Mind exercised

With the unstoppable Kim Beazley juggernaut powering on to certain victory at the next election, the Poll Bludger has been bombarded with emails demanding to know what sort of Senate an incoming Labor government might face. Well, one email anyway. For the benefit of anyone who has been suffering sleepless nights over this recently, I present for public enlightenment my humble reply.

It’s definitely possible that the Coalition could lose power and retain control of the Senate. In 2001 the Tasmanian Senate election result was Liberal 3, Labor 2 and Greens 1, even though Labor won all five of the House of Representatives seats. At the 1993 election when John Hewson went down to Paul Keating, the Coalition won three of the six Senate seats in every state except Tasmania, where Brian Harradine won the sixth seat. So unless the Coalition suffers a big defeat at the next election there is some chance that they would maintain their absolute Senate majority in opposition, and a very high likelihood that they would only fall one or two seats short (with one seat still held by Family First).

Therefore, I think it all but certain that an incoming Labor government would call an early double dissolution election, as did Bob Menzies in 1951 and Gough Whitlam in 1974 (the Coalition’s aforementioned strong performance in the 1993 Senate election precluded such a necessity in John Howard’s case, and Bob Hawke came to power at a double dissolution election in 1983). Given the very different arithmetic that applies when the states elect 12 members rather than six, such an election would substantially cut the Coalition’s Senate numbers. A few more half-Senate elections hence, Labor might again face the problem of a Coalition with at or near half the Senate seats if they are still in power, given that the Coalition finds it easier than Labor to win three seats from six in any given state. But the existence of the double dissolution mechanism means that governments will only suffer an opposition majority in the Senate if they are in too weak a position to face an election, the obvious example being Whitlam in 1975.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.