Double Dissolution Could Crush Shorten And Labor

PROPERLY EXECUTED, a double dissolution could be the Abbott government’s trump card this year; after a ministerial reshuffle, policy adjustments, and changes at the Prime Minister’s Office, proper consideration should be given to one. To do so, a line must be ruled under the political malfunction of 2014: the question is whether too much self-inflicted damage has already been done for such a bold scheme to be successfully carried out.

I guess it’s ironic, just a few days after pointedly noting that I usually decline to telegraph my ideas about political strategy through this column, that I am now about to do precisely that; this is, however, an idea I initially raised (to much derision) last year, and which now becomes exponentially more viable as an item in the government’s arsenal in view of the “reset” it has attempted to undertake over the past month.

But the option of the Coalition calling the bluff of the forces ranged against it in the Senate — and calling a double dissolution election in the process — is one that has resurfaced in recent weeks, and with The Australian‘s Peter Brent writing about it in yesterday’s paper I think it timely to renew and update my thinking on a course of action that should never have been so easily dismissed, nor so comprehensively trashed through political torpor.

At the end of the day, it’s better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. And make no mistake, the government right now — politically — remains hobbled.

Last time I tried to talk this idea through I was howled down: the Coalition’s polling numbers were in the toilet, readers said; Tony Abbott will never win another election courtesy of Joe Hockey’s dud budget, they chortled. And a double dissolution? Far from increasing the government’s Senate stocks, some thundered, what I advocated was a mere recipe to squander them.

There is one fundamental truth in sentiment of that nature: if the Abbott government exhibits the same degree of policy stupidity and political ineptitude that marked its almost terminal flirtation with political mortality in 2014, any election it fights — double dissolution or otherwise — will see the Coalition reduced to a smoking cinder on the opposition benches when the time comes, and I am yet to hear a syllable of convincing argument to the contrary from any government figure publicly or, to the very limited extent I have been spending time at Liberal Party events of late, privately either.

What I am going to talk about this morning is (rather obviously) reliant on the government rediscovering its political mojo: on that score we will wait and see, although quite clearly I am, like millions of the Liberal voters this government has disappointed to date, very much hoping this occurs.

I am going to discuss firstly the mechanics of a double dissolution election as they apply to what I have in mind; and secondly — in broad but stark terms that can be filled in later if need be — the strategy that I think should be utilised this year with a double dissolution being one potential storyline that may be followed.

First things first — the one assumption I make in everything to do with Senate elections from this point onward concerns the Senators from the territories, whose terms are concurrent with that of the House of Representatives: for the purposes of today’s article (and from abject refusal to be diverted down tangential alleyways for the entertainment of readers opposed to the Coalition) these will be assumed to always split 2-2 between the Liberal Party and the ALP.

In electoral terms, the basis to my thinking is pretty straightforward.

At a normal half-Senate election for six Senators in each state, the quota (i.e. the percentage of the vote a candidate must accrue, either directly or through the progressive distribution or “transfer” of votes through preferences, in order to be elected) is about 14.3%; at a double dissolution — an election for all seats across both houses of Parliament — that quota is halved (to roughly 7.7%) on account of the same number of votes in each state electing double the number of Senators.

The quota is determined by dividing the total percentage of votes available (obviously, 100%) by the number of vacancies — plus one — to be filled (7 or 13, depending on whether a half or full Senate election is at hand) to arrive at the percentage of the vote that must be acquired for election. In the interests of keeping it simple (and avoiding tangents, of course) we’re not going to look behind the reasons this is how elections to the Senate are conducted today but be assured — as ghastly and abhorrent as proportional representation is — that this formula is correct.

(If at any stage I lose anyone and they need clarification, post a comment or email/phone me if I know you personally — there are no “stupid questions” when it comes to understanding this stuff. In fact, I’m dumbing this part down as far as I can to try to keep it simple, but even so 🙂  ).

Generally, usually, broadly speaking (insert butt-covering platitude here) each state sees its six Senate spots split 3-3 between the Left and the Right at a half-Senate election; in 2004 the Howard government won a Senate majority after carrying half the Senate overall in 2001, by rolling into this the 2004 result that saw it win 19 of the 36 Senate spots up for grabs across the six states: the difference being a fourth Coalition Senator from Queensland, the former Liberal Senator Russell Trood (and not Barnaby Joyce, as National Party mythology and Joyce himself would have people believe).

