IT SOUNDS terribly ominous.
A double dissolution has been threatening to change Australia’s increasingly unstable parliament for years now.
Politicians and political commentators alike have foreshadowed its arrival since former prime minister Julia Gillard’s chaotic hung parliament took over in 2010. But with the prospect being raised in opinion pages every week or so since then, it’s starting to look like it might actually happen.
The problem is, since we’ve been hearing about the scary sounding parliamentary tool for so
long now, we’ve given up trying to understand what it actually means.
With a vote for Senate voting reform legislation finally passed, it looks like we might have a double dissolution coming up as soon as July. It’s going to affect us all, so it’s probably time to get across it.
WHAT DO THESE WORDS EVEN MEAN?
Although it’s not a word that’s really used much in real life — dissolution — in a parliamentary sense, simply means to dissolve a house of parliament. That’s what happens when it’s time for an election and the Governor-General, on the advice of the Prime Minister, dissolves the House of Representatives, usually at the end of its three-year term.
A double-dissolution means dissolving both the upper and lower house, essentially ending the
reign of both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and vacating each of those parliamentary representative’s positions.
WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
A double dissolution is a last-resort tool built into the constitution and designed to break a deadlock between the Houses when they disagree over proposed legislation.
That’s what’s happening now.
Laws that have been passed by the House of Reps are continually being blocked in the Senate,
preventing the government from legislative change.
It’s part of the reason the Senate sat for a marathon 40-hour sitting to debate new electoral laws for senators, which the coalition government is keen to have in place before an election to avoid further Senate chaos.
WHAT ABOUT ME? WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR ME?
Unlike many complicated parliamentary processes and dated constitutional rules that have very
little bearing on our everyday lives, this one actually affects each and every one of us.
Both parliamentary houses dissolved means no one is in charge, so we need to vote members of
parliament and senators back in. That’s when it’s time for a federal election.
Malcolm Turnbull has until May 11, less than a month, to call for a double dissolution.
Before that, he would like to have in place changes to the way senators are elected so that it can be overhauled in an election.
The passing of the Senate reform bill would take the Prime Minister one step closer to getting the conditions in place for a double dissolution election, possibly on July 2.
He has until May 11 to call a poll.
SO, WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
Calling a double dissolution is very risky. Its goal is to break a deadlock, but the deadlock can be broken in either direction.
Leading to a full Senate election, rather than the usual half vote, the electorate has the opportunity to change the composition of the Senate.
It can also of course lead to a change of government.
This is a big call for the prime minister to make, but with next to no legislative change being
achieved by a dysfunctional senate, he may be left without a choice.
Cabinet minister Christopher Pyne today said delays in passing the Senate reform proposed demonstrated why they were needed.
“I think the public are thoroughly sick of the circus in the Senate,” he said.
THIS SEEMS QUITE EXTREME, HAVE WE TRIED IT BEFORE?
There have been six double dissolutions in Australian parliamentary history, two of which
have resulted in a change in government. This is how each of those double-d’s, all triggered by a legislative impasse, has been recorded by the Parliament of Australia.
1914: The deadlock was broken by the government losing its majority in the House as a result
of the double dissolution election. The legislation was not reintroduced.
1951: The deadlock was broken by the government gaining a majority in both Houses; the
legislation was reintroduced and passed by both Houses in the normal manner.
1974: The government was returned but the disagreement between the Houses continued, resulting in a joint sitting at which the bills concerned were passed.
1975: The bills concerned were not reintroduced in the new parliament. Unique circumstances
applied in 1975. Following disagreement over the passage of a number of bills the government
was dismissed by the Governor-General and a “caretaker” government installed to enable
passage of appropriation bills. The caretaker Government then requested a double dissolution
and was elected at the ensuing election. The bills providing the technical grounds for the
double dissolution were not those of the caretaker government seeking the dissolution, but
those of the government dismissed by the Governor-General.
1983: The deadlock was broken by the government losing its majority in the House.
1987: The government was returned; the bill concerned was reintroduced and again passed by the House but ultimately not proceeded with.
Australia’s oldest serving member of parliament, Phillip Ruddock, widely known as the Grandfather of the House, has seen a few double-d’s in his time.
He was there for the momentous 1975 joint sitting, and for those since, and says although they create chaos, a double dissolution is a legitimate move for a prime minister to play.
“In my view the double dissolution triggers are the tool; the election is the outcome and the people in the main make up their mind about who they want to govern,” he said this week.
“It seems to me that if there is a process by which you can bring some resolution, that’s what the founding fathers intended.”