Last year I wrote a post on possible elections dates. In the post I wrote “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.”
This improbable option keeps being re-cycled as a real possibility.
If the government doesn’t call a May election for the House in conjunction with the required half-Senate election, it would be an admission by the government that it is too frit to face the electorate. There is no constitutional or public administration reason to hold separate elections for the House and half-Senate in 2022. Separating the elections would be because the government saw some electoral benefit.
In my view there is no benefit for the government in splitting the elections. In fact, splitting the election would be a terrible re-election strategy. Forcing the electorate to vote twice at most only 15 weeks apart would be deeply deeply unpopular and almost guarantee the government’s defeat.
No Australian Prime Minister has ever called a separate half-Senate election at a time when a House election was due. No Prime Minister has ever delayed a House election beyond its normal term by creating two elections 15 weeks apart. Prime Minister Morrison is not going to the first Prime Minister to engage in the folly of splitting the two elections in this way. He didn’t do it in 2019 and he is not going to do it in 2022.
The only people peddling this split election nonsense are people on twitter who hate the government. Splitting the elections would guarantee defeat. The government is not going to select the option that is its worst possible option for winning re-election.
So having vented my irritation that this nonsense is still being peddled, let me explain why the elections can be split.
The Complication of two Chambers with Different Terms
The Australian Parliament consists of two chambers whose terms are defined in the Constitution. The terms of each were 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.
The complications these difference create for election timing are as follows –
- House terms last three years from the first sitting of a new Parliament, NOT from the date of the election. This means that a full House term can run a little longer than three years from the date of the last election.
- Writs for a half-Senate election cannot be issued until one year before the end of Senate terms. In the current term that date passed on 1 July 2021.
- The election must be held and counting completed in time for Senators to start their terms on the following 1 July, which is why 21 May 2022 is accepted as the last possible date for a half-Senate election in 2022.
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 together. In the current term that window has been from 7 August 2021 to 21 May 2022.
In the 50 years since the last split election, the only elections held outside this three-yearly window have been double dissolutions (1974, 1975, 1983, 1987, 2016), or elections that had to be held early because of the preceding double dissolution (1977, 1984).
Have Previous Elections Been Split
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 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 avoided 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.
- Gough Whitlam was going to advise for a separate half-Senate election in November 1975 but was dismissed as Prime Minister first.
- 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.
- Governments 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.
All of the above examples of split elections occurred either because a House election was called when the Constitution prevented a half-Senate election, or where a half-Senate election was required but the government still had more than a year to run on its House term.
The 2022 election cycle is totally different from the above examples. The usually understood three year term of the current House of Representatives is up in May 2022, three years after the previous election. A half-Senate election has to be held in May. There is absolutely no case that can be made to split the elections at this point in the government’s term.
Gaps Longer than Three Years Between Elections
As already explained, a term of the House of Representatives is three years from the date of its first sitting after an election. That’s why an election is due in May after three years, but the term of the House does not expire until 1 July. Using the maximum allowed time for issuing writs and campaigning means the 2022 House election could be as late as 3 September. Though as I keep stressing, the elections will not be split so both elections will be held in May when due.
There is a delay of 3-4 weeks to finalise results and return writs. Up to 30 days are allowed after the return of writs before Parliament must sit. A minimum five weeks is allowed for an election campaign. If you add these various times together, then the last possible election date for every term of parliament is about three years and three months after the previous election.
That’s one of the reasons the Constitution allows Ministers to remain in office for up to three months without being a member of Parliament. It covers for the gap around elections where Ministers are not MPs.
Of the 46 House of Representatives’ elections, only 13 have been held after three years had elapsed since the previous election. If Scott Morrison calls the election for 21 May, it will be the 14th to go beyond three years. It will be the same third weekend in May election as in 2019, though alignment of calendars makes it a trivial three days beyond three years.
Only eight elections have seen the issue of writs taking place more than three years after the previous election.
The full list of election gaps longer than three years is shown below. ‘*’ indicates where the writs were issued more than three years after the previous election. The final column shows the fate of the government at the election.
