Is Malcolm Turnbull taking longer than previous prime ministers to bring the Parliament back after the election?
Several times during the past couple of weeks, I’ve heard commentators and journalists suggest that Turnbull is dragging the chain on getting the parliament back in session. They seem to suggest that nothing is happening unless the parliament is sitting. It’s a seductive notion for those who deal in the theatre of parliament and the drama of set-piece occasions such as Question Time.
Of course, it’s a nonsensical argument. At any point in time, the parliament is likely not to be sitting. On average, it sits for around 70-80 days a year, in about 20 weeks of the year. For the rest of the time, the business of government is carried on by the executive and the public service.
Nevertheless, it set me wondering about the times parliament sits following an election. The table below shows the dates for the past 115 years, covering all 45 elections since 1901.
|Time Between Parliaments (1901-2016)|
Times Between Sittings of Old and New Parliaments
The average time between sittings of old and new parliaments following an election is 116.6 days.
The longest time was recorded in 1912-13, when 289 days elapsed. However, the House did not sit at all between December 20, 1912 and July 9, 1913. This was common practice in the early days of Federation. It happened also when the parliament did not meet for 206 days between December 8, 1909 and July 1, 1910.
Leaving these two cases aside, the longest time between sittings of old and new parliaments is 139 days, as recorded in 1922 and 1958.
On three occasions we recorded 138 days, in 1928, 1993 and 2013. Of contemporary political leaders, Paul Keating and Tony Abbott have gone the longest between parliaments.
The Gorton Record
The shortest time between the sittings of old and new parliaments was just 60 days, in 1969, under Prime Minister John Gorton.
Parliament was still meeting in September, Gorton held the election in October and the new parliament met in November.
However, it met for just one day, for the ceremonial opening, and then adjourned until March 3, 1970. This allowed the parliament to meet the requirement of Section 5 of the Constitution that it must meet within 30 days after the return of the election writs.
Gorton’s two months from one parliament to the next has not been matched. Three to four months, rather than two, is the norm.
How Soon After An Election Does the Parliament Met?
The average time from election day to the meeting of the new parliament is 58.5 days.
The shortest time of 30 days was recorded in 1940, during World War II. Following the deaths of three Cabinet ministers in an aircraft crash in Canberra, Menzies called a slightly early election rather than hold by-elections. He was returned in a hung parliament and was out of office within a year.
The longest time from election to parliament meeting was 94 days in 2001, following John Howard’s third victory in the wake of Tampa and 9/11.
How Does Turnbull Compare?
The data shows that the 45th Parliament is dead-on the average. When the Parliament meets for the first time on August 30, it will be 116 days since it last met on May 5. The average is 116.6 days.
Furthermore, it will meet for the first time 59 days after the July 2 election. The average is 58.5.
But… The Figures Don’t Tell the Whole Story
Over the past 115 years and 45 elections, there have been 23 occasions (51%) when it has taken 116 days or more from the last sitting day of the old parliament until the first sitting day of the new parliament.
However, 21 of those occasions included the Christmas and New Year holiday period. December is the single most popular month for elections (12/45) and 25 elections (55.6%) have been held in October-December. A pre-Christmas election with a parliamentary sitting in February is the norm, rather than the exception.
On this basis, Turnbull is up on the average without the excuse of the summer holidays.
For parliamentary sittings that ended and began in the same calendar year, only Tony Abbott in 2013 (138 days) and John Howard in 1998 (118 days) took longer to get the parliament started again following the election.
Fraser, Howard and Gillard
Since 1969, the record for the briefest interruption to parliamentary proceedings really belongs to Malcolm Fraser.
In 1980, the parliament sat until September 18, the election was held on October 18, and the new parliament met 38 days after the election, on November 25. It was just 68 days since it adjourned for the election. The parliament conducted a two-week sitting in November-December.
Since 1980, the record for the least time between sittings is shared by John Howard in 2004 and Julia Gillard in 2010. In both cases, the new parliament met 38 days after the election and 96 days since its previous sitting.
The Constitution and Turnbull
Earlier this year, Turnbull made it clear he intended to call a double dissolution. He introduced reforms to the Senate voting system. He prorogued and recalled the Parliament to vote on the building industry legislation, setting up a trigger for a double dissolution.
However, Turnbull wanted a double dissolution in July so that the Senate electoral cycle wouldn’t be thrown out of kilter. Section 57 of the Constitution meant that he had to call the election on or before May 11. This made his election campaign much longer than the average. The time between parliaments is accordingly longer.
Not that anyone made him do it, of course…
Turnbull and the New Parliament
The 45th Parliament will meet 59 days after the July 2 election, right on the average.
Since the Australian Electoral Commission will be returning the election writs in the coming week, it was open to Turnbull to summon parliament up to about 20 days earlier than August 30. Given that the government was re-elected, it can be argued that the parliament could have been brought back sooner. New governments, on the other hand, need more time to establish themselves before meeting the parliament.
Some critics have suggested another factor in the timing is the government’s lack of an agenda. This is a political judgment. Whether two or three weeks really makes any difference is a moot point.
In 1983 and 1996, when there was a change of government at each election, the parliament was reconvened sooner than it will be this year. However, parliament took longer to reconvene after the changes of government in 2007 and 2013. Make of that what you will.
Should Turnbull Be Criticised For All This?
No. It’s really nothing out of the ordinary. But at least I got to put the numbers into a table for future reference.