Will We Go To The Polls Early?


In the wake of the federal budget, Tony Abbott’s Opposition has been calling for an early federal election. Of course, it isn’t uncommon for oppositions to demand we go to the polls early, but these demands are usually ignored because in most parliaments the prime minister has sole authority to make this call.

However, things get complicated when the government lacks a majority in the House of Representatives. So under what circumstances could there be an early election in the current parliament?

In short, it could only happen if the Government were to lose the support of the House of Representatives — or if Julia Gillard herself decided to call it early.

Following the 2010 federal election, Gillard reached agreement with Greens MP Adam Bandt and three independents — Andrew Wilkie, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott — to support the Government in confidence motions and to pass the budget. Along with 72 Labor MPs, these four crossbenchers give Labor 76 seats in the 150-seat House. In exchange Gillard agreed to provide access for the independents and Greens and certain policy concessions.

There are two main ways that Gillard could lose the support of the House. Some of the crossbenchers who currently support the Government could withdraw their support. Alternatively, the Coalition or an independent could win a by-election in a Labor-held seat, changing the numbers in the House of Representatives. If either of these things happened, the Opposition could move a motion of no confidence in the Government that, if successful, would produce a defeat for the Government in the House. The Government could also be defeated on the budget or another similar measure.

If the Government were to be defeated, the Prime Minister would need to go to the Governor-General. She would have the option of either asking for an early election or advising the Governor-General to ask the Opposition Leader to form a new government.

In the scenario that the Prime Minister was to call an early election after losing a vote in the House, it becomes very unclear as to how the Governor-General should act. The Governor-General could refuse the Prime Minister’s advice and seek out the Leader of the Opposition to attempt to form a new government, particularly if the parliament is early in its term and there seems to be the option to form an alternative government.

Were the Governor-General to call on Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader to form a new government, he would be then faced with the opportunity to form a government that could command the support of the House. If he was unable to do so it would likely result in a new election. If Abbott did form a government he would then have the prerogative to call a new election.

If an early election were to be called, it would almost certainly be only for the House of Representatives, not the Senate. A regular half-Senate election cannot be called until July 2013. The Senate could only go to the polls prior to that time in the case of a double dissolution election. This would require a deadlock to be created between the two houses.

As it stands, the potential for deadlock is in the House, not in the Senate. Considering that the Greens have an agreement with the Government in the House of Representatives, and they have a solid hold on the Senate balance of power, it is unlikely that a double dissolution trigger could be created that would result in an early election for the entire parliament.

Were an election to be called for the House of Representatives (along with the four territory senators, whose terms run parallel to House terms), it would knock the two houses’ elections out of sync. The Menzies government called an early House-only election in 1963 to solidify its slim majority. This resulted in House and Senate elections being held separately throughout the 1960s, with the two houses only being synchronised at the 1974 election.

House-only elections are usually avoided as they result in Senate elections becoming massive midterm elections where voters can punish a government without changing who is in power. It is also a boon to minor parties who would get more exposure in a campaign for the Senate alone. It would also double the number of federal elections and substantially increase the cost of elections, both for the Electoral Commission and political parties.

In federal politics, there hasn’t been an early election caused by a hung parliament since 1929, and there hasn’t been a mid-term change of government since 1941, when the Labor Party’s John Curtin replaced Arthur Fadden of the Country Party as Prime Minister. No election was held until 1943. There has been much more recent experience of hung parliaments when you look at Australia’s states and territories.
There has been a surge of hung parliaments in Australia over the last two decades, with 17 hung parliaments in all states and territories.

Most of these parliaments ended up lasting close to a full term with a single government, but there have been exceptions. In Queensland in 1995 the Goss Labor government won a one-seat majority. The result in the seat of Mundingburra was overturned by the courts after the Labor candidate won by 16 votes, and the 1996 by-election was won by the Liberal Party candidate. This produced an even split between the Labor Party and the National-Liberal coalition, and the sole independent supported the Coalition in government. The Labor government resigned and National Party leader Rob Borbidge formed a minority government without going to an election.

In Tasmania in 1996 the Liberal Party lost its majority. The party negotiated an agreement with the Greens, which saw Premier Ray Groom resign and be replaced by a new Liberal leader and premier. After two years of the Greens in the balance of power, the major parties struck a deal which saw the number of seats in the lower house reduced from 35 to 25 in an attempt to wipe out the Greens. Immediately after the Liberal minority government called an early election.

The immediate effect was the election of a majority Labor government, with the Greens losing three of their four seats. Thirteen years later, Tasmania has another hung parliament, now with five Greens, and the small Parliament has become a serious problem for Tasmanian politics, producing a very small gene pool for ministers and party leaders.

As it stands at the moment, it seems likely that the current federal parliament will run a full term. The Greens have made it clear that they don’t support going to an election before 2013. Tony Abbott appears to have given up on any hope of convincing Windsor, Oakeshott and Wilkie to switch over and support a Coalition government, and the Coalition are actively campaigning to win Windsor and Oakeshott’s seats at the next election.

Independent MPs representing parts of both Windsor and Oakeshott’s electorates lost their seats at the recent NSW state election and it seems likely that these two independents would be defeated if an early election were to be held — which should ensure that they continue to back Gillard.

The only plausible way that an early election could take place in this term is if the Coalition were to win a Labor seat at a by-election, undermining Labor’s majority in the House. Considering Abbott’s poisonous relationship with the crossbenches, such a change would probably make it impossible for any party to govern in the current parliament, and send us back to the polls early.


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