Double Dissolution Election Option Now An Opportunity Lost

A DOUBLE DISSOLUTION — properly considered, properly prepared and properly executed — is an option this column canvassed ten weeks ago as one that could crush Bill Shorten and Labor; talk of such an election now in Coalition circles does not satisfy these criteria: having made few internal changes of note and totally unready on policy, strategy and tactics, any attempt by the government to call one now would lead to certain defeat.

It’s a fairly straightforward post from me this morning, the usual midweek caveats around time constraints applying; in truth, I write today simply to round out a discussion chain that began back in early January, for what could have been the Abbott government’s nuclear weapon would likely explode in its own silo if the election chatter that has reached the press were to be acted upon.

Ten weeks ago, I wrote in this column that in attempting to gain some kind of control over Parliament, the political agenda and to rescue its sagging fortunes, a double dissolution election represented an option for the government that, properly executed, could bury Bill Shorten and the ALP: this article can be accessed here, and I strongly urge readers (including those who perused this piece when it was first posted) to do so again today.

Once people have read that, this article from the Fairfax press (I could as easily have used something from Murdoch) should be the next item on the reading list.

I am commenting on this issue today because quite clearly, the election speculation that has now found its way into the mainstream press could hardly be said to be founded on a process of proper consideration or planning; rather than being used as a tool to secure passage of a swathe of critical, efficacious and wide-ranging reforms, the imperative seems merely to be the all-or-nothing notion that if pushed into a choice, voters would re-elect Tony Abbott: immunising (for now) his leadership of the Liberal Party from future assault.

This — to be completely blunt — is a ridiculous proposition that would merit election defeat if attempted and, were the Coalition to embark on that particular course, would almost certainly reap precisely that consequence.

Fairfax (and again, we could be using a reference from one of the Murdoch titles: the points covered are the same) is reporting that the idea (said to have been dismissed by Cabinet) would be for Treasurer Joe Hockey to deliver his second budget in May, then have the government race off to an early election for both Houses of Parliament “to clear an obstructionist Senate.”

The idiotic perils posed by this formula literally begin right there, with the fact Hockey is able to deliver a second budget at all — and the fact he remains Treasurer after the pre-Christmas reshuffle that was so spectacularly botched — a political danger which, based on form to date, inspires little confidence that such a budget would even be electorally saleable, let alone whether any competent effort to sell it at all materialises in due course.

And the whole point of using a double dissolution to “clear an obstructionist Senate” is to pass a backlog of twice-rejected bills to engineer the passage of a government’s program into law: to this end, the only trigger open to the Abbott government is the rejection of a couple of measures peripheral to the abolition of the carbon tax last year.

Even if augmented, as chatter suggests, by a second rejection of the government’s higher education reforms, these two packets of legislation hardly constitute a rallying call for a second term, let alone offering a “crucial” set of reforms that would enshrine a substantial legacy for the government.

In the past couple of days I have noticed the January article on a double dissolution election starting to again attract reader traffic, and this has partially motivated the decision to revisit the subject this morning.

And whilst I stand by the case it contains — as posted in January, and reflective of events and circumstances as they stood ten weeks ago — I must point out that few (if any) of the preconditions set out in it have been met.

The government has not walked away from those measures from Hockey’s budget that have failed to pass the Senate, ruled off underneath last year’s shocker and moved to start from scratch; indeed, every time Abbott, Hockey and their colleagues declare their determination to implement those politically toxic initiatives, they merely reinforce the inclination of voters to desert the government at the ballot box.

To the extent any attempt has been made to recast the case for tough remedial budget action, it has been half-hearted: a good example of this is the recently released Intergenerational Report, which — like the report from the Commission of Audit in late 2013 — has already disappeared into the political ether as events have been allowed by government strategists to pass them by.

It remains to be seen whether Hockey delivers what I termed “a real emergency budget” in May but the portents are not good: the same people spouting the same rhetoric, with the same faulty approach that has served the government so poorly to date, making a second attempt to undertake the task they mishandled so stunningly last year does not appear to be a recipe for achieving political success.

The confused, mixed, turgid messages emanating from the government continue apace; the continuing saga of a government that is unable to sell its initiatives has seen Medicare transformed into a veritable talisman of political death for the Coalition this year, whilst “reforms” to the university sector have similarly placed an albatross around the government’s neck.

I could go on — for the list of reasons why what could have been a masterstroke is now a doomsday option is without end.

But the simple truth is that flirting with a double dissolution, having failed to address everything that is wrong with it, simply threatens to speed the government’s passage back to opposition if it were to be acted on.

And the idea the Prime Minister could do so merely to head off further threats to his leadership, having asked to be given until June to sort his government out and having ostensibly failed to do so at this time, is a contemptible consideration of the misuse of the imprimatur of his office in relation to election timing, and would constitute the culpable indulgence of a personal whim whilst the governance and political welfare of Australia’s future was gambled in order to slake it.

In short, the government has done nothing this year to suggest it would fare any better at a double dissolution election than it would at an ordinary one based on its present standing and trajectory in the polls, and that standing, of course, is very parlous indeed.

I know I said in January that it is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees, but moving toward a double dissolution now — having done nothing in the big scheme of things to retrieve their position and to rectify the misfiring apparatuses of state — would simply prove the Prime Minister and his government harbour a death wish.


8 thoughts on “Double Dissolution Election Option Now An Opportunity Lost

  1. Tony Abbott contemplating a double dissolution, another thought bubble from the bunker as his grasp on the leadership slips even further, please go and go quickly.

  2. I agree with everything in this article.

    I will say, though, that for Tony Abbott himself, the double dissolution is probably his best option. Whatever happens, he would avoid the humiliation of being removed from office by his own party; his chances of winning the D-D now look about the same as his chances of winning an election in 2016; he’s fighting an opposition with a bad leader and no policies that isn’t ready for an election; and he clearly has no plan or thoughts on how to govern if the current Senate remains.

