.7 per cent. However in the past some Senators, like Victoria’s Ricky Muir, were elected with tiny first preference votes thanks to a complex network of preference deals with other micro parties. New Senate voting rules mean that these Senators will need to find more direct support from voters to achieve re-election.

 

Pressure may return to Turnbull

However, while pressure for now is on the crossbench, the Prime Minister’s strategy contains a number of risky elements which could see that pressure return to him. Turnbull’s bold manoeuvre occurred after a stuttering first six months as Prime Minister, having succeeded Tony Abbott as Prime Minister after an internal contest for control of the party. Therefore, Turnbull’s authority is questionable, particularly in the minds of many of the more conservative Coalition MPs, who do not share Turnbull’s social liberalism and who almost certainly voted to retain Abbott.

The Australian public initially appeared to welcome Turnbull, rejoicing in his eloquence and rationalism. However, the honeymoon has ended and Turnbull has few major concrete achievements. Grand plans for a redesigned tax system appeared to be quashed from within the Coalition on the basis that they might be unpopular. Contrastingly, The Labor Opposition has seemed uncharacteristically assured and united, announcing a series of tax reform measures well in advance of an election, and well in advance of Government policies.

In this context, Turnbull’s bold manoeuvre appears designed to enhance perceptions of his authority as both Prime Minister and party leader, and the election itself appears to be an opportunity for him to reinforce this perception. However, Turnbull has taken public ownership of the election timing, and responsibility for any negative election outcomes will fall to him.

Constitutional details mean that the most likely election date is July 2nd (see Antony Green’s detailed explanation here), with an unusually long 52-day campaign period. As the incumbent, and election favourite, the Coalition is not necessarily advantaged by a long campaign, which offers opportunities for more mistakes. Furthermore, although Turnbull has brought the date of the budget forward a week to May 3rd, its proximity to the election makes for a particularly high-pressure budget, with additional scrutiny on each detail.

Finally, while the new Senate laws appear make re-election more difficult for the crossbenchers, but no one can really be certain what effect they will have, especially at a double dissolution. The shift to an Optional Preferential Voting system with the ballot paper instructing voters to preference either six or more parties above the line (although fewer than six will also be considered valid), or six or more candidates below the line (or fewer), will see an unknown number of votes exhaust before all Senate seats are won. At the point when all votes are allocated or exhausted, the highest placed candidates will fill the remaining positions. This means that one, two, or perhaps even three candidates will be elected with less than the 7.7 per cent quota. These may be major party candidates, or they may be candidates from minor and micro parties. It is quite possible that most of the current crossbench will be returned and will be only less likely to work with Turnbull after his attempts to remove them.

After the election, if the Coalition Government is returned, and a new Senate is returned that still chooses not to pass either of the two bills in question, the Government may seek a joint sitting, in which both houses of parliament sit as a single body in an attempt to pass the legislation. However, recent narrowing opinion polls suggest the possibility that a Coalition government would be returned but without enough Members and Senators to guarantee a majority even in a joint sitting.

Regardless of the potentially awkward Constitutional situation, a significant reduction in the Coalition’s majority could negatively affect Turnbull’s authority. Were the Coalition to perform less well than expected, Turnbull’s election date gamble may be viewed dimly by many of his colleagues; particularly by conservative MPs. Of course, the converse could also be true, and a stunning victory could provide Turnbull with the authority and momentum that he has so far lacked. So it seems that Turnbull is indeed playing a game, and a high stakes one at that.

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