To win that fourth spot at a half-Senate election, the Coalition in 2004 had to accrue four quotas — about 57.2% of the vote — which it managed to do off a 44.8% Senate primary vote in Queensland; obviously such a big tally is difficult to assemble, is confined to landslide election results (which 2004 also was) and was aided in part by the residual votes of both One Nation and a separate Pauline Hanson ticket collectively securing another 8% of the primary vote in Hanson’s home state, most of which transferred to the Coalition.

A 57.2% final Senate vote in any state is hard to get at the best of times, requiring as it does four whole quotas.

But to win seven of 12 spots at a double dissolution requires 53.9% — seven times the halved quota — and just like Howard did in 2004 thanks to Queensland, a government that can muster seven spots in a single state and six in all of the others will still emerge from such an election with control of the Senate.

Were it not for the presence of Palmer United Party tickets in WA* and Queensland in 2013, it is likely that Tony Abbott would have taken four Senators from both of those states at the half-Senate elections conducted there; similarly, had Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm not drawn the far-left column on the NSW Senate ballot paper, it’s plausible to believe the Coalition would have taken a fourth spot there as well.

When I first raised this idea back in June — with Coalition support making (an ultimately short-lived) recovery from the horrid 2014 budget, with a double dissolution trigger already in hand, and with the Senate crossbench already making threats against the government despite some of its members not having even commenced their terms — my thinking was that if the Coalition were to hold a double dissolution to face down obstruction in the upper house, all it would need to do is win six spots in five states and find a seventh in perhaps Queensland or WA.

What we now know, of course, is that having botched the 2014 budget in unbelievably spectacular fashion, the government has since also botched the politics of its aftermath just as badly.

Yet just as a double dissolution makes it easier in theory for minor party Senators to retain their spots on account of the lower quotas, the government gets the same advantage to either maintain its existing numbers or to win control, although winning six spots per state is made modestly more difficult: thus, even if the objective changes from attempting to win a Senate majority to simply seeking to maintain and strengthen its standing whilst flushing the likes of the Palmer United Party out of Canberra, the total Senate votes required falls for the government just as it does for the bit players.

The additional consideration — if a double dissolution fails to deliver control of the Senate to the Coalition — is that the Constitution allows for a joint sitting of both houses of Parliament after such an election to consider the bill(s) used to trigger it in the first place; and as Brent notes, the Abbott government will lose ground in the lower house anyway when next it faces voters, if current polls are any guide.

In this sense, and given the Coalition presently holds just 33 of the 76 Senate positions, even two or three extra Senators at a double dissolution could make the difference to Abbott being able to pass his bills or not at a joint sitting of Parliament.

Those 33 Senators crudely average out at five spots per state — an outcome that would be achieved at a double dissolution with 38.5% of the eventual vote in each state, something the Coalition should easily achieve even in Victoria and SA, which polls show have turned on it savagely — and with all of the remaining states offering a realistic possibility of the 46.4% Coalition pile needed to secure six, it’s easy to see that even if some of the crossbenchers manage to get re-elected, the Coalition can firm up its position too.

So the mechanism is there: risky, of course, but it could certainly work if adroitly handled and properly executed.

The option of calling a double dissolution is (and should be seen as) a big stick that threatens the cosy sinecures occupied by the likes of the Palmer United Party — which exists purely to wreck conservative governments — or the insidious Ricky Muir, elected with half a percentage point of the vote in Victoria thanks to the ghastly vagaries of proportional voting.

And it offers in my view the best implement right now with which to puncture the “momentum” Labor seems to think it is enjoying, and to wipe the goofy grin off the face of its alleged “leader” Bill Shorten, who judged on substance alone isn’t fit to be elected as Prime Minister.

But to do it would call for a tightly disciplined, well-executed political strategy, backed by a rock-solid budget effort from Hockey and a singular, ruthless theme from the Coalition in the year ahead.

