When can the Next Federal Election be Held?

On Twitter recently, the most frequent question I am asked is when “can” the next federal election be held. Second place goes to when “will” the election be held.

This post attempts to answer both questions.

The three-part answer on “when can” the election be held is –

  • The first date for a normal house and half-Senate election is 7 August 2021, if announced this weekend and writs are issued by Monday 5 July.
  • The last date for a normal house and half-Senate election is 21 May 2022. This date gives six weeks to complete the complex Senate count and allows Senators to be declared elected and start their terms on 1 July. A mid-May election would be announced in early April 2022.
  • There is a highly improbable option for a half-Senate election by 21 May 2022 and a separate House election as late as 3 September 2022.

The short answer on “when will” the election be held is –

  • when the Prime Minister thinks his government has the best chance of winning, or
  • if prospects look grim, the last possible date.

The Rough Timetable

On Thursday this week, 1 July 2021, the constitutional bar on issuing writs for a half-Senate election ends. The Prime Minister will be free (COVID quarantine permitting) to visit the Governor General and request a dissolution of the House of Representatives and advise on the issue of writs for a House and a half-Senate election.

It seems highly unlikely the Prime Minister will make such a request this week or in the immediate future.

In my opinion, the likely months for the election are October or November if the Prime Minister chooses to go this year, March 2022 if he chooses to hold over to the new year, or May 2022 if an earlier window of opportunity fails to open.

Which date the Prime Minister chooses will depend on how events and politics unfold over the next nine months. By far the biggest factor working against the election being held in 2021 is on-going delays in vaccination rollout.

Whenever the election is held, it will be a normal federal election for the House and half the Senate.

A double dissolution can be ruled out as there are no triggers available. And the idea that the Prime Minister would consider anything as desperate as holding the House and Senate elections on different dates in 2022 is fanciful.

The Complication of two Chambers with Different Terms

The Australian Parliament consists of two chambers, the terms of each designed to overlap rather than align. Four attempts to tie the terms of the two chambers together were rejected at referendums between 1974 and 1988,

Members of the House of Representatives are elected to serve maximum three year terms. Senators are elected for fixed six year-terms, with half facing election every three years.

While Senate terms are fixed, Senate election dates are variable with two restrictions.

  • Writs for a half-Senate election cannot be issued until one year before the end of Senate terms.
  • The election must be held and counting completed in time for Senators to start their terms on the following 1 July.

These two restrictions create a ten month window between August and May every three years in which House and half-Senate elections can be held.

Scott Morrison can’t start the mechanics of a half-Senate election until this Thursday, one year before current Senate term ends. The half-Senate election must then be held by mid-May 2022 to give the Electoral Commission time to complete the count and allow Senators to start their terms on 1 July 2022.

Terms of the House of Representatives

As explained above, the election window that opens every three years is largely determined by the when half-Senate elections can be held. House of Representatives elections can be held before the Senate election window opens, but only twice in Australian political history (1929 and 1963 see below) have early House-only elections been held.

House terms last three years from the date of the first sitting of the new House after the previous election. The 2019 election was held on 18 May and the new House sat for the first time on 2 July 2019. So the current House expires on 1 July 2022, and using the maximum period allowed for issuing writs and campaigning, the last date for a House election is 3 September 2022.

But a separate half-Senate election would still have to be held by 21 May 2022. Separate elections would double the cost and inconvenience, make it impossible to pass a budget, and turn the half-Senate election into a giant anti-government by-election. It would be an admission by the government it was delaying inevitable defeat, and probably improve the Labor Party’s Senate position ahead of victory at a delayed House election.

So dismiss suggestions the government will split the election dates. It would be dumb politics and bad governance.

The Double Dissolution Legacy

While the coming poll will not be a double dissolution election, its timing is influenced by the 2016 double dissolution.

A double dissolution election, where the House and the whole Senate face election together, is the only way to break the fixed terms of Senators.

After each double dissolution election, fixed terms have to be re-established. The Constitution specifies this be done by backdating Senate terms to the previous 1 July. This contrasts with half-Senate elections where new terms start from the next 1 July. This backdating of terms means double dissolutions always produce a subsequent early election and often shift future elections into the first half of the year.

The usual Federal election period in Australia is August to December. Since 1919, 29 of the 39 House election have been held between August and December. There were also five double dissolution elections held between March and July, and another five elections between March and May that were legacies of an earlier double dissolution.

In 2016 Malcolm Turnbull called a double dissolution election for 2 July. This meant Senate terms were only backdated one day, but meant the next half-Senate election had to be held by May 2019 rather than May 2020. It meant the 2019 House election had to be called for the first half of 2019 rather than the second half.

The same happened after the 1987 double dissolution, with Labor calling March election for 1990, 1993 and 1996. John Howard chose to shift back to second half of the year elections in 1998, a timing retained by elections up until 2019.

Things in the way

The following list of events and dates will be factored into the decision on election timing.

