The double dissolution election

Did it work?

by Erin Maclean

The 2016 federal election is, after a monumental eight-week campaign, finally behind us — and yet we do not know the outcome of many Upper and Lower House seats that remain too close to call. While the numbers are still changing, as the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) continues to count postal and absentee votes, it seems either major party may be able to form government in the weeks ahead.

While Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is confident the Coalition will once again form a majority government, the most likely outcome is a hung parliament. A hung parliament occurs where no party secures the necessary 76 seats in the Lower House and must instead negotiate an alliance with crossbenchers.

Should Turnbull and his party win the election overall, the enormous swing against the Coalition — resulting in the loss of as many as 20 seats across the nation — is hardly a convincing victory.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten (Photo: Ross Caldwell, CC BY SA 4.0) and Prime Minister of Australia Malcolm Turnbull (Photo: Clydell Kinchen, CC BY 2.0)

It would seem, that Turnbull’s calling of an early election has been a largely, a failure. In particular, his push for a double dissolution (DD) based on the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) and the Registered Organisations bills has only made life more difficult Turnbull and the Coalition.

The pretense for a double dissolution

Double dissolutions have a tendency to backfire. Of the six previous times in Australian political history that the Upper and Lower Houses have been simultaneously dissolved, the triggering governments have twice lost their majorities in the House of Representatives.

This is a definite possibility for Turnbull’s government, but losing a majority is not the only measure of the strategy’s success or failure.

The basic premise of this DD was to pass the two triggering bills that had been blocked by the Senate — either by having a more amenable Senate elected, or in a joint sitting of both houses. Based on the AEC’s current numbers, the Coalition will be well short of achieving the required support in either situation. Thus, the very reason Australia went to the polls early has collapsed.

Of course, the reason for the double dissolution was barely raised during the election campaign. Despite Turnbull’s recent insistence that the DD was not about clearing out the hostile Senate’s large crossbench, this certainly seemed to be the case at the time — especially after his Senate reform, which made it harder for independents or smaller parties to claim a seat.

In this respect, Turnbull’s DD has failed. There were 18 senators on the crossbench prior to the double dissolution, and it appears just as many will be returned in the new Senate. This includes an estimated nine senators for the Greens, a handful for Nick Xenophon’s Team and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, as well as the Jacqui Lambie Network and Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party.

This eclectic mix will make passing legislation hard for whichever party forms government, but this crossbench chaos is not, in itself, a problem — in fact, a diversity of voices on the can aid democracy and allow the Senate to act, as many Australians like, as a House of Review.

Prime Minister Turnbull must have been unaware of these risks. There was plenty of speculation before the election, even before the DD was called, that the move may backfire. The opinion polls suggested a tight contest and, even with the reforms to the Senate, the DD almost halves the Senate quotas, making it much easier for independents like Hinch and Lambie to grow the crossbench.

This almost guaranteed the Coalition would come out of the election with some losses and a stronger need to negotiate legislation, including key bills like the ABCC. Unfortunately, negotiation has not been a strength of the Coalition government over the past three years.

Negotiating with the crossbenchers

During Tony Abbott’s time as prime minister, he seemed shocked that he had to negotiate with the crossbenchers in the Senate — even though a hostile Senate is very common in Australian politics. He notoriously called them “feral” and avoided discussions with them, leading The Australian to suggest that “perhaps Tony Abbott just isn’t any good at politics”.

Just weeks before he was replaced by Turnbull in September’s leadership spill, Abbott was criticised for “policy paralysis”. His government was considered the slowest in five decades, with only 262 bills passed in its first 700 days. Abbott also amassed a number of double dissolution triggers — and was prepared to set up others — in his short time as prime minister.

When Turnbull replaced Abbott, it was hoped productivity would improve. It didn’t. “Do-nothing Mal” was considered even less productive than Abbott, supposedly passing just 21 bills in his first six months as prime minister. This ultimately led to the DD, after Turnbull was heavily criticised for “failing to negotiate” with the Senate on the ABCC legislation.

Yet, the Coalition had a strong majority in the House of Representatives in this term — a luxury the incoming government is unlikely to have, and a hung parliament likely to make negotiating more difficult.

Nevertheless, Julia Gillard successfully formed minority government in 2010 through the cooperation of the crossbenchers. She then, despite the minefield of the Upper and Lower Houses, became the most productive prime minister in Australia’s history, passing 561 government bills during her time in the top job. Many of these bills were mundane government business. But she did pass key reforms, like the Gonski education funding, price on carbon, National Broadband Network and National Disability Insurance Scheme (which started rolling out across the country on July 1).

While some of these reforms were later overturned by Abbott — indeed, his greatest legislative achievements were in undoing Gillard’s work — that does not negate Gillard’s impressive capacity to negotiate. Whomever may lead the new government could certainly learn from her example, as well as that from across the Tasman.

Professor Brad Jackson

Despite New Zealand’s political stability — with only two prime ministers in more than 15 years — the country has not had a majority government since the 1996 election. Professor Brad Jackson, from the Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Government, suggests New Zealand’s reputation for good governance comes from its emphasis on long-term thinking, building alliances and stewardship over leadership.

Turnbull does appear to be taking these lessons on board, talking in the final days of the campaign and since election night about collaboration, unity, compromise and bipartisanship — qualities he says Australians want.

Of course, with negotiation comes some risk. Turnbull was ousted as Opposition leader by Abbott when he was working with the Australian Labor Party on an emissions trading scheme in 2009, so it is unlikely the hard-right of his party will appreciate attempts at meeting in the middle on some key issues.

The Coalition’s future

In that spirit, the perceived failure of the double dissolution has already bred rumours and rumblings of another leadership spill in the Coalition. While this is unlikely to eventuate while the Coalition is trying to form government, any negotiations with Labor, the Greens or other crossbenchers may only further put conservative party members offside.

Outspoken senator Cory Bernardi, for example, has laid much of the blame for the election “disaster” on the rebranding of the Liberal Party under Turnbull, which has supposedly alienated the party’s voters.

If a leadership challenge does not emerge, there is also the threat that conservatives may form another party entirely — something that has been speculated, but seemed unlikely to happen until news broke yesterday that Cory Bernardi was in talks to break away from the Liberal Party.

A fourth political force may also serve Australians well by shifting the government’s focus towards fluid negotiations between parties. Imagine a Liberal-National minority government working with Labor and the Greens on environmental policy, but then cooperating with Bernardi’s conservatives on, say, free trade agreements or national security. Imagine bipartisan (or even tripartisan) support on legislation, so each change of government does not cause the productivity drain associated with the scrapping of policies.

There would, in theory, never be a more exciting time to be an Australian.



Erin is a freelance journalist and PhD student at Griffith University.

Erin specialises in news media depictions of popular culture, but is particularly interested in the way media framing affects public perception and politics.

In her spare time, she runs her own video gaming blog for women at LadyGameBug.

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