In short, it runs as follows:

  • IMMEDIATELY abandon what’s left of Hockey’s 2014 budget; the supply bills (money to fund the daily operation of government and existing legislated obligations) have already been passed. There is no point persisting with the remainder, which in any case has already punched a $30 billion hole in the government’s finances as intended savings remain blocked. In trying to reset itself the government has already undertaken certain actions that were explicitly ruled out days beforehand; the ministerial reshuffle is a case in point. Junking the detritus from a poor budget isn’t going to do the Coalition anywhere near the political damage persisting with it will.
  • REVISIT the “debt and deficits” theme that was so well prosecuted from opposition. Make the case — ensuring that its finer points are hammered home until the electorate is sick of hearing them — clearly yet comprehensively. Enlist outside help if it’s appropriate, such as the voice of former Treasurer Peter Costello. Dust off the report of the government’s own Commission of Audit and saturate public discourse with its findings (which should have been done this time last year, but wasn’t). Demolish Labor’s beloved “international standards” comparisons, for example, by talking about how many years of $50 billion deficits it will take to end up a basket case like some of the countries in Europe that the ALP solemnly vowed could never see their reflections in Australia. Talk about the decline in government revenues explicitly, drawing on the specifics of the fall in commodity prices, increased spending on social measures introduced under Labor, and ram the reality home that unless it all changes, and the budget is fixed, the whole thing will come crashing down around the heads of voters’ children and grandchildren.
  • CRAFT a real emergency budget, and forget about spreading the pain around so everyone “has a hand” in it: this silly slogan simply meant the government’s enemies were provided ammunition and headlines to attack it with, whilst its supporters — disproportionately-targeted Coalition voters in marginal seats — simply deserted it. This time, the budget must cut hard and cut deep, with nothing except Health and Defence expenditure quarantined. The government gets one “second chance” only to get this right. If Hockey fucks this year’s budget up as badly as last year’s (and yes, I did say that) there will be no third chance, for eventual electoral defeat will become almost guaranteed, and any sweeteners offered in 2016 to try to stave it off would rightly be viewed by a cynical electorate as the final blow to the government’s credibility.
  • FASHION the sales strategy — my door is open on this score — but sending government ministers out to “sell” indefensible policies that target their own support base, with no apparent sales and marketing smarts whatsoever, is akin to sending lambs out to slaughter.
  • DO NOT DEAL with Clive Palmer and — in truth — don’t bother with the rest of the crossbench either: dealing with Palmer is a lose-lose proposition; if his support is not forthcoming bills have been voted down to date, but when they have passed they have come with strings and conditions and sweeteners that still blow multi-billion dollar holes in the budget. Palmer is not the Coalition’s friend; he is their bitter (and sworn) enemy, irrespective of what charm or empty rhetoric he deploys behind a closed door. As for the rest of the Senate, anything that can’t be passed with no more than minor amendments that don’t derail the intended impact of the bills (or compromise their intended savings) should be allowed to be defeated, re-introduced three months later in original form, and defeated a second time to accrue as many double dissolution triggers as possible. These will be needed at a joint sitting if the new Hockey budget is to be passed after a double dissolution.
  • THE PUBLIC STORY must convey two core messages: one, the debt/deficits narrative and the consequences of inaction, along with the tough but necessary plan from the Coalition to fix it once and for all; and two, it must be made clear — as a veiled but potent threat, perhaps, but an unmistakable intention no less — that having tried compromise and been shafted (and refusing to meekly surrender a second time after ditching the dregs of last year’s effort), this time the Senate has two choices: pass the budget or face a double dissolution.

If this is handled properly — drawing on every genuinely meaningful resource at its disposal — I believe the government can puncture the Senate obstruction it has been bullied with, bring the voting public squarely back on side, stare down the finger shakers and the outrage merchants and the pedlars of rhetoric about “cruelty” and “inhumanity” and “unfairness,” and prevail at either a regular election in 2016 or a double dissolution later this year if such an option becomes necessary.

Speaking of that, a final consideration: a double dissolution cannot be held within the last six months of a term of Parliament on account of constitutional considerations; whilst that still leaves, say, February 2016 open as an election option, realistically all of this would have to happen this year.

If nothing changes, and things in the area of budget policy continue to be done as they have been thus far, the Abbott government will indeed become a one-term wonder; Labor, which arguably is responsible for most of the mess it now refuses to allow the Coalition to clean up, will simply slither back into office, harnessing votes generated from the remedial measures it thwarted that were designed to fix up the disaster it presided over in the first place.

