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What the Hell Is a Double Dissolution?

The last time Australia went to a double dissolution election was 1987. It flopped for Hawke, will it work for Turnbull?

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull threatens to flip the card table. Image from Flickr user Nicolas Raymond and another Flickr user Eva Rinaldi.

Double dissolution. These are the words coming from the mouth of every commentator, political staffer, and guy at your office who isn't sure what it means, but insists on saying "double d."

Essentially, a double dissolution is a snap election, which Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has threatened may happen as early as July 2. And between calling parliament back for an extra day on April 18 and moving the federal budget forward to May 3, all signs point to go.


But why would Turnbull want to send Australia to the polls so soon after becoming PM? And how is a double dissolution different from a regular election? Here are some answers.

What the Hell Just Happened?

All of this comes back to two bills that are struggling to get through the Senate. Both relate to tackling corruption within the building and construction industry, and would re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) industry watchdog.

On March 21, the PM announced he'd received permission from Governor-General Peter Cosgrove to call parliament back on April 18. Disrupting the seven-week parliamentary break and likely forcing a few MPs to shorten their European getaways, this extra sitting day will be used to vote on the two controversial bills.

"If the Senate fails to pass these laws," Turnbull told reporters in Canberra. "I will advise the Governor General to dissolve both houses of parliament and deliver writs for an election."

Australia's last double dissolution was back in 1987, when the Hawke government attempted to claw back a Senate majority by going to an early election over identity document legislation. It was a risky move, and it didn't quite pay off. Although they won a majority in the House of Representatives, Hawke couldn't get the extra Senate seats to establish control of both houses.

Pulling the Trigger for a Double Dissolution

If the two bills in question fail to pass through the Senate, Turnbull will have what he needs to call an early election—what is commonly known as a "trigger."


Simply, if a bill gets the yes vote from the House of Representatives twice and is rejected by the Senate both times, Section 57 of the Australian Constitution gives the PM the power to kick everyone out of both houses of Parliament and call for a federal election.

This isn't the first time Turnbull has had the opportunity to trigger a double dissolution during his tenure as PM. He could've just as easily called for another vote on the abolition of the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.

What's hard to figure out is whether Turnbull actually cares about these bills enough to threaten an election, or if he's just using them as an excuse to go to the polls early. As Leigh Sales asked on 7.30, "Is the whole nation's future at stake over this one oversight body [the ABCC]?"

Regardless of how much Turnbull gets excited over corruption in the construction industry, the reality is that he's now right down to the wire. Section 57 clearly states a double dissolution can't be called in the six months leading up to the end of the House of Reps' three-year term: on November 11, 2016. This means the very latest date Turnbull could dissolve parliament would be May 11.

If You Don't Like the Game, Flip the Table

Perhaps the best clue about Turnbull's motivation came from him moving the budget forward to May 3, a full week earlier than it was set to be released. That he apparently forgot to tell treasurer Scott Morrison—who was still talking about about a May 10 budget during a radio interview yesterday—suggests it might've been a snap decision. But what this new release date does do is give parliament a week to pass the budget before both houses may be dissolved for an election. It seems that he really does want the election more than passed bills.


Last night on 7.30, Turnbull said that an election was necessary to rectify a longstanding parliamentary stalemate. The fact it's so difficult for Turnbull to pass the ABCC legislation backs this up: the Coalition needs support from six out of eight cross-bench senators. Currently, they only have Family First senator Bob Day.

This is because the Senate is so fragmented by smaller parties. While the Coalition currently has 33 Senate seats, the remaining 43 are divided up between the ALP (25 seats), Greens (10 seats), Palmer United Party, Liberal Democratic Party, Family First, the Australian Motoring Party, and four independents.

"When the houses persistently can't agree, there has to be a mechanism for breaking that deadlock," Turnbull told Sales on Monday night.

Full On Panic Mode

Responding to rumours of the double dissolution, Labor leader Bill Shorten told reporters: "Today Australians have seen a prime minister in full panic mode." And there are those who think the PM is trying to capitalise on his post-Abbott goodwill that polls suggest is already fading.

However, the general consensus seems to be that it's the cross-benchers in the Australian Senate who are panicking. In a normal election only half of the senators—those who sit six-year terms—would be up for re-election. In a double dissolution, everybody is out and has to re-contest their seats. And with the senate voting reforms passing after a marathon 40-hour debate, an election could see many smaller parties, which relied on preference votes, swept out of the Senate.

Turnbull is essentially calling the cross-bencher's bluff, telling them to vote for these bills or get kicked out of politics. But whether you think Turnbull is playing savvy politics, or just flipping the card table, the prime minister made his position clear when addressing a news conference earlier this week: "The time for playing games is over."