Piers Akerman of the Daily Telegraph has thrown the cat among the pigeons by reporting that "political minds with close ties to the Howard camp" are talking of an "elegant departure" by the Prime Minister at the end of the year. Akerman, who for various reasons is known for the quality of his Coalition sources, paints an impressively detailed scenario in which Howard moves to the back-bench in December to assume an "elder statesman" role and avoid a by-election for his seat of Bennelong. Peter Costello and his new Treasurer (most likely either Brendan Nelson or Alexander Downer) would thus be given "time to work together" ahead of an early election to be held "in late March or April, before the next budget".
Firm talk of an impending Howard departure is new, but the early election aspect was echoed a fortnight ago in Crikey, which said "talk in some Liberal circles says a February federal election should not be ruled out". This comes as a surprise because, as Akerman in particular should well know, an election before the first week of August 2007 is all but out of the question. This is because the six-year terms of the Senators elected in 2001 (who took their seats in mid-2002) will not expire until the middle of 2008, and the election to replace them cannot be called until the final year of the term. Due to the minimum period required for an election campaign, the earliest possible date for a normal election for the House and half the Senate is August 4.
It is techically possible for a House-only election to be held before a half-Senate election is due, but the only time a government has willingly done so was in 1963. Bob Menzies was then surviving on a one-seat majority after his government’s brush with death at the 1961 election, so he could credibly claim he was seeking a fresh mandate when he moved to take advantage of Labor’s internal ructions over state aid and its indecisive response to the establishment of the US base at North West Cape (which culminated in the "36 faceless men" episode). The 1963 election succeeded in restoring the Coalition to a comfortable majority, but it put the two houses out of alignment and required separate mid-term half-Senate elections to be held until the clock was reset by the 1974 double dissolution.
Not surprisingly, the Coalition performed poorly at the mid-term elections, which loomed as "national by-elections" of a type that any government would prefer to avoid. After the second such election in November 1967, the Coalition was reduced to 27 seats in the 60-seat chamber, having earlier held between 30 and 32 in the years since the 1951 double dissolution. The November 1970 election weakend its position further, leaving the Coalition with 26 seats and the Democratic Labor Party with five. It would be very odd behaviour for a government with a handsome majority to burden itself with such difficulties for the sake of getting an election in before the budget, especially if (as present indications suggest) the budget loomed as another revenue-gorged bonanza of tax cuts and giveaways.
The other scenario for an early election, a double dissolution, is even less attractive. The Coalition’s once-in-a-lifetime Senate majority would instantly disappear, and they would need to poll around 50 per cent in each state at the ensuing election to maintain the strength of Senate representation to which they have become accustomed. Furthermore, the government would have to indulge in unseemly contrivances to meet the requirement for a double dissolution, namely the Senate having twice rejected a law passed by the House. It is true that company law amendments have been blocked with help from Nationals Senator Barnaby Joyce, and that a trigger could be created if another unsuccessful attempt was made to pass them. But would Joyce be willing to block it again if it led to his six-year term being cut short less than a third of the way through?
Given the practical difficulties, any talk of an early election emanating from the Liberal camp can only be a tactical ploy to keep Labor off balance and foment its leadership tensions. With that in mind, one aspect of Akerman’s article can be readily dismissed. This raises the question of whether the rest of it can be as well.