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When Will The 2013 Federal Election Be Held?

What do we definitely know about this year’s election?

  • A House of Representatives election can be called at any time. Provisions of the Constitution and the Electoral Act require a minimum of 33 days notice. A January election is now impossible. No federal election has ever been held in January or February. Given the holiday period underway now, an early March election is probably the earliest possible date.
  • A double dissolution is now constitutionally impossible. No legislation has been twice rejected by the Senate with the requisite three-month interval. The option formally expires on March 27.
  • A half-Senate election cannot be called until after July 1. See Section 13 of the Constitution. A House-only election held between February-June 2013 would require a separate half-Senate election sometime before June 30, 2014. A Gillard or Abbott government would be forced back to the polls within a year of any House election held before June 2013.
  • The earliest possible date for a joint House of Representatives and half-Senate election is August 3.
  • A House election can be held as late as November 30, if every requirement of the Constitution and Electoral Act is stretched to the maximum allowable time.
  • The House of Representatives will expire on September 27 if it hasn’t already been dissolved. This is because the three year term of the House dates from the first day the parliament met – September 28, 2010. If the House expired on September 27, the writs for the election would have to be issued within 10 days.
  • Antony Green has written a couple of informative pieces about the historical timing of elections and the constitutional and legislative requirements. See here and here.

Is an election in March, April, May or June entirely out of the question?

  • No. An upturn in the government’s fortunes could encourage Gillard to go early to capitalise on favourable conditions. In this event, the half-Senate problem would probably be lost in the general melee of an election. Besides, the Opposition has been demanding an early poll for most of the past two years.
  • There have been suggestions the government might go early to avoid bringing down a May budget. This seems less likely since Wayne Swan announced that the government has all but abandoned its budget surplus promise. It is just as likely that the government will aim to use the Budget to establish its priorities for the election campaign and to engage in some electorally strategic spending initiatives.

Is a March-June election likely?

  • No. As is well known, the government is not travelling well in the polls. In these circumstances governments do not go early. They hang in until the last possible moment in the hope that the Opposition will stumble or that something else turns up to rescue them. John Howard did this in 2007. Members facing defeat don’t want to go any earlier than they absolutely have to for political and possibly financial reasons.

Should we assume that an election in November is out of the question?

  • Assumptions are risky things but, yes, we probably can assume this. Imagine what Tony Abbott will be saying if the election is held over 3 years and 3 months since the August 21, 2010 election. He will be accusing Gillard of being too frightened to face the voters. It is probably reasonable to see a November election as a bridge too far.

So an election is most likely in August, September or October?

  • Yes. We can say with some confidence that the election will probably be on one of these dates:
    • August 3, 10, 17, 24 or 31
    • September 7, 14, 21, or 28
    • October 5, 12, 19 or 26

That’s 13 possible dates. Can we narrow it down a bit further?

  • Yes. We can rule out September 28 because that’s AFL Grand Final Day. No prime minister would dare call an election on that day.
  • For the same reason, we can probably rule out September 21, Preliminary Final Day. It’s also school holidays at this time. Mind you, John Cain (1988) and Jeff Kennett (1999) both called state elections on Preliminary Final day. Cain won, Kennett lost. Make up your own mind on this one.
  • October 5 can probably be ruled out. It’s a long weekend in NSW and Queensland and the Rugby League Grand Final is played on October 6. It’s not an impossible date but it is an awkward one.

Okay, let’s take those 3 dates out. That leaves us with 10 dates. How likely is an August election?

  • Any date in August is do-able and would cause no political pain to the government. August 21 is the 3-year anniversary of the last election. Only the most churlish critic would have a problem with any of the five dates in August. All reasonable people would regard an August election as perfectly proper and normal.
  • An August election would have to be called in July. The Parliament is scheduled to adjourn for the winter recess on June 27. If Gillard wants to stretch her term beyond August into September-October she needs things to do in July. At Woodford last week she mentioned the NDIS launch in July. Alternatively, she could take an overseas trip in July which could delay the election. She could have one last trip to the US to bask in the reflected glory of Barack Obama.
  • Assuming the government remains in deep political trouble throughout 2013, Gillard will be looking for things to do in July and August to justify a later election.

What did Gillard promise Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and The Greens?

  • Gillard’s agreement with The Greens, section 3(g), stipulates “that this Parliament should serve its full term”.
  • Gillard’s agreement with Windsor and Oakeshott, section 3.1 (f), says “that this Parliament should serve its full term and that the next election will be held on a date to be agreed in September or October 2013”.
  • Since the issue of trust and adhering to commitments is a political issue for Gillard, she could use these agreements to claim that a September or October election is appropriate. It seems to me that “a date to be agreed” doesn’t present too much difficulty for any of the parties.

So we can eliminate the August dates from our list of possibilities?

  • Probably. Another tricky thing to consider is the Parliament. It’s due to meet again on August 20. Does Gillard cancel this? If so, when? Does she want Parliament sitting on the August 21 anniversary of the last election and have Abbott taunting her about being too frightened to go back to the people?
  • That’s why an early August announcement of an election on September 7 or 14 could work well for Gillard. She doesn’t look like she’s desperate to hang on, she avoids a potentially messy parliamentary sitting and she keeps her agreements with the crossbenchers.

So you’re nominating September 7 or 14 and giving up on October?

  • Not really… Frankly, I’d go on October 19 because it’s about the longest I can manage without looking too desperate to hang on. If something hasn’t turned up to save me by then it’s probably never going to arrive.
  • The best argument in favour of an early September election is that once Gillard delays beyond those dates the pressure starts to build and her ability to govern decreases. The country will be going mad with election speculation.

Is there anything we haven’t considered?

  • Well, try this. On February 2, 2011, New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key announced that the election would be held on November 26. New Zealand was hosting the Rugby World Cup and Key said he wanted to allow the country to concentrate on the Cup and have some certainty without him playing politics with the election date.
  • The only time I can remember this happening in Australia was in 1979 when Victorian Liberal Premier Rupert Hamer announced a May election in February. There was a sizable swing against the government.
  • Gillard could return to work around Australia Day and make an announcement that she intends to govern for the bulk of the year without unnecessarily playing politics. It fits with her “getting on with the job” theme. She could say she doesn’t want the nation distracted by election speculation for the next nine months because there are many important things to be done. She could say she promised to run full term and announce October 19 as the election date.

But would Gillard do that? Wouldn’t she be giving up an important political advantage over the Opposition?

  • Possibly, but she also needs a political circuit-breaker. She needs something that puts the pressure on Abbott to come up with policies. She needs something that takes election speculation out of the media and allows her to take advantage of being an incumbent government getting on with governing.
  • Gillard could announce the date in the next few weeks, there’d be a bit of a fuss for a few days but then things would calm down. It might work.

So, it’s October 19?

  • Or October 12. Or September 7. Or September 14… Or …

Is there anything you’ve forgotten?

  • Very likely.
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Malcolm Farnsworth
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