UPDATE: The legislation has been introduced, and you can read all about it here. Contrary to the impression given below, the savings provision has not turned out to be retaining group voting tickets, but simply allowing one-box only votes to exhaust, along the lines recommended by Antony Green, even though the ballot paper will direct voters to number at least six boxes.
With all the talk lately of Senate reform and a possible double dissolution, I thought this site could use a thread specifically for the discussion of such matters. The Senate reform train finally began gathering momentum the week before last, when it was reported that a deal with the Greens and Nick Xenophon had produced a set of reforms which the government hoped would be through parliament by the end of the autumn session on March 17. The proposal was to abolish group voting tickets and require that voters number at least six boxes either above or below the line, with votes dropping out of the count when there were no numbered parties or candidates for them to pass on to. Antony Green, for one, is alarmed about this proposal, as it would render informal the votes of those who failed to notice the change as simply numbered one box above the line. Perhaps for this reason, Special Minister of State Matthias Cormann has kept open the option of retaining group voting tickets essentially as a savings provision for those who don’t vote in the favoured manner. Antony Green’s preference is for the ballot paper to direct voters to number at least six boxes, but nonetheless to allow voters to number fewer boxes and have their vote drop out at any earlier point of the count than envisioned.
Further raising the stakes, the government has been putting it about that the passage of the legislation will create the opportunity for a double dissolution election on July 2 — late enough to avoid the mid-year cut-off point, before which the Senate term would have been backdated to the middle of the last year, causing the next half-Senate election to fall due in two years’ time. As a double dissolution cannot be called in the six months before the final day of the parliamentary term, the last day such an election can be called is May 11. This raises two problems for the government: the seven-and-a-half week campaign that would ensue to stretch the election timing elastic all the way to July, and the fact that the budget is to be brought down on May 10. The former is a cause for wariness on the part of the government if only because of the precedent of the 1984 election, at which a Prime Minister who had a lot in common with Malcolm Turnbull was run unexpectedly close by an Opposition Leader who was in a similar position to Bill Shorten. The latter would require the spectacle of the government guillotining the budget through both houses of parliament, perhaps in a matter of hours.
It’s possible there are procedural hurdles that have been overlooked in this scenario, either in terms of getting the budget through in such haste, or initiating the election through the Governor-General and state Governors in whatever time might be left available. While there is no indication the government would proceed on any basis other than getting the budget through first, there has been a fair bit of discussion about the potential for the budget to be postponed until after the election, and an interim supply bill passed to cover the gap. The Hawke government was obliged to rush just such a bill through parliament when it called a July double dissolution in 1987, albeit that this was in the age of August rather than May budgets (although the government had brought down a mini-budget in May that had yet to make it through the Senate). It’s also possible that the government would not need to pass a supply bill in any case. The departmental budgets that are funded by the regular supply bills account for only about 20% of total expenditure, which is considerably less than in Gough Whitlam’s time. Departments might well be able to struggle by on their reserves until such a bill was passed — although it’s been noted here in comments that this may not extend to the funding the Australian Electoral Commission would need to conduct the election.
More of my take on such matters, including the obstacles that the Australian Electoral Commission would face in implementing the reported reform proposals, in a paywalled article in Crikey.