Off-Beat Politics: The Double Dissolution explained


Words || Alana Tindale

On Monday March 21, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull threatened to call a double dissolution if the Senate did not pass the Australian Building Construction Commission Bill. The legislation seeks to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), a building industry regulator.

A double dissolution can only be called if the Senate refuses to pass a Bill in the same form twice, creating a deadlock between the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Prime Minister can then ask the Governor General to dissolve (or in other words, disband) both houses of parliament and call an election.

As Turnbull himself noted, ‘the reason [a double dissolution] is special is because all of the senators go up for election instead of just half’. If an election is called, many current minor party Senators’ jobs will be on the line, particularly in light of the senate voting amendments passed by the Greens and Liberal National Party (LNP) on March 18.

Prior to these amendments, voters were required to either vote for only one Senator (‘above the line’) or order each Senator by preference (‘below the line’). Most Senators are affiliated with a party, ranging from the main parties (Labor, Liberal, Greens) to very obscure ones (such as the Motor Enthusiast Party). Parties could then distribute votes (or preferences) to other Senators for ‘above the line’ voters. These are called preference deals, and they allow Senators with very small primary votes (such as Motor Enthusiast Party’s Ricky Muir on 0.5%) to be elected to the Senate.

However, after the passing of this new Senate reform bill, voters can now order up to six Senators ‘above the line’, or twelve Senators ‘below the line’. This reduces the chances of minor parties being elected to the Senate, and means that some current Senators (such as Ricky Muir) are unlikely to be re-elected. If a double dissolution is not called, these Senators will remain in power for at least another three years because only half a Senate will go up in the next election. However, many Senators refuse to pass the ABCC bill on various grounds, even if their jobs are at risk.

By making the ABCC a centre-point of any election, the Liberal Party are able to focus on Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s ties to unions, and alleged union corruption. However, polls suggest that the legislation does not resonate with most voters. The legislation itself is less relevant than a desire to go to an early election.

So why does Turnbull want to go to an early election? He may hope to have a better control of the Senate by getting rid of resistant minor party and Independent Senators. In addition to compromising with ‘rogue’ Senators, Turnbull (who is part of the Liberal party’s ‘moderate’ or centre-right faction) must also placate the extreme right faction of his party. As senior government minister Arthur Sinodinos admitted in March, ‘ a returned government with Malcolm Turnbull at its head after the election … will have the capacity to stamp its authority on all sorts of issues’.

Basically, being a legitimately elected leader may increase the Prime Ministers standing in his own party, reducing his need to pander to the extreme right conservatives.  On the other hand, if – as some polls predict – he has a smaller majority in the Senate, the extreme right faction may have more influence in the party. Some political commentators have suggested an early election would be a reaction to waning popularity.

Political analyst Michelle Grattan has suggested that economic predictions for the future are poor, particularly because of a possible ‘burst’ in the housing bubble. Perhaps Turnbull wants to go to the polls before the economy flops (which may be blamed on the government), or while it remains, in Turnbull’s words, ‘the greatest time to be an Australian’.

Despite Turnbull’s optimism, there are risks in calling a double dissolution. In 1983 Malcolm Fraser lost a double dissolution election he called, after the Labor Party (ALP) swapped leaders from unpopular Bill Hader to Bob Hawke. Similarly, in 1987 Hawke himself called a double dissolution but failed to gain control of the Senate anyway.