Such an outcome would be perverse, grotesque, and make it almost impossible to undertake any serious subsequent adventure in budget repair; under Labor, new and unsustainable spending would simply rocket — it always does — and any future Coalition government that tried to make amends would simply be crucified, as Abbott’s now risks being.

There is much at stake. The first attempt hasn’t worked, and it’s time to try again: something new, a different approach, and a big bold exercise in doing what many — especially its enemies in Canberra — least expect.

The train wreck of dealing with Senate crossbenchers and its inevitable consequences might make for riveting media coverage, but it misses the point that whilst the Coalition has many enemies in Canberra, its ultimate adversary is Labor: and unless it retrieves its position and focuses on achieving what it was elected to do, it will be Labor that emerges victorious from all of this.

Get this right, and Abbott and Hockey can crush Shorten and Labor, perhaps yet consigning them to another decade in opposition.

But with the clock ticking on the double dissolution option, they had better get their skates on.


*I’m not diverting down the tangent of the repeated Senate election in WA either. The fact is that whilst the support was there — at least on 7 September — the Coalition didn’t win those seats. The example is merely to illustrate the point.


13 thoughts on “Double Dissolution Could Crush Shorten And Labor

  1. Queensland’s 2015 state election results will prove a very strong factor in any the strategy our Federal Government adopts with regard to a DD…..interesting.

  2. Good article. I generally agree. We must emphasize the necessity of putting the policies to the senate twice and making them Double dissolution triggers. The government must understand that standing for their principles (such as getting rid of 18c) and getting defeated in the Senate doesn’t make them losers it makes them appear principled and honest. Not putting their policies to the senate makes them look like cowards. Having the triggers allows them to point to the Senate obstruction with a lot more chance of being taken seriously whether or not the DD ever takes place.
    They must negotiate with Palmer, the greens and the devil himself if necessary to try to get things passed. Not negotiating makes it look like you are not trying.
    Budget wise their “Key Performance Indicator” must be reducing their spending in 2015 (not next decade) to a level that is noticeably less than the spending budgeted by Wayne Swan for 2015. Until they reduce their spending (not balance the budget by increasing taxes) no-one; not the Labor Party, nor the media nor their own supporters will take them seriously.

  3. My only doubt with these tactics is the low quota required for a DD. There is no guarrantee we would be free of Lambie or the brick with eyes and there is the new Nic Xenophon party to consider as well. The bills that were knocked back will pass but after that the new Senate could be even worse than the one we have now.
    As for changes to the budget and spending cuts, I can’t see the current team prosecuting such a strategy. For a start they would need to come clean and inform the public that they haven’t actually cut any spending to date, but now they are going to start. Good luck with that.

    Some things they should have already done:

    Get rid of the Albosleaze shipping regulations where it is cheaper to ship goods from China than the other side of Australia.
    Get rid of the Gillard 25% pay increase to childcare workers and junk the awful PPL.
    Tell the ATO to desist in it’s jihad against self-employed workers.
    Get rid of penalty rates for restaurants and the like. $75 an hour for a waitperson on weekends is ridiculous.
    There are something like 10 commissioners sitting on the Fair Work scam. Are at least half of them Coalition friendlies? If not, why not?
    Start a conversation about productivity. Use the SA shipyards and show that union run industries are actually killing those industries with unsustainably low productivity just like the car industry.
    Most of all: Get out in the media and prosecute your strategy like you mean it.

    • Adding to your list. Get rid of family tax benefits. You want children – good for you – tax payers should not pay for them. No government will do this as they are all cowards.

  4. With two elections – NSW and QLD there is a risk for the government in having a DD. Going to the polls is like having root canal therapy. As stated the timing of a DD election is critical, but Abbott should not forget the protest vote in having a federal election in among two state elections

  5. The issue will be courage and belief. If no-one believes in Abbott no amount of tough speaking from another party member will give credence for the call to austerity. If I tell you I have to shoot your dog because it eats too much, has huge vet bills, bites people for no comprehensible reason, has moments of insanity and barks at anything you would probably say that is not enough reason. But if I add that if we don’t shoot it there is a good chance that every little pooch on the street will become infected with the same condition, chances are you will swallow the bitter pill and agree. The moral is that to accept financial pain we have to know, really know, really understand that not to will create devastation for something we love like our children or grandchildren. That message has to be irrefutable and able to withstand all rebuttals. So the question; is there someone in the Party that anyone, no matter what their political leanings could believe and what is the irrefutable financial scenario that can address any scrutiny? A DD is not magic bullet to sideline the small parties indeed if the options within the Majors are not attractive you might well increase the fragmentation, the issue is to have the right person with the right message at the right time. Well have they? Succession is not looking positive, there is no shining wannabe in the crosshairs that I can see. If it going to come from the Liberals it will be someone who can preach, not party dogma, but genuine and believable common sense and be happy to share the pain between every person, business and corporation.

