By Malcolm Mackerras

I feel sure that readers of this website will want an assurance that there will NOT be an nearly election. I am willing to give that assurance with a very confident prediction that the next federal election will be for the House of Representatives and half the Senate in August, September, October, November or December NEXT year. Unfortunately, however, a number of young politicians and commentators are predicting an early election and the basis for their predictions sounds convincing to people who lack my knowledge of these things. At the age of 76 I am willing to pull rank on them and explain why that reasoning is all wrong.
How early?

Let me begin by asking this question: of the 44 general elections for the House of Representatives since Federation how many have been early? Answer: 19. However, that is a purely technical answer and creates a highly misleading impression of its likelihood now. I lack the space to explain the technical definition I am using but let me give you a list of early elections under that technical definition. They occurred in 1903, 1914, 1917, 1919, 1929, 1931, 1934, 1951, 1955, 1963, 1974, 1975, 1977, 1983, 1984, 1987, 1990, 1998 and 2010.
The most recent occasion on which a Liberal Prime Minister called an early election was back in 1998 when John Howard caused the dissolution of the House of Representatives to take place on August 31 for a general election on 3 October. Bearing in mind that Howard’s first victory occurred on March 2, 1996 most people would agree that this was a case of an early election. The same people would then ask: if Howard could do that why cannot Tony Abbott do the same? Here is my answer.
The victories in the House of Representatives election of Bob Menzies in December 1949, Howard in March 1996 and Abbott in September 2013 were of roughly the same order of magnitude – what some commentators at the time called a “landslide” and I call a “respectable loss” by Labor. Each of those elections was for the House of Representatives and half the Senate.

Given the way Senate terms work, the half-Senate elections in question could have been held at any time between August 1949 and May 1950, August 1995 and May 1996 and August 2013 and May 2014. That is due to the requirement of section 13 of the Constitution that: “The election to fill vacant places shall be made within one year before the places are to become vacant.” The Constitution makes clear that the term “election” does not just mean polling day. It means the entire process, which begins with the issuing of the writs and ends with the return of the writs. So my reader can understand the difference between Howard and Abbott. Howard could call an early election without affecting the TYPE of election, however Abbott cannot.
Too cynical

Assertions such as “the Prime Minister will call an election when he believes he can win” sound right but in fact display the ignorance of the asserter. He or she is simply being too cynical. To understand these things it is necessary to understand that there are three types of lower house elections under our system. Let me list the 44 general elections for the House of Representatives by their type.
The most common type is House plus half-Senate. There have been 31 cases: 1903, 1906, 1910, 1913, 1917, 1919, 1922, 1925, 1928, 1931, 1934, 1937, 1940, 1943, 1946, 1949, 1955, 1958, 1961, 1977, 1980, 1984, 1990, 1993, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2004, 2007, 2010 and 2013. Election years NOT of the most common type have been 1901 (whole Senate), 1914 (whole Senate), 1929 (House only), 1951 (whole Senate), 1954, 1963, 1966, 1969 and 1972 (House only) and the subsequent double dissolutions elections in 1974, 1975, 1983 and 1987 which, as in 1914 and 1951, involved the whole of the Senate. So there have been seven for the whole of the Senate and six for the House only.
The corporate memory of the Liberal Party would remind Abbott of what happened the last time a Liberal Prime Minister called an early election for which he gave no plausible justification. It was called by Malcolm Fraser in these circumstances of 1982 and 1983. In those days budgets were presented in August and Fraser decided he would have a popular budget in August 1982. He had won in October 1980 with a good House majority but with a lousy Senate result, just Like Abbott. Consequently the technical conditions for a double dissolution were there because the Senate had twice rejected unpopular Fraser legislation – just as has happened with Abbott.
Fraser’s strategy was to have a double dissolution election in September or November of 1982 but circumstances postponed the election until March 1983 when his government was defeated. However, he did manage to avoid the need for another budget – and much good did it do him! As would be the case if Abbott were to be so foolish as to copy Fraser, the elections for the two houses were thrown out of kilter. Due to the unpopularity of the Senate-rejected legislation Fraser had to promise not to proceed with them – notwithstanding their being the ground for the double dissolution. The same would happen with Abbott whose Senate-rejected legislation is as unpopular as was the case with Fraser’s.

Another disadvantage

There is another circumstance uniquely to the disadvantage of Abbott. Due to its slow population growth, New South Wales is to lose a seat in the House of Representatives. It will go down from 48 seats to 47. Since the redistribution will not be completed until March next year any earlier election would see the amalgamation of Farrer (Sussan Ley) and Nationals-held Riverina. So Abbott would immediately forfeit a safe Coalition seat and provoke a brawl between the Liberals and the Nationals.
These commentators are now saying that Abbott cannot afford to have another budget this term – therefore it would be avoided by having an early election. That was Fraser’s reasoning in 1982. I reject this line of thinking. I advise readers to take it from me: there WILL BE another budget before the next election and Abbott will need to take his medicine on the deficit. I think he might win an election held late next year – and that is when it will be held.