I have been asked several times over the course of the last few days about when I think that the next Federal Election will be held. I have also been pressed for my opinion on how this compares to Remembrance Day 1975, when the Governor General John Kerr sacked the sitting government, the Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, installed a new government and Prime Minister and immediately dissolved parliament.
It would seem as though there is a lot of mass confusion about many things about the system of government we have and in particular, who can do what.
This then, is me throwing everything at the wall, wishing fortune to us all. Oh ho ho ho ho, hey!
1. When can the Prime Minister call an election?
In practical terms the Prime Minister could go to the Governor General tomorrow and ask for a normal House and Senate election because we have already entered that particular window.
Likewise, the last date that there can be both a House and Senate election, owing to the timetable of fixed terms in the Senate, is Saturday 18th May 2019.
If the government wanted to let the term run out to the last possible date, then there would be a Senate election on or before 18th May 2019 and the last possible date for a House Of Representatives only election is 2nd Nov 2019.
2. Can the Senate force an election?
Kind of, not really.
Under Section 57 of the Constitution, the Governor General can dissolve the parliament if it will not pass a bill, and even then only after six months have elapsed. Currently there are no bills which have been rejected by the Senate thrice and the government doesn't hold any election triggers.
The only absolutely necessary bill that a government must have passed into law in a year is the Appropriation Bill No.1. If a government is unable to secure confidence on the floor of the House of Representatives, then it doesn't get to be the government any more. If a government is unable to secure the supply of money to be able to pay the debts of the Commonwealth as they fall due, then there doesn't get to be a parliament any more and we have a shutdown of all government services. The latter has never technically actually happened. As it currently stands, the government has already passed the Appropriation Bill No.1 2018-19 and so the Senate would only be able to block supply after the next Federal Budget has been handed down; which doesn't happen until 14th May 2019, and then six months beyond that date which is already beyond the last date that a House Of Representatives only election could be held anyway.
3. Will the Prime Minister call an election soon?
The last Ipsos Poll has the two parties on a two preferred basis with the Coalition on 45% and Labor on 55%.
By my back of the envelope calculations, that would equate to a parliament after an immediate election of:
90 - Labor
56 - Coalition
5 - Other
If the Prime Minister were to call an immediate election, it would be political suicide and a net 20 Coalition members would lose their seats. Even if there is the possibility that Malcolm Turnbull might lose the premiership to Peter Dutton or some other third candidate, not even he would be that spiteful to have his own party thrown out of government. If anything, it would make more sense to weather out the storm and let all of this pass, or let his replacement decide to call an election and let them take responsibility for the damage.
4. When do you think that the election will be called?
If you had asked me this a month ago, I would have said in October 2018 because the two party preferred polls were closer and invariably after an election has been called, then tighten. At the moment though, I think that it would be idiotic for the Liberal Party to call an election soon because they would suffer electoral wipeout.
It is in the Prime Minister's best interest to let the current turmoil blow over. It is also in the Prime Minister's best interest to wait until the ramifications of Peter Dutton's ownership of a family trust which runs childcare facilities and has an ongoing income from the Commonwealth, thus triggering a possible conflict under Section 44(v) and possibly his eligibility to even sit in the parliament, are worked out and maybe pass through the High Court. It is also in Peter Dutton's best interest to see what happens in this regard because if he launches a leadership challenge and is then deemed to be ineligible to sit in parliament, being chucked out of office while being the Prime Minister is probably the extinction of his political career.
Assuming that there is never a Section 44 issue and Peter Dutton does become Prime Minister, then I no idea if that's good or bad at all. There is usually a honeymoon period for a new Prime Minister in the polls but because Peter Dutton has been the minister in charge of sending asylum seekers to a tropical gulag, then his actual political capital might very well be minus. He would need several months to turn around his personal reputation and that means holding an election later rather than sooner.
There is also the issue of the Federal Budget. If there is going to be both a House and Senate election, then the power of the purse will be handed to whoever wins the election irrespective of when the election is held. The last date for both a House and Senate election is 18th May 2019; which means that the parliament would be dissolved six weeks earlier and that puts the normal date for handing down the budget within that window. The first item of business would be the writing of the Appropriation Bill No.1 2019-20. If the election is held before 11th May 2019, then of course whoever is in government would get to write the budget bill.
If however we get an uncoupled Senate election and no House Of Representatives election, then the budget could be handed down by the coalition and pass the House but would then have to face a very hostile Senate. Whoever the Prime Minister is at that date could merrily run down the clock all the way down to 2nd Nov 2019, safe in the knowledge that the statutory date that the parliament must be dissolved by would come before the date that a Senate could refuse to pass the budget for six months, by.
I think that based on all of this, were probably facing either an election on 9th Mar 2019 or 18th May 2019. The first responsibility of a government is to keep the lights on in the house and pay the bills of the Commonwealth when they fall due. The first responsibility of a Member of Parliament should be to represent their constituents but we all know that their first priority is actually to be reelected.
I refuse to believe that the Prime Minister should either declare an election just because of a leadership challenge or by the same token, be held to the calendar of the election cycle. I have heard people, especially on Twitter, saying that they want a say in voting for the Prime Minister.
Firstly, we never get a say in who the Prime Minister is. Secondly, the position of the Prime Minister isn't mentioned in the Constitution, let alone whether there even needs to be one. I can imagine a setup of co-captains, or a triumvirate, or even a cabinet of equals. It's all fine.
The Prime Minister's turn in office should end the second that either the public votes in a change of government, or when the party decides that they have had enough. The public gets to decide at an election and if the party changes its mind part way through a cycle, then so be it. The government itself is built out of a majority of members on the floor of the House; we never get a say in how that majority is actually built, let alone who forms either the executive or who the leader of that executive is. All y'all need to get over it.