Changing of the guard

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.

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.

12 comments on “Changing of the guard”

  1. The NSW redistribution may also have a say in this. I’m not too familiar with Sydney’s demographics but apparently Bennelong is likely to be pushed into Labor-voting territory around Paramatta, making it more marginal. Howard may not fancy the prospect of remaining leader if he had to defend a seat with a margin of only 1-2%, especially if the usual anti-Howard coalition of candidates ran against him and preferenced Labor. It wouldn’t do much for his reputation going down in history as only the second PM to lose his seat.

  2. A very minor point, PB. The 1963 early election was certainly to exploit the “36 faceless men”, but iirc the issue was the joint US-Australia communications base at North-West Cape.
    There were several ructions over State aid to non-Government schools during the 60s, most spectacularly when Whitlam as deputy leader was hauled before the Federal Executive allegedly for criticising the then anti-State aid position of the official policy (1965 or early 66, I think, without having checked). He escaped with nothing worse than a reprimand, but Freudenberg mentions a putative plan for Margaret Whitlam to temporarily take over his seat, if he’d been expelled.
    State aid was also a precipitating factor in the 1970 Federal intervention in the Victorian Branch of the Labor Party, generally regarded as the crucial factor in getting Labor over the line in 1972.

  3. Quite right Peter – I have clarified this. If you have the Penguin edition of Freudenberg’s A Certain Grandeur to hand, you’ll find the basis of my misunderstanding on page 29.

  4. It’s worth noting that, with NSW requiring a reduction by one in its allotment of HoR seats for 2007, the seats proposed for abolition by both parties lie roughly to the south of Bennelong in Western Sydney, Blaxland (in Bankstown, proposed by Libs) and Reid (including Granville, proposed by Labor).

    So either way, if either of these seats, or indeed any other in southwest or western sydney, were abolished, Bennelong would be pulled deeper into Labor territory. With only a 4% margin, Bennelong could well be winnable for Labor.

    So Howard would clearly not want a by-election in the seat, even on the old boundaries. And if he hangs around, he would need to move to another seat, which would be quite undignified for the second-longest serving Prime Minister in Australian history, I’m sure.

    If he was to do so, you only need to look at the Liberal MPs sitting in the north of Sydney (very broadly defined, which is pretty much the entire Sydney Liberal contingent outside the fringe of western and southern sydney, and Wentworth), nearly all of them are ministers or senior figures. To the east of Bennelong is Joe Hockey, to the north is Ruddock, to the northeast is Nelson, to the far east is Abbott, and to the far northeast is Bronwyn Bishop. The only choices would be to knock off Louise Markus in Greenway, which would be strange considering her recent arrival to federal politics, or Alan Cadman in Mitchell, which would make sense, but would still cause plenty of headaches.

    While I don’t think Howard would make a decision as significant as to running for another term on the basis of making life hard for other Liberal MPs, it’s interesting to consider.

  5. But of course, if you read the Liberal Submission you would realise that they don’t need to move Bennelong south or west, and anyone who knows the area would concede the best natural boundary is moving it north (taking a bit of Berowra), Berowra West (into Mitchell), Mitchell South (into the northern bit of Parramatta), and using the Parramatta seat as the one which heads south to mop up the shortages in the South and inner-South West of Sydney.

    The proposed boundaries will be interesting here, but it seems the Liberals have decided in their suggestions to remove the chance of a gain (Parramatta) to help maintain Howard’s margin.

    Howard would also probably do well if he campaigned in the East of Parramatta, especially because of the more established nature of many residents – but weighed against a decent public housing population too.

    The results in both Bennelong and Parramatta are however probably lower than they normally would be at this point in the cycle because of some special factors within the 2004 campaign, including a concerted effort to unseat the Prime Minister from all sorts of individuals and groups.

  6. It’s true that they don’t absolutely have to move Bennelong into Parramatta, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t happen. It already contains part of Parramatta Council area, so it’s certainly not silly to say that it should or could move further in that direction.

    I don’t see that moving Mitchell into Parramatta is obviously better than moving Bennelong into it. There’s arguments both ways without a clear cut “right” answer in my opinion.

  7. Not really on-topic to this thread but thought people might be interested.

    I’ve just been polled by AC Nielsen, presumably for next Tuesday’s Fairfax papers. In addition to the obvious party/approval/preferred PM questions, a question was asked about preferred Labor leader out of Beazley/Rudd/Gillard, then the question was asked again but this time with Shorten/Beazley/Rudd/Gillard. No questions about anything to do with potential Liberal leadership succession.

  8. The Shortern issue is quite an interesting one, and of course, massively over-hyped by the media.

    It is obvious now that Kim will be around until the next election. This is for two key reasons. Firstly, his budget-reply speech, whilst lacking substance, was considered enough to keep the backbenches clambouring for a new leader at bay. By the time they consider re-mobilising, the election will be less then 12 months away. No where near enough time for a new leader to make a real mark, especially then the cost of it is yet another drop in public confidence. So any potential challenge would be dropped in the interests of the party

    The second reason is obvious: Mark Latham. The name strikes enough fear in the Labor Party to prevent even considering switching Beazley for a new, untried leader.

    No, the ALP is stuck in a rut. Cant live with Beazley, can’t live without him. Either way he wouldn’t go quietly if the vote was enforced upon him. So it is in their best interests to keep him.

    What will be interesting is who the Labor party chooses for their leader after the next election (making the assumption they lose of course.) Gillard has said repeatedly she won’t challenge until after the election. This is code for ‘I want to be leader when Kim gets his arse handed to him in 16 months time’
    Rudd is an option. Maybe even Swan. Shorten, asssuming he holds his seat, is a very vague option (although one suspects by then that the media will have forgotten about him)

    Interesting times. And then there is the Howard/Costello issue that simply won’t go away, as per stated in this blog.

    Either way, a generation shift is nearing. One must wonder if the republican movement will begin to gain momentum soon? With Howard surely leaving in the next few years, and the Queen slowly leaving the royal arena to enjoy a life of luxury… one can only suspect that round two of the debate is just around the corner. And this time, as long as the correct lessons are learnt, the Rebublicans are nearly certain not to lose…

  9. From my reading of the Poll results from Parramatta, the booths closet to Bennonlong are mostly Liberal Voting, the Booths in Parramatta and to the west and south are ALP voting, these will remain in Parramatta unless Parramatta is abolished, which won’t.

    While both major party’s want a Seat in western Sydney removed, this will lead to the Seats to the West and South West being pulled towards Sydney,

    Similar to what happened in Melbourne in its last redistribution, the Inner city seats like Melbourne Ports, Higgins and Kooyong didn’t change, while seats like Issacs and Holt cahnged quite alot

  10. All of the booths on the far east of Parramatta returned a Labor result in 2004 and 1998, with a weaker marginal result in 2001. I’ve actually stayed in Ermington before and it’s got quite a few “old left” types and is centred on Ryde and the workers/leagues clubs there.

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