Find out the unusual reason a rare, early election is likely this year

By Richard Schonell. March 22nd 2016.

You’ve probably noticed that over the last three days Australian politics has increasingly resembled an episode of House of Cards – so much so that even the show’s twitter handle is in on the action:

Recapping (what on earth happened?) :

To recap, earlier this week Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that Australia could well be heading to the polls on July 2. While this news would usually be enough to send #auspol into meltdown, there was something particularly extraordinary about Turnbull’s proclamation: this would be no ordinary election. Rather, Turnbull pointed a metaphorical gun at the senate crossbench and declared that if they did not pass a particular piece of legislation, Australia would face an extended 15 week election campaign leading up to a double dissolution election and their inevitable political demise.

But what is a double dissolution election?

You’d be forgiven for not knowing. After all, there have only been six in the past.

According to the Parliamentary Education Office, “a double dissolution occurs when both the Senate and the House of Representatives are shut down (dissolved), in order for a federal election to take place. A double dissolution election is different to regular elections, when only half the Senate seats are contested. In a double dissolution, the Governor-General dissolves both the Senate and the House of Representatives at the same time, meaning every seat in both chambers is contested. This is the only time that all senators stand for election at the same time.”

Watch the PM himself explain the DD to Leigh Sales on 7:30 here (main explanation begins at 1:56mins):

It’s the lead up to this announcement that has political hacks frothing the most.

Turnbull is a smart politician. As Senator Nick Xenaphon said, “Malcolm didn’t build a business empire by playing by conventional rules.” To ensure that the results of the double dissolution were favourable to the government, the Coalition joined forces with the Greens to change the Senate voting rules.

In the past, the rules were such that political parties could potentially secure a spot in the senate despite winning only a tiny portion of the primary vote. Senator Ricky Muir is a case in point; he managed to secure a seat through a series of stitched up preference deals even though he only won 0.51 per cent of the primary vote. His election was only made possible by Australia’s preferential voting rules, which have been criticised as undemocratic by many commentators, academics and politicians. 

You can learn more about how Senator Muir got elected on roughly 17,000 votes (when the quota was about 483,000 votes) from ABC election analyst Antony Green here.

More lingo... What's preferential voting?

Preferential voting is a system of voting that allows a citizen to individually number and rank all candidates for both houses of parliament according to their preferences. If no candidate secures an absolute majority of 50% plus 1 of the primary votes, then the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated from the count. The ballot papers of the eliminated candidate are re-allocated amongst the remaining candidates according to the number of second preference votes. If no candidate has yet secured an absolute majority of the vote, then successive candidates are eliminated and their votes reallocated until there is a candidate with an absolute majority. Where a second preference has already been eliminated, the voter’s first subsequent remaining preference receives their vote.

More sources: A brief overview of how the old system of preferential voting worked from SBS. Also an interesting article 'Five Crazy Preference Deals That Show How Broken The Voting System Is' written by Osman Faruqi (a former Greens staffer & candidate).

That sounds ok... why do some view this as problematic?

Micro-parties are often accused of ‘gaming’ the system as by trading preference votes between them, one micro-party can be elected despite winning a tiny proportion of the primary vote.

However, because of some smart politics on the part of the Coalition and the Greens, someone like Ricky Muir now no longer has a chance at winning a seat. 

Second tricky thing about this move by our PM:

It wasn’t just changing the Senate voting rules that was smart. It was also setting up an electoral showdown over a piece of legislation that would re-introduce a regulator known as the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC). The ABCC was a watchdog created by the Howard government which was later dismantled by Labor. All that you really need to know about the ABCC is that Labor, the Greens and the Senate crossbench would – in principle - never vote for it, while the Coalition is a big fan.

A crossbencher is any independent or minor party member of parliament who is not aligned with either the Government or the opposition.

Turnbull went even further than that though. He has gone so far as changing Parliament’s sitting days so that the showdown over the ABCC can take place at a time that suits him.  

So what does all of this mean? 

Turnbull has therefore manoeuvred the rules of the game so that only one of two things can happen. Either the crossbench, and by extension the Parliament, will pass his legislation; or, the legislation will be rejected, which in turn allows the Government to call a double dissolution safe in the knowledge that, due to the new senate voting rules, the Coalition is likely to win even more seats in the Senate. As a consequence, so the theory goes, Turnbull will be able to pass legislation without needing to negotiate with Labor, the Greens or the current sitting Senate crossbench.


Or this could happen....

Of course, it could all blow up in his face. Labor’s fortunes in the polls have been on the rise while the Coalition has suffered a corresponding fall.

It’s almost enough to make Frank Underwood blush... almost..

The good news...

But, and it’s a big but, this political moment contains a deeper, more positive insight about the state of Australian politics.

It would be easy to conclude from the last three days that politicians are only concerned with numbers and games. That principles and ideals are dead. But that view ignores all of the members of the Liberal party who believe in the freedom of the individual, the members of the Labor party who believe in the social safety net, the members of the Greens who believe in climate justice and the members of the Nationals who believe in a fair go for rural Australia.

There is an undeniable tension between numbers and principles in politics, but this tension is only resolved when people vote and vote in an informed manner.

Yes, politics is ultimately a numbers game, but, each number represents a different view about who we are, where we are headed and how we’ll get there as a nation. If you want your view represented, if you want to be included in those numbers, you have to vote. Join our Pledge to Vote campaign you can help us call on pollies to place greater value on the views of young Aussies. 

This article provides a good explanation (with pics! We are pro pics!) of how to vote for the upper house (the Senate) in the 2016 election.

What do you reckon? Got a question, anything to add or any other great sources breaking down this situation? Share them with us in the comments section!