    If I was a backbencher I’d be very afraid that this is what he’ll do.

  3. Even if the government had its messages and strategies sorted and was well ahead in the polls instead of well behind, a double dissolution would only be effective if prior to it being called the Coalition and Labor co-operated on meaningful Senate electoral reform. Without the passage of bills to reduce the chances of most of the current micro party crossbenchers and prevent them from being replaced by an even less representative crowd, any party winning a DD would inherit such a large and messy crossbench that it would have little hope of passing anything even at a joint sitting.

    However if the major parties do thus co-operate then even a double dissolution called on a relatively thin pretext could be sold as necessary to meaningfully flush out the Senate now, rather than having governments on both sides stuck with the legacy of the undemocratic 2013 Senate outcomes for another five years. Of course, that’s all completely hypothetical while the government is in such a weak position and hence unlikely (if in its right mind) to go to any kind of election.

    • Hi Kevin, I hope you’re well.

      I partly agree with you: I do think that had the government recalibrated its posture, strategies and reset the “tone” of its communications when I put the original post up in January (or preferably had refrained from shooting itself in the foot altogether within five minutes of taking office) there would be a good chance it could improve its Senate position at a double dissolution even on the current electoral set-up. Of course, we’ll never know one way or the other now.

      That said, I agree with you that some kind of reform is needed to prevent Senators being elected on a crumb of the vote: I actually think what the Senate has become is tantamount to an abuse of process, and it’s a distortion that has been made possible by the “fiddles” enacted upon it in 1948 and (especially) 1984. Even if we accept the Hawke government was well-intentioned in increasing the size of the upper house (as opposed to the more cynical view it was aimed at preventing conservatives ever again controlling the chamber) it seems irrefutable that time has uncovered a major flaw in those 1984 changes.

      Unsurprisingly, the ALP is disinclined to do anything to help remedy them.

      I have been talking to a few people away from this column about the pros and cons of one party (the Liberals most likely, given Labor’s intransigence on Senate reform and the vested interests of all of the minorities) developing a comprehensive template for Senate reform and taking it to an election as an indicative plebiscite (remembering it is Parliament that determines the voting method for the Houses, not the Constitution. I would be interested in your thoughts both in terms of this as a potential means to try to advance the cause of overhauling the Senate, and also in relation to a model I have talked about here a few times now (which, for expediency, this link and the other links contained in it will take you back to the relevant articles that deal with it).

      I think you’re being a bit romantic insofar as the notion of the ALP and the Liberals co-operating to clean the Senate up. Hopeful but unrealistic. More’s the pity. But the weak state of the Coalition at present doesn’t seem to present any bar to the government putting its metaphorical foot in things, and it seems that includes at least the contemplation of a double dissolution election without an atom of suitable preparation for it.

      It’s unlikely, yes, but just remember who’s in charge where control of all things political are concerned at present. There are good reasons I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time talking about the “Fourth Horsewoman of the Apocalypse.” It seems we can talk good sense until the cows come home, but it’s not a commodity that appears to be welcome — or tolerated — in the corridors of power at the moment.

      • Your suggestion for comprehensive Senate reform would hard to push through, but the Liberals should be able to implement optional preferential voting and abolish ticket voting. Liberal, Labor and the Greens are all on the record as supporting that change (in their submissions to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters last year). Switching to optional preferences wouldn’t solve all problems with the Senate, but at least parties couldn’t get elected off 0.5% of the primary vote through preference harvesting!

        Abbott probably hasn’t tried to push through because he doesn’t want to alienate the crossbenchers, but maybe he could have a go after this year’s budget.

      • As Edward Boyce notes, Labor, Liberals and Greens all supported an optional preferencing model for Senate reform (indeed, not only in their submissions but also in the JSCEM interim report). However, for whatever reason, since the new Senate came in very little has been heard on the issue. Most likely all the non-Green crossbenchers except Xenophon are opposed. There have been some suggestions that the Government has lost interest in the matter because if it pushes it then those seven Senators will become antagonistic on other matters (not that, in some cases, this would make any difference.) It may be that work towards reform is continuing in the background but it’s possibly ominous that so little has been heard for nearly a year.

        Antony Green considers it a fait accompli that reform along such lines will be passed in this parliament and implemented at the next election. I’m more inclined to hope that it will but to believe it has happened only when I see it. However a problem is giving the AEC enough lead-time to implement it so I don’t think it can be just rammed through in the final setting of the parliament giving the existing crossbench no chance for reprisals (more’s the pity).

        Any party can go to an election seeking a mandate for a specific Senate reform or even hold a plebiscite on the issue but to make it stick there must then be enough supportive Senators to pass it – either a majority of the Senate or a joint sitting majority. And because a joint sitting could only be held after a double dissolution on the old system (which would lead to still more random crossbenchers) both of these are difficult prospects. In theory in this parliament the Coalition and the Greens could pass reform without Labor’s help but that seems unlikely, and if it doesn’t happen in this parliament then it may never happen without bipartisan support.

  4. This is almost as accurate as the Australian’s story about Abbott suggesting a unilateral invasion of Iraq to defeat ISIS. Funnily, that ‘scoop’ was also supposedly at an informal dinner occasion. And just like last time, the source is “a Minister who was present.” Oh, so it must be true.

    Do they give the Age away for free or do people actually pay to read that crap?

    • Who’s to know, anotherbryanfromperth; who’s to know? Even so, this is about the most ridiculous idea yet to emerge from the Credlin-run bunker if it’s true.

      You will note nobody has explicitly denied the option wasn’t canvassed. Enough said.

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