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Double Dissolutions of the Australian Parliament

A key feature of a bicameral parliamentary system of government is the possibility that a deadlock may arise between the two houses of parliament.

In Australia, for a bill to become law, it must be passed by both houses of parliament, as prescribed by Section 58 of the Constitution:

When a proposed law passed by both Houses of Parliament is presented to the Governor-General for the Queen’s assent, he shall declare, according to his discretion, but subject to this Constitution, that he assents in the Queen’s name, or that he withholds assent, or that he reserves the law for the Queen’s pleasure.

Australian governments generally control the numbers in the House of Representatives (the lower house). This is because the party or parties that win a majority of lower house seats form the government.

However, the proportional voting system used in the Senate means that governments generally do not control the Senate. The Senate may insist on amendments to government legislation passed by the House of Representatives. The Senate may also reject outright bills passed by the House.

This disagreement between the houses reached its height in 1975 when the Senate refused to vote on the Whitlam Government’s budget bills, effectively threatening the government’s survival by refusing to grant it money.

One means of resolving conflict between the two houses of parliament is by means of a double dissolution of the Parliament.

A Double Dissolution of the Australian Parliament is allowed under Section 57 of the Australian Constitution:

If the House of Representatives passes any proposed law, and the Senate rejects or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree, and if after an interval of three months the House of Representatives, in the same or the next session, again passes the proposed law with or without any amendments which have been made, suggested, or agreed to by the Senate, and the Senate rejects or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree, the Governor-General may dissolve the Senate and the House of Representatives simultaneously. But such dissolution shall not take place within six months before the date of the expiry of the House of Representatives by effluxion of time.

If after such dissolution the House of Representatives again passes the proposed law, with or without any amendments which have been made, suggested, or agreed to by the Senate, and the Senate rejects or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree, the Governor-General may convene a joint sitting of the members of the Senate and of the House of Representatives.

The members present at the joint sitting may deliberate and shall vote together upon the proposed law as last proposed by the House of Representatives, and upon amendments, if any, which have been made therein by one House and not agreed to by the other, and any such amendments which are affirmed by an absolute majority of the total number of the members of the Senate and House of Representatives shall be taken to have been carried, and if the proposed law, with the amendments, if any, so carried is affirmed by an absolute majority of the total number of the members of the Senate and House of Representatives, it shall be taken to have been duly passed by both Houses of Parliament, and shall be presented to the Governor-General for the Queen’s assent.

Essentially, this section of the Constitution can be summarised as follows:

  1. House passes bill
  2. Senate rejects bill
  3. Three months elapse
  4. House passes bill again
  5. Senate rejects bill again
  6. Prime Minister may advise Governor-General to dissolve both houses
  7. Assuming government is returned at election, House passes bill for the third time
  8. Senate rejects bill for the third time
  9. Joint Sitting may be held to finally resolve the disagreement between the houses


Previous Double Dissolutions

There have been seven double dissolutions of the Australian Parliament:

Double Dissolutions of the Australian Parliament
No. Year Party in Govt. Prime Minister Election Result Joint Sitting
1914 Liberal Joseph Cook Government Defeated
1951 Liberal/Country Robert Menzies Government Returned
1974 ALP Gough Whitlam Government Returned
1975 Liberal/National Country Malcolm Fraser Elected Whitlam Government Defeated,
Caretaker Fraser Government Elected
1983 Liberal/National Country Malcolm Fraser Government Defeated
1987 ALP Bob Hawke Government Returned
2016 Liberal/Nationals Malcolm Turnbull Government Returned



Joint Sittings

There has only been one joint sitting of the Australian Parliament. It was held in August 1974 following the May double dissolution election. The Whitlam government was able to pass a number of key pieces of legislation at the joint sitting.


Senate Terms Following A Double Dissolution

Whereas a normal general election involves the election of all members of the House of Representatives (currently 150) and one-half of the Senate, (40, including the four senators from the two territories), a double dissolution means that all of the Senate positions are up for election.

Accordingly, the new Senate then has to be divided into long term (6 year) and short term (3 year) senators, in order to re-establish the rotation of senators at normal general elections. This division is usually achieved by allocating the long term positions to the first 6 senators elected in each state.

The terms of all senators chosen in a double dissolution election are backdated to the previous July, in accordance with Section 13 of the Constitution:

….For the purposes of this section the term of service of a senator shall be taken to begin on the first day of July following the day of his election, except in the case of the first election and of the election next after any dissolution of the Senate, when it shall be taken to begin on the first day of July preceding the day of his election.

