The July 2 election will be held just 2 years, 9 months and 25 days since the last election on September 7, 2013.
But the 45th Parliament we elect on July 2 won’t make it to three years either. In fact, it could easily be shorter than the 44th.
The double dissolution election that the Prime Minister is expected to formally initiate tomorrow will be held on a date redolent with constitutional and electoral ramifications.
The government has had a trigger for a double dissolution election since June 2014, when the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (Abolition) Bill 2013 [No.2] was rejected by the Senate for the second time. Two more triggers were provided on April 18, 2016, when the Senate rejected the Building and Construction Commission legislation.
Why is the Election Being Held on July 2?
Turnbull did not have to wait for July. He could have held a double dissolution election in March, April or May of this year. He could have held one in October, November or December last year.
However, had he done so, the terms of new senators would be backdated and deemed to have begun on July 1, 2015, as stipulated in Section 13 of the Constitution.
The Senate is an ongoing body. It was conceived as a chamber with longer terms of six-years and with a rotating membership. Unlike the House of Representatives, it is not normally dissolved. It has only been dissolved six times prior to this year, in the double dissolutions of 1914, 1951, 1974, 1975, 1983 and 1987.
At regular House and half-Senate elections, the House is dissolved and all seats become vacant but only 40 of the 76 senators, 6 from each state and 2 from each territory, are up for election. The 36 state senators remain in office during and beyond the election because their term is fixed and expires on June 30. (The Territory senators serve terms concurrent with the House.)
Had Turnbull opted for a double dissolution election at any time between September last year and May this year, he would have ensured that a half-Senate election would have been needed in just two years time, before June 30, 2018, even though the House could possibly have continued into the second half of 2019.
Whilst Menzies, Holt and Gorton coped with separate half-Senate elections in 1953, 1964, 1967 and 1970, the prospect holds little appeal for contemporary prime ministers. They risk a by-election atmosphere in which the public punish the government, knowing that it won’t be defeated. The political disruption of the ordinary business of government would be deemed intolerable, especially in the current media climate. The cost of separate elections could also become an issue.
So, July 2 was always Turnbull’s preferred option. For a new prime minister, it allowed time to settle in and govern – even if some argue that this has been squandered. Importantly, it not only allowed the Senate voting reforms to be in place for a double dissolution, but it ensured the House and Senate electoral cycles would not be thrown way out of kilter.
Unfortunately, this scenario was only do-able if the government was prepared to countenance a long campaign, preceded as it has been by even earlier confirmation of the date. Turnbull would no doubt have preferred to call the election at the end of May, but he didn’t have that option. Under Section 57 of the Constitution, the last possible date for calling a double dissolution is May 11, 2016. Section 57 says a double dissolution cannot occur less than six months before the expiration of the three-year term of the House. The term is calculated from the first meeting of the House (November 12, 2013), not the date of the election (September 7, 2013).
Hence, we have had a prorogation and recall of Parliament, and a rescheduled Budget. Supply Bills were passed before the Budget was introduced, in order to keep the government running through the election period. Turnbull has clearly judged that all this, plus the long election campaign, was worth it to have the election on July 2.
When Can The Next Election Be Held?
Based on past practice, the 45th Parliament is most likely to meet for the first time sometime in August-September 2016. Constitutionally, that is when the government’s three-year term will start.
HOWEVER, the likely date of the next election after July 2 will occur well before a full three years have passed. On July 2, 2019, the 46th Parliament is bound to have already been elected.
After this year’s election, the Senate will have to decide which of the 72 state-based senators will get six-year terms and which will get three-year terms. On previous occasions, those elected first have got the six-year terms, although this is not certain. Antony Green has an interesting piece on the process here.
The senators who end up with three-year terms will have to face the electorate again between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019, as required by Section 13 of the Constitution, which says: “The election to fill vacant places shall be made within one year before the places are to become vacant.”
In practice, given other requirements of the Constitution and the Commonwealth Electoral Act, a half-Senate election will have to be held sometime between August 2018 and May 2019.
Therefore, it is most likely that Prime Minister Turnbull or Prime Minister Shorten will opt to take the House to an election, concurrent with the half-Senate poll, in March-May 2019. This would effectively shave anything from 2-4 months off the 3-year term of the House.
Moving the Budget?
After his July double dissolution election in 1987, Bob Hawke faced an identical situation and the next election was held on March 24, 1990. The Parliament met for the first time following the election on May 8. In those days, as it had been for decades, the Budget was brought down in August. Treasurer Paul Keating delivered his 8th Budget on August 21, 1990.
However, since 1994, the Budget has been delivered in May, which creates a new problem. Given the months-long process of framing a Budget, it would not be possible to hold an election in March and then deliver a Budget in May. A later Budget or some kind of interim measure would be needed. The 1993 and 1996 Budgets were delivered in August, following March elections.
An October-December 2018 Election?
But this problem would not arise at all if the government opted for an election in October-December 2018. This would enable a Budget to be delivered in May 2019 as normal. And the new senators would not take their places until July 2019.
This scenario would be a variation of what happened in 1977 and 1984. In both years, an early election was held because the double dissolutions of 1975 and 1983 had thrown the House and Senate electoral cycles out of kilter. Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser cut a whole year off his term to bring the cycles back in line, whilst Bob Hawke shaved 18 months off his first term for the same reason. Whilst Fraser could have gone in 1978, he opted for late 1977. Whilst Hawke could have gone in 1985, he opted for late 1984.
Therefore, whilst a date in March, April or May of 2019 seems most likely for the next election, an election in late-2018 shouldn’t be ruled out.
State Elections Are In The Way
A further complication lies in the fixed dates for the Victorian and NSW state elections.
Victorians face an election on November 24, 2018 and NSW on March 23, 2019.
Whilst the laws governing the state election dates allow for them to be moved to accommodate a federal election, this has never happened and would likely cause political upheaval.
So, a federal election in 2018 would really need to be out of the way by the end of October, so as not to interfere with the Victorian poll.
If the prime minister waited until 2019, he could call the election at the end of January and go early in March, clearing the way for the NSW election later that month. Alternatively, moving the Budget and holding the federal election in May might be preferred.
Fighting federal and state elections close to one another poses other problems for all political parties. There are logistical issues to consider and, importantly, the question of fundraising.
So When Will It Be?
Who knows? Setting an election date is one of the most political decisions a prime minister can make. The choice will be governed by a range of political factors, especially the government’s assessment of when it has the best chance of winning.
Since Federation, 34 (76%) of the 45 federal elections have been in the second half of the year. Moreover, 25 (56%) have been held in October-December. There have been 12 elections (26.7%) in December alone, making it the single most popular month of the year for seeking the judgement of the voters.
Whatever happens, we can be reasonably sure of one thing: the 45th House of Representatives we elect on July 2 will be dissolved months before it is due to expire.