When will we have a federal election?

The timing of elections is stipulated in our Constitution. Section 13 of the Constitution states that Senate elections must be held within one year of the places becoming vacant. Senators have terms that expire on 30 June after six years (and half of them have three year terms after a double dissolution). The last election was a double dissolution on 2 July 2016. This means the next half-Senate election can't be called until after 1 July this year. The new Senators need to be in their places before 1 July next year, so the latest that an election for the Senate could be held is in May next year.

The timing of elections for the House of Representatives is different. This is outlined in section 28 of the Constitution. The House can sit for three years after the first meeting of the Parliament, but can be dissolved sooner. It is often dissolved sooner. The average term since federation in 1901 is about two and half years.

This part of the Constitution has lately been leading people to speculate that an election could be held soon. However, it is not very often that we have House only elections. And if an election was called before 1 July this year or after May next year, a separate half-Senate election would have to be held before 18 May 2019.

We thought it might be a good opportunity to go back and take a look at the history of elections.

Rocky times?

Many commentators and much of the general public have suggested that we are currently in a rocky or turbulent political period. However, this is not as uncommon as you may think. There was quite a lot of political turbulence early on in the Australian Parliament. Let’s go back to the start.

After the first election in March 1901, the Protectionist party became our first Government. But they did not have a majority in the House of Representatives and relied on Labour (yes Labour with a u back then) to pass legislation. Late in the term, Prime Minister Edmund Barton resigned so that he could be appointed as a Justice of the High Court. An election was held just under two months later, in December 1903 and the Protectionists lost a lot of seats. The result was a three way party split, with the Protectionists, the Free-traders and the Labour Party have equal numbers in the House of Representatives.

Once again, the Protectionists cobbled together a Government with the support of Labour. But in April 1904 the Protectionist Prime Minister Alfred Deakin lost a vote on the floor of the House and resigned. Labour’s Chris Watson became Prime Minister. But that didn’t last long as the Free-traders formed a coalition with some of the Protectionists and George Reid became Prime Minister. Many argue that the Protectionists policies were more closely aligned to Labour, rather than the Conservative Free-traders, but many Protectionists could not accept the voting policy of Labour in the Parliament. The Labour party bound their members to vote together in the Parliament. At the time this was seen by many as anti-democratic.

Government was rocky throughout the rest of the second Parliament and changed several more times. The result of the December 1906 election did not allay the problem. Once again, no party had a majority, and government changed a couple of times without an election. Alfred Deakin then set up a new fusion party that combined the Protectionists, anti-socialists and some of the free-traders. They called themselves the Commonwealth Liberal Party.

An election for the fourth Parliament was held in April 1910 and the Commonwealth Liberals lost to Labor (no u anymore). The fourth Parliament was the first one where the Government did not change without an election. Labor remained in power until the next election in May 1913, when there was another change. However, Prime Minister Joseph Cook from the Commonwealth Liberal Party only had a one seat majority in the House and only seven Senators (out of 36). It was impossible for the Liberals to pass legislation and our first double dissolution election was held in September 1914. Labor’s Andrew Fisher won that election with a ten seat majority in the House and 31 Senate seats.

You’d think Fisher would be pretty set with such a majority. But just over one year later he resigned and Labor’s Billy Hughes became the Prime Minister. But, the Labor Party was in turmoil over conscription for WWI and when Billy Hughes was expelled from the Labor Party in September 1916 he took 24 Members of the House with him and formed the National Labor Party. He remained as Prime Minister with the support of confidence and supply from the Commonwealth Liberals. In early 1917 Billy Hughes made a more formal arrangement with the Commonwealth Liberals and created the Nationalist Party of Australia. Former Prime Minister and Hughes’ opposition, Joseph Cook became his Deputy Leader.

Billy Hughes remained Prime Minister for quite some time. It wasn’t until after the election in December 1922 that the Nationalist Party became a minority Government and the Country Party pushed Hughes aside. The new Nationalist Party leader Stanley Bruce became Prime Minister in a Coalition with the Country Party. This continued for some time, until the Country Party crossed the floor and voted with Labor on a Maritime Industries Bill. With Bruce losing a vote on the floor of the House, he requested that the Governor-General dissolve the House. This was the first time that we had a House only election. It was held on 12 October 1929.

