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.