This week, the Senate struck down a bill from the Abbott Government for the second time. The legislation, to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, was blocked by a combination of Labor and the Greens. As a result, the government now has the ability to call a double dissolution election, should it so wish.
Assuming it does so wish. It almost certainly doesn’t. Behind in the polls in the wake of Joe Hockey’s hugely unpopular budget, the Coalition would seem to have little inclination to drag votes back to the ballot box any time soon.
Is there any political tactic less plausible than the double dissolution? It’s the solute that never dissolves.
Section 57 of the Australian Constitution gives the Governor-General, taking advice from the government of the day, the option of dissolving both houses of Parliament and calling fresh elections. But this can only happen if a bill that has been passed by the House of Representatives has been voted down by the Senate twice. The framers of the Constitution intended the provision as a way of resolving deadlocks between the two chambers.
There hasn’t been a double dissolution election since 1987, when Bob Hawke called one, ostensibly over the issue of the “Australia Card”, a controversial national identity card opposed by privacy advocates (Remember when privacy issues were important enough to dominate national politics? No, me neither.)
In fact, the real reason that Hawke went to the double dissolution had nothing to do with legislation. It was because conservative politics was in disarray owing to a push for then-Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen to enter federal politics. Opposition leader John Howard was also in the midst of a nasty civil war with the forces of Andrew Peacock. As the Joh for Canberra push disintegrated, and with the Liberals and Nationals openly competing against one another across many seats, Labor was returned with an enhanced majority.
The history lesson reveals the essentially pragmatic and tactical nature of the double dissolution in Australian democracy. Governments rarely rely on the provision to pass controversial legislation that is being blocked in the Senate. Because calling one means the government could well lose office, storing up a “trigger” for a double dissolution is a handy piece of political theatre, but rarely anything more.
In 2010, for instance, Kevin Rudd was strongly considering calling a double dissolution over Labor’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, the first version of the two Rudd-Gillard attempts at pricing carbon emissions. Rudd had every right to call on an election on the issue: both Labor and the Coalition had campaigned on introducing an emissions trading scheme in 2007, only for the Coalition to block the legislation after losing the election.
The never-to-be double dissolution of 2010 looms as one of the great what-ifs of recent political history. Many think Rudd would have won an election in early 2010, had he chosen to fight Abbott on the issue of carbon. At the end of 2009, Rudd was ahead in the polls by a decent margin, and Abbott’s relentless assault on Labor’s very existence had only just begun.
But Rudd lost his nerve. Worried that Labor might lose, he decided against calling an early election, and instead embarked on a frenetic attempt to reform federal-state health funding arrangements. When Rudd abandoned his support of carbon pricing altogether in April 2010, support for Labor began to collapse. His fate was sealed by his ham-fisted attempt to introduce a mining tax, amidst scenes of internal chaos.
That’s the thing about double dissolutions. They’re a nuclear option. Spilling the entire Parliament early in a term implies a crisis of governance that leaves a stymied government with no other option. That wasn’t Labor’s situation in 2010, and it’s not Tony Abbott’s now.
On the other hand, nuclear options do make for handy deterrents. That’s why double dissolutions are often threatened by governments in office, who like to brandish the term as a kind of warning flag to recalcitrant senators. Abbott tried this on straight after the budget. Few in the minor parties seemed to care.
There’s a reason minor party senators don’t fret about double dissolutions: they’re good news for them. A double dissolution puts the entire Senate up for re-election. This means the quota required to win a Senate seat is half as big – only 7 per cent, as opposed to 14. In this scenario, minor parties like the Greens and the Palmer United Party could be expected to pick up extra seats. About the only thing Clive Palmer and Christine Milne share in common is the dream of a double dissolution.
Perhaps that’s why Julie Bishop said this week that “just because you are given a trigger, it doesn’t mean you have to pull it.” That’s sage council from the Deputy Liberal leader. Tony Abbott will no doubt acquire many triggers for a double dissolution election. Unless the Coalition pulls well ahead in the opinion polls, the Prime Minister won’t be pulling any of them.
As for the Clean Energy Finance Corporation? For now, it survives. On any sane view of Australian public policy, that’s a good thing.
The CEFC is one of the best aspects of Julia Gillard’s ill-fated carbon legislation. Not only does it encourage crucial early-stage investment in renewable energy and clean tech industries, it does so at a profit for the taxpayer. With a budget in deficit, and in an economy that has long showed clear market failures when it comes to early-stage renewable investment, the CEFC is a no-brainer. Only a government hell-bent on destroying every vestige of policy support for renewable energy and the environment would contemplate killing it off.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly the government Tony Abbott is heading. Expect further attempts to kill it when the new Senate takes office in July.
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