So we have briefly explained the situation in the Australian Parliament up to our first House only election and it could hardly be described as steady. In the 1929 election James Scullin from Labor was elected as our ninth Prime Minister in just over 28 years. But this doesn’t take into account Deakin being Prime Minister three separate times or Andrew Fisher twice in that period. Neither does it take into account Billy Hughes period as Prime Minister, even as he changed parties.

But in any case it continued. The Labor Party split again during Scullin’s term. Many Labor Party members were expelled or defected. These defectors formed an alliance with the Nationalist Party (initially set up by disaffected Labor members) and independents to form the United Australia Party. After the election was held in December 1931, the United Australia Party formed a minority Government with informal support from the Country Party. The Prime Minister was Joseph Lyons who was the Labor Postmaster-General in the previous Government.

Lyons and UAP held government for a few terms. Unlike the last Prime Minister who held on for a while (Billy Hughes), Lyons remained in the United Australia Party. But then in 1939 he died. For a while the seat of Prime Minister shuffled between the UAP and the Country Party. The 78 year old Billy Hughes popped up again in this period as the only person who could lead the UAP. Hence the coalition partner, the Country Party took the reins.

In October 1941 the two Independents that the UAP/Country Party relied on in the House of Representatives joined Labor to vote down the Coalition budget. The Government fell. The Governor-General stepped in and asked the two independents whether they could support the Labor Party for the remainder of the Parliament. The Independents agreed and Labor’s John Curtin became our fourteenth Prime Minister. But a couple of years later John Curtin died and Frank Forde from Labor became the caretaker Prime Minister for eight days. On 13 July 1945 Ben Chifley from Labor was sworn in. He went on to win the 1946 election.

By this stage the United Australia Party had had a bust up and Robert Menzies had created the Liberal Party (this is the current Liberal Party). Chifley called an election which was held on 19 December 1949 and the Menzies Liberals won in a coalition with the Country Party. The Senate voting method was changed at this election to allow proportional representation.

Menzies went on to win a further six elections and stayed in office until he resigned in January 1966. This period is what many commentators refer to when they talk about stable Government. However, it had taken almost half a century before a very long term Prime Minister was elected.

Towards the end of his period things started to go awry. In the 1961 election Menzies came close to losing and did lose control of the Senate. At the end of 1963 a House only election was called. A Senate election was not able to be constitutionally held at this time. So that was held just over a year later in December 1964.

Menzies retired in early 1966 and Harold Holt from the Liberals took over. But now the elections of the two Houses were out of sync. Holt faced an election of the House of Representatives which he won in November 1966. Then there was a Senate only election in November 1967. Less than a month later Harold Holt went missing in the sea off the coast of Victoria. He was our third Prime Minister to die in the job. His coalition deputy from the Country Party John McEwen became Prime Minister for almost a month until the Liberal Party room elected a new leader in John Gorton. Another House only election was held in October 1969 and a Senate only election in November 1970. Then in 1972 at the next House only election, the Coalition lost to Labor’s Gough Whitlam.

On 18 May 1974 a double dissolution election was held, which synchronised the elections for the House and the Senate for the first time since 1961. Whitlam won the election and also increased his numbers in the Senate. However, he did not have a majority in the Senate and relied on two Independents to pass legislation. One of these Senators joined the Liberal Party in early 1975 and then resigning Labor Senators were not replaced by other Labor Members. This resulted in a deadlock. The eventual outcome was that Whitlam was sacked by the Governor-General and replaced by Liberal leader Malcolm Fraser on 11 November 1975.

Following the dismissal, Fraser called a double dissolution election which was held on 13 December 1975. By this time the Country Party had changed their name to the National Country Party. The Liberals won an outright majority in the House and the Liberal/National Coalition had a majority in the Senate for the first time since 1962.

Because this was a double dissolution, the Senate terms was back dated to 1 July 1975, meaning the next half-Senate election was due after 1 July 1977 and before the middle of May 1978. The next simultaneous House and Senate election was held in December 1977. The Coalition went on to win a majority in both Houses and for the first time two Democrats popped up. The October 1980 election saw the Coalition retain Government, but with more Democrats elected, they lost control of the Senate. The National Country Party changes their name to the National Party in 1982.

