Thursday, March 24, 2016

DD: the "it's simply not happening" case

This evening Crown Bet is paying $1.27 for a double dissolution election, and $3.50 for a normal election. In probability terms, the betting market believes that there is a 73 per cent probability of a double dissolution.

I am not convinced. As much as the Government may want it, the Achilles' heal in these plans is supply.

Without legislation to spend money, from 1 July 2016 there will be no salaries for public servants, nor indeed their masters, the politicians. There will be no funds for the Defence Force.  No funds for Border Force. No funds for diplomats. And while pensions are covered by special appropriations, there will be no funds for the Centrelink staff to pay those pensions. Much of the ordinary business of government will grind to a halt. Furthermore, without supply guaranteed, the Governor General is unlikely to grant a double dissolution.

So those elements of the Senate that are hostile to the Government have a substantial bargaining chip in delaying the passage of supply bills. Labor, the Greens and the disgruntled cross-benchers can easily band together to stall things such that a double dissolution does not occur.

Let's look at this scenario in some detail.

The first business of the recalled Senate on 18 April 2016 could be to adjourn proceedings to the previously planned next sitting day of 10 May 2016.  It is a little tricky. The Senate would first need to agree to suspend standing order 53, which says that only a Minister can move an adjournment motion. Once suspended (and the Government does not have the numbers in the Senate to prevent this), anyone could move an adjournment of business to 10 May. Furthermore the motion could withdraw any power the President of the Senate might otherwise have to recall the Senate before 10 May.

Yes the motion could be defeated by the Government going back to the Governor General with another instrument under section 5 of the Constitution to prorogue parliament and recall it to sit (say) later that day or the next day. However, this could descend into high farce, with the Governor General repeatedly establishing a session of Parliament where the Senate quickly proceeded to adjourn itself. It would be undignified, and would not reflect well on the institutions of Parliament nor Prime Minister.

Yes, such adjournments would create a double dissolution trigger in respect of the Australian Building and Construction Commission. But with a little more tactical agreement, it is a trigger the Government could not use.

It would be immaterial that the House of Representatives met on Tuesday 3 May and passed supply bills. Those bills would effectively only arrive in the Senate on Tuesday 10 May. On their arrival, the hostile elements in the Senate could simply talk them out - filibuster - and delay consideration of the supply bills until after 11:59:59 pm on the evening of Wednesday 11 May. At this point the Governor General can no longer grant a double dissolution.

Last week the Senate gave us an able demonstration of its capacity to filibuster and delay the consideration of bills. Furthermore, while some Senators may not actually consider voting against supply bills, they would happily delay their passage until (say) Thursday 12 May, when it is too late to call a double dissolution. No one would be harmed, and the normal business of government would be funded from 1 July 2016 (perhaps with the need for the full Budget bills to be passed before 30 November 2016).

Having established that it is technically possible for those Senators hostile to the Government to frustrate a double dissolution, it is important to ask whether it is politically feasible. How would the public react to such maneuverings in order to achieve a tactical process victory over Malcolm Turnbull? It would highlight concerns with the legitimacy of Senators sitting on less than 1 per cent of the popular vote. It could also damage the Labor and Greens brands and any demonstrations those parties would try to mount for responsible governance. But equally it could be seen as over-reach by the Turnbull Government, seeking to impose its will on the democratically elected and (some would argue) more representative Senate.

Make no mistake, the government's determination to get to a double dissolution is a high risk plan that could easily be defeated should Labor, the Greens, the grumpy and the grizzled unite. Given the job losses a number of cross-benchers face with a double dissolution, they might just be motivated enough to give effect to a plan like that outlined above. 

1 comment:

  1. Excellent analysis. Amazing that the well-paid Canberra Press Gallery haven't grasped this issue. They're truly hopeless.
    Labor now has so many options to hurt Turnbull it's not funny. If I was them (and I had Green/Cross-Bench support) I would adjourn to 10 May and then debate the Marriage Equality Bill while Malcolm pulls his hair out.
    Labor should definitely "delay" supply until 12 May. Turnbull has a lot more to lose than Labor. After crowing about his political masterstroke (recalling the Senate) he would suffer a humiliating blow if he couldn't get a DD. The electorate would see he was too incompetent to even organise that. Further, they won't be happy campers when he finally tells them the true election date. They'll feel like they've been on the election treadmill for years.

    Machiavelli must be turning in his grave.