The Federal Budget for 2019/20 was handed down by the Treasurer Josh Frydenburg last night and this potentially has the ability to set off a bunch of chain reactions which might not resolve themselves until October. This series of chain reactions has already been triggered once before in Australia's Parliament and is still the subject of political intrigue and discussion more than 40 years later, with 'The Dismissal'.
The Treasurer handed down Appropriation Bill No.1 2019/20. This means that the clock will have started ticking on the available time in a which the Senate must agree to pass it, until the point of six months; at which point, the Governor-General can decide to dissolve the parliament. This in essence is at the core of Sir John Kerr's decision to dissolve parliament and shut down the line whole shebang in 1975.
After the Appropriation Bill No.1 2019/20 is passed from the hands of the Treasurer to the Sergeant At Arms of the chamber of The House of Representatives, it is game on. From 2nd April, this bill is still in play until the 2nd of October; even if new legislation and a new Appropriation Bill No.1 is presented to the chance to return to government within a calendar year.
Presumably the government has an agreement on supply in the House of Representatives currently but as it stands, they do not have a majority in the Senate. There is currently a major wedge fruits and nuts to separate the two big choc-banana and banana-choc parties and Mr Frydenburg's budget contains so many parts which strip funding from things like the National Disability Insurance Scheme, which might make it unpalatable to the Senate. If the intent is for the Senate to reject the budget bill, then we are in an interesting Constitutional place.
All of this is completely neutered and irrelevant if the Senate passes the Appropriation Bills for 2019/20 before parliament is dissolved. Of course, there is an argument to be made that deliberately not passing the budget until after the election has taken place, is in fact the best possible tactic; for the following insane reasons.
The Constitution makes no reference whatsoever to either the convention of who forms government, or who has the power to make and pass bills, or the positions of Prime Minister or Treasurer. With regards the passage of the budget, it is mechanically no different to any other piece of legislation and so as al always, the relevant sections of the Constitution in play are Sections 5 and 57. The power to make and break the parliament always lies in the hands of the Governor-General. As there is no mention of the various components which determine who actually does administer the monetary functions of the Crown, then there is also no Constitutional objection if the exact same people who proposed a piece of legislation then turn around and oppose the very legislation that they proposed. The only gears which are set in motion, have to do with a disagreement between the two houses; and as we saw in both 1974 where the Senate simply refused to look at legislation and again in 1975 where the legislation that it refused to look at just happened to be the Appropriation Bills for 1975/76. There just isn't the condition that the Senate needs to pass legislation at all and certainly no legal disability preventing them from refusing to pass budgets, like there is in the United Kingdom.
I make mention of all of this because the Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen has indicated that he will be introducing a new set of Appropriation Bills if the Labor Party wins the presumed May election. I also make mention of this because outgoing manager of government business in the House of Representatives Christopher Pyne and Senator Mattias Corman have both indicated that they would it would be appropriate for the new Liberal/National Coalition Opposition to oppose any and all legislation including their own budget if the need arose. The question of need is very different for the people who are in the middle of the game of politics, as opposed to all of us bumpkins in the rest of the Commonwealth.
Probably we will just end up with a bunch of people yelling at each other irrespective of who actually does win the election and future Treasurer Chris Bowen's budget would be very likely to pass but the fact that the suggestion of triggering the conditions which brought about the most singular event in Australian Constitutional history is even being considered by people who potentially have the power to do so, is more than a little bit worrying.
The events of 1974 and 1975 which led to the double dissolution and the first joint sitting of the two houses, centered around the Opposition's refusal to pass bills in the Senate. There is nothing preventing the House from deliberately creating bad legislation with the intent of being rejected and the Senate has the not only the Constitutional right to oppose bad legislation but arguably, the duty to do so. My worry is that Treasurer Josh Frydenburg has deliberately created a bad budget with the sole intent of it exploding in a Constitutional mess later on in the year. The tactic eventually worked in the December 1975 election and I wouldn't put it past the strategists in the increasingly antagonistic climate of modern politics to try and pull the stunt again.