  6. If the Coalition wish to win the next election they need to start distancing themselves from certain sections of the media, and the need to stop trying to garner votes from the other side, it isn’t going to happen.

    Abandon any notion of tolerating the ALP/Green propaganda arm that is the ABC, boycott it, same with Fairfax, ignore them, starve them of access. The focus on how you’re delivering your message, to this end the Coalition need to move beyond the stunted 1950s model of media management and work on undoing the harm to the brand done in the last year.

    It needs to then go hard on the paint, it needs to get the red ink out, lots of it, and start drawing lines through whole departments, literally hand back to the states every single item of state responsibility and give us the tax savings that will create.

    It might not win them the election, but it’ll make sure that any future Labor Government understands that anything they do will be undone the moment they leave office.

  7. I consider the swipe at David Leyonhjelm a low blow. I have listened to his addresses to the senate and so far as I am concerned he is the only pollie in Canberra that consistently makes sense. We need more David Leyonhjelms; not less.

    • Hold on karabar – I didn’t take “a swipe” at Leyonhjelm; merely observed that had he not drawn pole position on the ballot paper, his spot would in all probability gone to the Liberals.

      I should point out that there has never been negative criticism of Leyonhjelm in this column; Nick Xenophon either, despite the fact he’s a bit too much of a leftie for my blood. There’s a distinction between substantial candidates (irrespective of political stripe) and shitheads like the Greens, Muir and Lambie; and those minor party candidates of substance can still be observed as such despite the overall obscenity the election method used in the Senate amounts to.

      But I suspect you already knew I thought that 🙂

  8. I think that the majority of voters understand that the senate system of election is broken. Labor has a vested interest in maintaining the chaos because being generally less principled they regard anything to garner minority support as being a price worth paying to get and retain power. Most of us know that this has resulted in government for the minority at the expense of the majority. A great bill to go to a double dissolution would be one which seeks to fix this mess up again. We know it would not get up in the senate but if the libs then had a mandate for this, they would have the nation’s enduring gratitude. Way to go!!

  9. Do the current crop have the courage to adopt this approach? For the sake of our children I hope so. I agree with previous comments regarding the need to bypass sections of the media who are only interested in gotcha moments and getting the latest episode of feigned outrage from the Greens/ALP. I unfortunately have friends and relatives that constantly regurgitate the garbage that is reported on our national broadcaster as fact. When I hear them it makes me wonder how things are ever going to change.

    Why hasn’t there been a purge of institutions like the HRC and FWA? Seeing the back of the likes of Gillian Triggs would bring a smile to every coalition supporter. Stop sucking up to your enemies and start looking after your friends.

    • They forget that the enemy never sleeps, that the enemy will do whatever it takes to win, and the fact that Coalition appears to believe that by playing nice it’ll entice a few of the enemy to jump ship. That is utterly delusional, the enemy now smell blood in the water and will now only fight harder to finish them off.

      Ever conservative and every conservative politician should make it their life’s mission to annihilate those on the left and do whatever it takes to do that, because, the reverse is the reality, every person on the left sees those on the right as an enemy to be disposed of in order to achieve their ideologically mandated goals of destroying every last vestige of nationalism and conservatism.

  10. It’s not plausible that the Coalition would have won 4 NSW Senate seats in 2013 without Leyonhjelm’s lucky ballot draw. The Coalition got 34.2% of the votes and Leyonhjelm got 9.5%. If Leyonhjelm hadn’t drawn the first column on the ballot paper, most of his votes would have gone to the Coalition, giving them roughly 43%. That’s almost exactly 3 quotas, and not many minor parties were directing preferences to the Coalition, so they wouldn’t have got to 4 quotas.

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