The effect of this provision is such that a double dissolution can throw out the synchronicity of House and Senate elections. This can be seen in the situation that existed following the double dissolution of February 1983. Following this election, the House of Representatives term expired in April-May 1986, but a half-Senate election was due by June 1985, since the terms of senators elected in March 1983 were backdated to July 1982. The early election called by Prime Minister Bob Hawke in December 1984 put the electoral cycle back in kilter because the senators then elected did not take up their positions until the following July. The double dissolution of 1987 did not create the 1983 problem because the elections took place in July and the two houses were more or less in kilter.


Current Updates

May 9, 2016: Both houses of the Australian Parliament were dissolved at 9.00am on May 9, in accordance with Section 57 of the Constitution, following the formal announcement of the double dissolution election on July 2.

The double dissolution correspondence between the Prime Minister, Attorney-General and the Governor-General has been released to the public.

May 7, 2016: On March 21, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that he would use Section 5 of the Constitution to prorogue the Parliament on April 15 and recall it on April 18. The move came after the Senate passed a motion preventing its recall before the Budget on May 10. Turnbull said the recall would allow the Senate to debate and vote on the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) Bill. Turnbull said he would call a July 2 double dissolution election if the bill was rejected. In addition, Turnbull brought the Budget forward to May 3.

The Senate met on April 18 and rejected two Buiding and Construction Commission bills, thus providing the government with a total of three double dissolution triggers. A July 2 election became a certainty.

On May 3-4, the Parliament passed Supply Bills, enabling the government to continue functioning through the election period. The Budget was delivered on May 3. The Parliament met for the last time on May 5, the last item of business being Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s Budget Reply Speech. Turnbull is expected to formally call the election on May 8.

Because the election will take place on July 2, the Senate terms will remain in kilter with the House. New Senators will be deemed to have begun their terms on July 1. A regular half-Senate election will need to be held before June 30, 2019. The next election following the last double dissolution election in July 1987 was held in March 1990. The effect of the 2016 double dissolution is that the next House and half-Senate election is most likely between March-May 2019, although it would also be possible between August-December 2018.

January 8, 2016: With the May 11 deadline for the calling of a double dissolution looming in the next four months, speculation is growing about Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s intentions.

A double dissolution election in March, April or May is possible and would necessitate the cancellation of this year’s May 10 Budget. Avoiding the Easter weekend of March 25-28 would be a significant factor in determining any election date.

A double dissolution election called in the next few months would result in Senate terms being back-dated to July 1, 2015, as prescribed in Section 13 of the Constitution. This would necessitate a half-Senate election sometime between August 2017 and May 2018, even though the regular House of Representatives election would not be required until mid-2019. Avoiding extra subsequent elections could be sufficient incentive for Turnbull to avoid a double dissolution.

Historically, some prime ministers obliged to deal with this situation have chosen also to take the House of Representatives to an early election. Malcolm Fraser did this in 1977 and Bob Hawke followed suit in 1984.

However, beginning with Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, separate half-Senate elections were held in 1953, 1964, 1967 and 1970, in addition to the regular House elections held in 1963, 1966, 1969 and 1972. Whilst Turnbull could choose to hold separate House and half-Senate elections, it is unlikely.

An indication of the government’s intentions will come in early February when Parliament resumes. There will be insufficient time to introduce new legislation that could become triggers for a double dissolution, but legislation already rejected once by the Senate could be reintroduced.

Legislation relevant to the Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption is the most likely possibility for reintroduction. The Building and Construction Industry (Improving Productivity) Bill 2013, rejected by the Senate on August 17, 2015, is a likely option.

The Australian Parliament’s website currently lists two double dissolution triggers and thirteen potential triggers.

In the absence of a double dissolution, a normal House and half-Senate election can be held on any Saturday between August 6, 2016 and January 14, 2017, with September or October as the most likely choices.

June 18, 2014: A double dissolution trigger now exists for the 44th Parliament. The Senate today rejected for the second time the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (Abolition) Bill 2013 [No. 2].

This means that Prime Minister Tony Abbott could now use Section 57 of the Constitution to dissolve both houses of the Parliament and hold an early election. The trigger does not have to be used but it remains “live” until May 11, 2016.

It is likely that one or more double dissolution triggers could be created over the next month, especially in relation to the Medicare co-payment legislation.

May 28, 2014: No deadlock yet exists between the two Houses. However, since the Abbott government was elected in September 2013, 13 bills passed by the House of Representatives have been rejected by the Senate. Only one of these rejected bills has since been reintroduced into the House. On current projections, a double dissolution trigger is possible in July-August, after new senators take their seats on July 1.

May 25, 2013: Would A Double Dissolution In Early 2014 Be Unconstitutional?

January 2013 Update: There will be no double dissolution of the 43rd parliament. There are no bills that fit, or could fit, the requirements of Section 57, as outlined above. The double dissolution option expires on March 27.