  • The new electoral boundaries for Victoria will be gazetted on 26 July and for Western Australia on 2 August. If a writ were issued before these gazettal dates, the AEC would have to undertake a messy mini-redistribution for each state. This makes mid-September the first practical date for an election.
  • Census day is 10 August. While the Census doesn’t employ as many door to door workers as it used to, it still draws on a pool of labour that overlaps with election day workers.
  • Tokyo Olympics 23 July to 8 August.
  • NSW Local government elections 4 September, a state-wide compulsory vote conducted in person at polling places. Already delayed a year by COVID and best to avoid an overlap with a Federal poll.
  • AFL finals September, Grand Final set for 25 September 2021. WA has the Queens birthday long weekend on 27 September.
  • NRL Grand Final set for 3 October, which is also a long weekend in NSW, Queensland and South Australia.
  • Some states are still on school holidays in early October.
  • While historically the most popular month to hold a Federal election, December hasn’t been used since 1984, and any mention of a December election usually upsets the retail sector.
  • Australia Day 26 January. An election announced straight after Australia Day could be held on 5 March. If announced the weekend before Australia Day, it could be held on 26 February. There has never been a Federal election held in February.
  • South Australian election 19 March. The South Australian Constitution Act allows the state election to be deferred for three weeks if a Commonwealth election is held in March. The announcement of a March election would be made in February which means the South Australian election would be deferred to 9 April.
  • Easter 2022 is 13-18 April with Anzac Day the following weekend and various school holidays around the same time. This band of public holidays usually rules out April for elections and gets in the way of picking dates in May. It usually requires the PM to announce the election a day or two earlier than normal, as in 2019, to work close of rolls and close of nominations around the public holidays.
  • Federal budget early May. If the PM hasn’t announced an election by March, the budget will have to be brought forward and a supply bill passed to cover government expenditure until the new parliament meets. All gets a bit messy.

Here’s my list of the possible election dates.

  • 2021 October 9, 16, 23, 30
  • November 6, 13, 20, 27
  • December 4, 11 less likely
  • 2022 February 26
  • March 5, 12, 19, 26 (with SA election moved)
  • April 2, 9
  • May 21 as earlier dates overlap Easter and Anzac day

Months Past Elections have been Held

The graph below illustrates that elections are normally held in the second half of the year.

Some facts and figures on past elections are -

  • There have been 50 Federal election events, with 46 elections for the House and 44 for the Senate.
  • Of the 50 election events, 40 were joint elections, 32 for the House and half-Senate and another eight House and full-Senate elections. This includes the first election in 1901 and seven double dissolutions. There have also been six House-only elections and four separate half-Senate elections.
  • There are only two House elections that don't pair with a Senate election. The first is the 1929 House-only election when the Bruce government became the only Australian government forced to an election after losing a vote in the House of Representatives. The second was the 1972 election, with the matching half-Senate election set for May 1974 cancelled and replaced by the Whitlam government's double dissolution.
  • There is nothing in the Constitution that requires both elections to be held on the same day, but governments have usually avoid separating the elections. Only Robert Menzies in 1963 has voluntarily chosen to call a House-only election. Menzies called a House only election for December 1963, a year early and at a time when there couldn't be a half-Senate election. Menzies' government had been re-elected with only a two seat majority in 1961, and he called the early election to boost his majority by taking advantage of internal divisions in the Labor Party.
  • Menzies' decision put House and Senate elections out of alignment until 1974, setting in train three Senate-only elections (1964, 1967, 1970) and three House-only elections (1966, 1969, 1972). All up there were 11 Federal elections for one or both chambers in the 16 years between 1961 and 1977, plus another two stand-alone referendums. This rush of elections led to state governments adopting four year terms and joint elections in the 1980s, and fixed terms in the decade that followed. Similar moves for changing Federal terms were rejected four times at referendums between 1974 and 1988.
  • In 1953 Menzies was also the first Prime Minister to call a separate half-Senate election. The 1951 double dissolution had backdated Senate terms, requiring a half-Senate election for May 1953. Trailing Labor at the time, Menzies chose not to call a House election at the same time, holding the next House election in May 1954. Menzies brought the two elections back into alignment in December 1955 at a time when Labor was bitterly divided, bringing forward the next House election to the same date as the required half-Senate election.
  • Malcolm Fraser in 1977 and Bob Hawke in 1984 called early House elections to keep House elections aligned with short half-Senate terms produced by double dissolutions in 1975 and 1983.
  • The experience of Coalition governments in the 1960s revealed that voters can treat Senate-only elections as giant by-elections where they can express their views on the government of the day. The political standing of Prime Ministers Harold Holt and John Gorton were damaged by setbacks at Senate elections in 1967 and 1970.
  • Government's have avoided separate elections since the 1960s experience, with all 18 elections since 1974 being joint elections. Five of these were double dissolutions, and the three in 1983, 1987 and 2016 were engineered by governments that wanted an early election, were unable to call a half-Senate election, and unwilling to call a separate House election.