In 1983 Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser called a double dissolution election. Bob Hawke and Labor went on to win the March 1983 election with the highest vote for Labor recorded since 1949. Although Labor did not have a majority in the Senate. The Senate terms were backdated to 1 July 1982.

The next election was held less than two years later in December 1984. This date allowed a half-Senate election to occur at the same time. The numbers in the House and the Senate increased and Labor was elected again, but still without a majority in the Senate. This was the first election that we had above the line voting, which significantly reduced the percentage of informal votes.

Another double dissolution election was held in July 1987. Bob Hawke again won and Labor remained in Government. He also went on to win the March 1990 election. In December 1991 Treasurer Paul Keating challenged Bob Hawke’s leadership and won a party-room ballot to take over the role of Prime Minister. Keating went on to win the election in March 1993, with an increased majority. The 13 year Labor Government came to an end in 1996, when John Howard and the Coalition swept into Government. They remained in Government for 11 years and in the final term had a majority in both Houses. Some commentators believe this led to a lack of restraint in the legislative process and caused the Coalition downfall.

In 2007 we had the Kevin 07 campaign, which resulted in Labor’s Kevin Rudd being elected as Prime Minister. Most of us have some memory about what has occurred over the last decade or so. Rudd was rolled in 2010. Julia Gillard became the Labor Prime Minister and went straight to an election. With the support of Independents in the House of Representatives, Labor was able to hold onto a minority Government.

This was not new. For nearly the first decade, our Parliament consisted of minority Governments and the party on the political right has almost always had to govern in a coalition of some sort (formal or informal). In 2013 Gillard was rolled by Kevin Rudd, who went on to lose the election in September that year. Tony Abbott from the Liberal Party became the Prime Minister with an 18 seat majority in a Coalition Government with the National Party. But then he was rolled two years later by Malcolm Turnbull.

Our last election was in July 2016 and the Liberal Party was returned with a one seat majority. This was another double dissolution election, which again, with lower quotas saw an increased crossbench in the Senate. The Senate voting method was also altered slightly at this election, so that elector’s preferences are allocated above the line. This could mean that we have a smaller crossbench in the future as the parties can no longer preference each other in the complicated ways that they have in the past.

After the 2016 election, the Senate terms were backdated to 1 July 2016. This means the Senators that were allocated three year terms will have their term ended on 30 June 2019. The earliest that the half Senate election can be called is 1 July 2018. The latest is sometime in May 2019.

The 45th Parliament was opened on 30 August 2016, which means that the maximum three year term for the House of Representatives expires on 29 August 2019. However, the election of the House could be stretched out 68 days after this to the start of November 2019.

So, when will the election be held?

That is up to the Prime Minister. The Governor-General dissolves the House of Representatives and issues writs for elections on the advice of the Prime Minister as stipulated in the Constitution. If the Prime Minister would like a simultaneous House and half Senate election it cannot be called until after 1 July this year and has to be called by sometime in May next year. Otherwise the House and Senate elections could be split as they were from 1963 to 1974. This means that a House only election could be called from now up until 30 June or any time after May 2019 until 29 August next year.

Calling a half-Senate only election in May next year and having the new Senators available for the legislative process from 1 July 2019. This could be advantageous for the Government, even if it is for just two months before the House has to be dissolved. The new Senate voting method will likely see the crossbench reduced and the Coalition may be able to more easily implement their policy agenda in this period.

Some people are speculating that an election might be called for the House of Representatives immediately after the budget is delivered on 8 May 2018. There is a minimum 33 days before the election could be held, meaning that the earliest time an election could be held after the budget is 16 June. But this does not leave much time to see the passage of a supply bill passed by 30 June 2018.

An election called before 13 July 2018 would see a mini-distribution occur in Victoria, South Australia and the ACT as the AEC is still in the process of redrawing electoral boundaries in these States and Territory. If this does happen, those mini-distributions are set for the next seven years or so. This might be advantageous to the Government.

Some people are also commenting on the timing of State elections. The Victorian State election is in November this year and the NSW election is in March next year. The timing of these State elections can be changed so that they don’t coincide with a federal election. But they can’t be changed by very much. You can read more here.

The timing of the report of the Banking Royal Commission might throw another spanner in the works. This report is currently due in February next year.

The Prime Minister will likely call an election when he believes he can win it. Whether the elections for the two House are split depends on the timing.


Photo attributed to Malcolm Turnbull's facebook


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