|Previous Election||Election Date||Election Gap||Prime Minister (Party)||Result|
|12 Dec 1906||13 Apr 1910 *||3 yrs 4 mths 1 day||Alfred Deakin (Liberal)||Defeated|
|28 Sep 1946||10 Dec 1949 *||3 yrs 2 mths 12 days||Ben Chifley (Labor)||Defeated|
|13 Apr 1910||31 May 1913 *||3 yrs 1 mth 18 days||Andrew Fisher (Labor)||Defeated|
|9 Oct 2004||24 Nov 2007 *||3 yrs 1 mth 15 days||John Howard (Liberal)||Defeated|
|15 Sep 1934||23 Oct 1937 *||3 yrs 1 mth 8 days||Joseph Lyons (UAP)||Re-elected|
|25 Oct 1969||2 Dec 1972 +*||3 yrs 1 mth 7 days||William McMahon (Liberal)||Defeated|
|21 Aug 1943||28 Sep 1946 *||3 yrs 1 mth 7 days||Ben Chifley (Labor)||Re-elected|
|3 Oct 1998||10 Nov 2001 *||3 yrs 1 mth 2 days||John Howard (Liberal)||Re-elected|
|28 Apr 1951||29 May 1954||3 yrs 1 mth 1 day||Robert Menzies (Liberal)||Re-elected|
|21 Aug 2010||7 Sep 2013||3 yrs 17 days||Kevin Rudd (Labor)||Defeated|
|22 Nov 1958||9 Dec 1961||3 yrs 17 days||Robert Menzies (Liberal)||Re-elected|
|14 Nov 1925||17 Nov 1928||3 yrs 3 days||Stanley Bruce (Nationalist)||Re-elected|
|13 Dec 1919||16 Dec 1922||3 yrs 3 days||William Hughes (Nationalist)||Re-elected **|
Notes: * – writ issued more than three years after previous election date. + – House only election. ** – In 1922 the Nationalist government lost its majority and formed the first Coalition government with the Country Party. One of the prices of this Coalition was Hughes’s replacement as Prime Minister by Stanley Bruce.
The table shows that the longer a government hangs on, the more likely it is to be defeated. I’m not suggesting that the delayed election caused defeat. Rather, governments that are facing defeat are more likely to hang on as long as possible in the hope something comes along to save them from defeat.
The longest election gap under Deakin in 1910 is noteworthy. It is the only parliament that expired, so it ran its full three years from first sitting. One reason for the long gap was a constitutional change in 1906 to move the change over date of Senators to 1 July rather than 1 January. That meant the Senate term was extended by six months so a half-Senate election did not have to be held at the end of 1909. The extended election gap allowed the two elections to be held together at the end of the Senate term. The fact the government was facing defeat was another factor.
A Few Other Problems with Split Elections
The current view is that after the budget week sitting at the end of March, the date for the election will be announced in early to mid-April for one of 7, 14 or 21 May. The House would be dissolved and no longer sit, and the Senate would not sit again before its term ends on 30 June.
This means the government cannot pass the budget before the election. The government will instead introduce what is called a Supply bill, an appropriation of funds to allow the normal services of government to continue after 1 July until the Parliament can return to pass a budget. The Supply bill would appropriate funds at a pro-rata rate based on the previous year’s budget appropriation bill. It would normally be supply for a period of five months, till the end of November.
When the Bill is introduced, I would expect the government to be asked for an assurance that the Supply bill is to cover a joint election in May. If it does, the Supply bill will sail through the House and Senate quickly. If the government won’t give an assurance on joint elections in May, then the Supply bill will face a tougher passage, and may even be amended in the Senate to deny supply if there is not a joint election.
This matters, because when the Prime Minister visits the Governor-General, a standard question before granting a dissolution request is whether supply has been assured. The dissolution will only be granted once supply is obtained. If the government confirms the supply bill is for a joint election, then supply will pass and the government would be free to call an election.
One other problem with split elections is, can the House and Senate continue with their May and June sitting schedules while a half-Senate election campaign is underway. And would the House and the old Senate continue to sit after the election while the results are still being counted?
Then when the House expires on 1 July, can the Senate sit alone?
One of the problems with split elections is it might result in the Parliament not sitting between May and the end of October, at which point there would still have been no budget passed. There may have to be a second Supply bill passed.
Joint elections in May would see Parliament resume in July and budget debate resume. Splitting the elections creates a weird twilight period where government cannot meet parliament for months, cannot pass a budget, and ends up in caretaker mode for an extended period. And the country has to put up with month after month of formal election campaigning.
And in Summary
There is no justifiable reason to split the House and Senate elections in 2022. There is no political benefit for the government in doing it. Splitting the elections would put the process of government on hold for months on end. It has the potential to create a nasty constitutional dispute over supply if the government won’t give an assurance to hold joint elections.
It would be deeply unpopular with voters. It would double to cost of holding the election.
If you want another hint the elections will not be split, consider the decision of House Speaker Andrew Wallace. Last week he ruled out holding a by-election for the vacancy in the South Australian seat of Spence. This was to avoid Spence voters being forced to the polls three times in two months, for a March state election, for a by-election and then a May Federal election.
So everything points to a joint election in May for the House and half the Senate.
The two elections are not going to be split.