Perhaps it is just a Freudian slip that so many journalists and commentators refer to the possibility of a double dissolution election as a “double disillusion”. There is, after all, quite a lot of disillusion about in contemporary Australia.
Five months after Tony Abbott was replaced as prime minister by Malcolm Turnbull, little has changed with respect to the relationship between the House of Representatives and the Senate. If Labor and Greens senators vote against legislation, then the government needs the support of six out of eight independent or micro party members of the upper house.
During the early years of the Coalition government, the fashionable view in the Canberra Press Gallery was that Abbott lacked the skills required to negotiate deals with the Senate. This despite the fact that the Abbott government did get some of its controversial legislation through the Senate, including the abolition of the carbon and mining taxes.
Journalists hostile to Abbott, as many were, believed that a gentler kind of prime minister would be able to get a majority in the upper house. However, five months into Australia’s top political job, Turnbull has done no better than Abbott in the Senate. If anything, his success rate is lower than that of his predecessor.
This is not the new prime minister’s fault, just as the failure to strike deals in the Senate was not Abbott’s responsibility. Labor and the Greens are increasingly competing for support among the left-of-centre voters. Neither Opposition Leader Bill Shorten nor Greens leader Richard Di Natale is likely to bow to government demands that its legislation be passed. However, it happens on occasions. Most recently when Labor voted to support the Abbott government’s fuel excise increase.
But this is the exception, not the rule. For the most part, the Turnbull government needs the support of six out of eight crossbench senators. And it’s not working out all that well. Turnbull’s “tone” is friendlier to the independents and micro parties than that of Abbott. Moreover, the Prime Minister has improved office and staff facilities for The Eight.
These gestures have not made much difference. Former Palmer United Party senators Glenn Lazarus (Queensland) and Jacqui Lambie (Tasmania) invariably vote against the government on contentious legislation. The same is true, albeit to a somewhat lesser extent, of John Madigan (Victoria) and Ricky Muir (Victoria).
The high-profile Nick Xenophon (South Australia) also tends to oppose government legislation on contentious issues. He has established a political party which is hoping to win some Liberal Party-held seats in and near Adelaide and to increase its Senate representation.
This leaves the Palmer United Party’s Dio Wang (Western Australia) along with Family First’s Bob Day (South Australia) and the Liberal Democrats’ David Leyonhjelm (NSW) as the senators most likely to support the Coalition in the Senate. Three is a long way short of the six senators Turnbull needs to get legislation passed in the face of opposition from Labor and the Greens.
This week, with the prospect of the government’s legislation to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission being defeated again in the Senate, the Prime Minister was quoted as having told his colleagues that a double dissolution was a “live option”. This is not the first occasion when Turnbull has been said to have made such a threat.
There is not much point blustering on about a double dissolution unless there is a real intention to follow up on the threat if circumstances remain the same. Sure, there are difficulties to any such process. Yet maybe this is what is needed to change the extant culture in the Senate.
Of the eight senators, only Madigan is due for re-election in a normal election for the House of Representatives and half the Senate, currently scheduled for later this year. Without a double dissolution, the terms of the remaining independent senators will not expire until mid-2020. It is likely that the number of independents/micro party senators will increase after mid-2017.
It is true that in a double dissolution the quota for election halves since there are twice the number of vacancies. In other words, the quotas halve not only for independents and micro parties but also for the major parties and the Greens. If Turnbull is as popular as the opinion polls indicate, then the Coalition would be expected to score a high primary vote. This would result in it obtaining many quotas.
It is also true that, due to requirements of the Constitution, a double-dissolution election in the first half of 2016 would necessitate an election for half the Senate in early 2018. So what? A double dissolution would have the advantage of telling independent and micro party senators that their votes have consequences. Any double dissolution in early 2016 would probably lead to quite a few of The Eight exiting the Senate well before their terms are due to expire. This would send out the message that votes in the Senate have consequences at the polls.
There is a precedent for such drastic action on the right-of-centre of Australian politics. Robert Menzies led the Liberal Party to victory in December 1949 but Labor retained a Senate majority. When Labor showed signs of blocking the Coalition’s deregulatory banking legislation, Menzies went to the governor-general, Sir William McKell, and obtained a double dissolution despite the fact that the legislation was delayed not defeated.
The tactic worked. In April 1951, Menzies achieved a majority in both houses. Yes, the House of Representatives and the Senate went out of sync. Consequently, there was a half Senate election in May 1953 and an election for the House of Representatives only in May 1954. Menzies called an early election in December 1955, thereby returning the House and Senate elections to the same day. The Coalition governed continuously between December 1949 and December 1972. The fact is that Menzies’ tactic worked in 1951. It is most unlikely that Turnbull will “do a Menzies” this year. But this ploy is worth serious consideration. If only to assuage the disillusionment that the current Senate deadlock is good for Australia.