May 27, 2015

An early election?

By Malcolm Farnsworth
Be alert, but don’t hold your breath

Even before Tony Abbott’s government took office in 2013, speculation was rife about the possibility of a double-dissolution election in its first year. While the repeal of the carbon and mining taxes was delayed by the Senate, they ultimately passed and talk of an election receded.

Now, with the government steadying the ship after a rocky 2014, the election speculation is back. “Bring it on,” exclaim the Labor hopefuls, while Coalitionists look to “Tony’s tradies” as the potent electoral weapon.

Last week a radio reporter related the words of one of those necessarily anonymous parliamentary insiders who claimed an early election was upon us: “You can almost smell it.”

Perhaps. But we should have learned by now to be wary of media sensations. The voyeurs have a tendency to see things differently from the participants.

This week, for instance, it was reported that Abbott had visited nine marginal seats in six states since the budget was brought down. All but one had been won from Labor at the last two elections.

It’s easy to get excited about these visits, but PMs do this every year. “Selling the budget” is a time-honoured practice. Significantly, Abbott didn’t visit any marginal ALP electorates. Winning seats from the other side isn’t on the agenda yet.

Why would a prime minister “go early”? At a political level, taking advantage of favourable circumstances, especially disunity on the other side, is an obvious explanation. At the altruistic level, a government may wish to seek electoral endorsement for a particular policy, especially one that has encountered parliamentary – read “Senate” – opposition.

However, the choice is rarely that stark. And a “good budget” barely cuts it. Three-year terms and the grind of daily politics militate in favour of hanging in and seeing it through to the bitter end.

Recent prime ministers have had mixed success with early elections. Julia Gillard, fresh from toppling Kevin Rudd, rushed to the polls in August 2010, before she’d established her authority. “A good government had lost its way” quickly morphed into “the real Julia” and the government’s majority slipped away. We’ll never know what might have happened if she’d waited until the end of the year.

Twelve years earlier, in 1998, the youthful first-term government of John Howard was very nearly put to the sword in an election held six months early. Howard lost the popular vote, the ALP picked up 18 seats and the government’s majority fell from 40 to 12. The Coalition, if not its defeated MPs, would have judged the exercise worth it because ANTS – “A New Tax System” – became law and gave us the GST. No-one talked then of a broken political system unable to deliver reform, so perhaps it was more of an unalloyed success than it is often portrayed as.

But Howard never went early again. The elections of 2001, 2004 and 2007 followed full-term parliaments. And, faced with certain defeat in 2007, Howard found an extra month allowed by the Constitution. Just as you don’t go early if you’re not sure you’ll win, you hang in there if you’re convinced you’ll lose. After all, something might turn up.

The master of the early election was the Liberal Party’s founder, Sir Robert Menzies. Of the seven elections he called (1940, 1951, 1954, 1955, 1958, 1961 and 1963), three were early.

In 1951, just 16 months after winning office from Chifley with a 27-seat majority in a House of 121 members, Menzies went to a double dissolution on a piece of banking legislation. He was returned comfortably, losing just five seats in the House but winning an extra six – and a majority – in the Senate. Incumbency and an unwillingness by the electorate to reverse their most recent judgment no doubt played their part.

Menzies repeated the gambit in 1955. Faced with the ALP split that led to the creation of the DLP, Menzies cut his term in half and picked up eleven seats, taking his majority back to where it had started in 1949.

Having been brought to the brink of defeat in the credit squeeze election of 1961, Menzies again picked his moment and went a year early in 1963, campaigning on state aid, Labor’s “faceless men” and the US base at North West Cape. A week before the election, President Kennedy was assassinated. Menzies picked up 10 seats from the ALP and again revisited his 1949 majority.

Menzies electoral record was impressive, though some attribute it to the lacklustre quality of his opponents. But it cemented his reputation as an electoral genie.

It’s been 28 years since the most recent classic of the genre. Rather than wait until November or December of 1987, Bob Hawke went to the first July election in our history on the back of the “Joh for PM” campaign. Having split the Coalition, Queensland premier Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen made an early election irresistible for Hawke, who picked up 4 Coalition seats in Queensland and increased his government’s majority, even though the ALP’s primary and two-party-preferred votes fell.

Tony Abbott can only dream of circumstances of similar favourability. He might also keep in mind the celebrated failures.

The first early election was the double dissolution called by PM Joseph Cook in 1914. Cook had governed with a majority of one since defeating Labor’s Andrew Fisher in 1913. He also lacked a majority in the Senate. Much of his term was spent trying to establish the grounds for an early election. When it came, the outbreak of war saw the voters return resoundingly to Fisher. Cook, a former Labor man, ended his public career as High Commissioner to London.

Malcolm Fraser took an equally disastrous and misjudged gamble in 1983. With Bill Hayden’s leadership of the ALP under threat from Bob Hawke, Fraser sought to fight Hayden by going to an early poll. It was a shambles from day one. On the morning of the day Fraser chose to call the election, the ALP prevailed on Hayden to step aside in favour of Hawke. The governor-general, Sir Ninian Stephen, kept Fraser waiting and made him justify his request for a double dissolution. Bushfires derailed the campaign. Hawke swept all before him, although a “drover’s dog” could have won the election, Hayden lamented, with some justification.

Of the 44 House elections since 1901, 26 have been on time or within a few months of the expiry of three years. Another five (1903, 1917, 1977, 1984, 1990) have been held early or early-ish to ensure future synchronisation of House and Senate elections.

Of the 13 early elections, two (1929, 1931) resulted from the defeat of the government in the House. The 1974 election was held after the coalition parties threatened to block supply, while in 1975 they did hold up supply until the governor-general intervened.

In the other nine early elections (1914, 1919, 1951, 1955, 1963, 1983, 1987, 1998, 2010), the government of the day was returned in seven. Abbott might be impressed by that record, but who really believes that history repeats?

There is little doubt that Abbott will have contemplated a double dissolution later this year. A victory in the House could be matched with a Senate minus the feral crossbenchers who have so bedevilled him thus far, a prospect with enormous appeal.

At the practical level, a double dissolution in the first half of next year would throw the House and Senate elections out of kilter, necessitating a separate Senate election within two years, or an early joint election. Similarly, suggestions of a House-only election early next year overlook the fact that the Senate can’t be taken to an election until August 2016 at the earliest.

If it were done, ’twere well it were done quickly, but look at this week’s events. Cabinet leaks about a revolt over plans to strip radicalised youth of their citizenship. A treasurer thinking aloud on Q&A about the GST on tampons. Confusion over an iron ore inquiry. Problems still in the Senate with parental leave and university funding. This isn’t really a government ready to face its voting masters.

The other possible early election – in the Liberal party-room – has also receded.

A simple truth usually applies. Elections are already too damned hard to win, too costly and logistically traumatic without calling them every other year. Better to just get on with it. Abbott might do it – he’s the shock and awe type, after all – but don’t hold your breath.

Malcolm Farnsworth

Malcolm Farnsworth publishes

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