This means there could be a House election alone between February-June, 2013. This would necessitate a separate half-Senate election between July 1, 2013 and June 30, 2014. More likely, a House and half-Senate election will take place between August-November 2013. The terms of senators chosen in that election will begin on July 1, 2014.

May 2012 Update: No deadlock exists between the two houses. Despite the minority status of the Gillard Labor government, no bill has been twice rejected by the Senate. A double dissolution appears unlikely.

The next half-Senate election cannot be held until after July 1, 2013. If the Gillard government were to be fall before then, an election could only be held for the House of Representatives and a separate half-Senate election would have to be held between July 2013 and June 2014.

November 2003 Update: A number of double dissolution triggers now exist, with the likelihood of more in the new year, notably the full privatisation of Telstra. It is theoretically possible for a double dissolution to take place before June 2004, but this remains an unlikely possibility.

The decision by the Prime Minister, John Howard, in June 2003, to remain indefinitely as leader of the Liberal Party, suggests that the election will take place close to its normal time in the period August-December 2004.

The earliest possible date for a combined House and half-Senate election is Saturday August 7, 2004.

A double dissolution could take place at any time until August 11, 2004. Voting in a double dissolution can take place as late as Saturday October 16, 2004.

A House and half-Senate election can take place anytime between August 7, 2004 and April 16, 2005.

June 2002 Update: There has been much discussion during this month of the possibility of a double dissolution election. The Howard Government’s legislation excising thousands of islands from Australia’s migration zone was defeated in the Senate in June and can be reintroduced in the September-October session. It is also expected that legislation on Unfair Dismissals, Pharmaceutical Benefits, Disability Pensions and Telstra privatisation may become double dissolution triggers during this time.

Federal Parliament sat for the first time on February 11, 2002. This means that the next dissolution of the House of Representatives must take place by February 11, 2005. If the maximum times permitted under the Constitution and the Electoral Act are exploited, the latest possible date for an election is Saturday April 16, 2005.

A half-Senate election must be held sometime between July 1, 2004 and June 30, 2005. Since the last election was in November 2001, it is most likely that a normal election for the House and half-Senate will be held around October-December 2004, or February-March 2005.

A House election called before July 2004 would have to be held without a half-Senate election. It is unlikely that the Prime Minister would wish to create a situation where two elections would be required within a 12-month period.

A double dissolution can be carried out at any time up to six months before the normal expiration of the House of Representatives, that is up until August 11, 2004. If the Parliament were dissolved on August 11, 2004, the elections could take place as late as Saturday October 16. Hence, we face the unusual prospect that the government, led by either Howard or Costello, could govern for a full three years and still have the double dissolution trigger available to it.

Given that the terms of Senators are backdated to the previous July 1 following a double dissolution, it would be more logical to have a double dissolution election in the second half of 2002, 2003 or 2004, rather than in the first half. A double dissolution election in the first half of these years would throw the electoral cycle out of kilter again, necessitating either a separate half-Senate election two years later, or an early House election.

January 2002 Update: With the re-election of the Howard Government, the process commences again. A double dissolution can not be held until the second half of 2002 because of the scheduled meetings times of the Parliament. A double dissolution would be constitutionally possible at any time during 2003.

2001 Update: After May 2001, the Double Dissolution option no longer existed, despite the Senate’s blockage of legislation on Industrial Relations, because it was less than 6 months till the scheduled dissolution of the House. An election for the House of Representatives and half of the Senate took place on November 10, 2001.

1999 Update: An election for the House of Representatives and half of the Senate was held on October 3, 1998. Since a compromise had been reached on the Wik legislation, there was no trigger for a double dissolution. Consequently, the next half-Senate election can not be held until after July 2001. The House of Representatives election has to be held by January 2002. A double dissolution election is a theoretical possibility during the latter part of 1999, 2000 or the first half of 2001.

1998 Update: If Prime Minister John Howard had gone to a double dissolution election in the second half of 1996 or the first half of 1997, he would have been faced with the same problem created by the 1983 election, where a half-Senate election would be required up to one year in advance of a House election. If a double dissolution election had occurred in the first half of 1998, the houses would also have been thrown out of kilter again. A double dissolution in the second half of 1998 will not create this problem, thus an election over the Wik legislation is possible in the second half of 1998.

A double dissolution cannot be held in 1999 because of the provision restricting such a dissolution within six months of the normal expiration of the term of the House. The last possible date on which both houses can be dissolved is October 29, 1998. This is because the House first sat on April 29, 1996. The Electoral Act requires that an election be held within 68 days of the dissolution, hence, whilst an election could be delayed until January, the most practical final date for a double dissolution election is sometime in late November or early December. It is difficult to see a double dissolution election being held later than December 12.
Malcolm Farnsworth
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