A double dissolution is a procedure permitted under the Australian Constitution to resolve deadlocks in the bicameral Parliament of Australia between the House of Representatives (lower house) and the Senate (upper house). A double dissolution is the only circumstance in which the entire Senate can be dissolved.
Similar to the United States Congress, but unlike the British Parliament, Australia's two parliamentary houses generally have almost equal legislative power (the Senate cannot amend, although may reject outright, appropriation (money) bills, which must originate in the House of Representatives). Governments, which are formed in the House of Representatives, can be frustrated by a Senate determined to reject their legislation.
If the conditions (called a trigger) are satisfied, the Prime Minister can advise the Governor-General to dissolve both houses of Parliament and call a full election. If, after the election, the legislation that triggered the double dissolution is still not passed by the two houses, then a joint sitting of the two houses of parliament can be called to vote on the legislation. If the legislation is passed by the joint sitting, then the legislation is deemed to have passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The 1974 joint sitting remains the only occurrence in federal Australian history.
Historically, a double dissolution election has been called in lieu of an early election, with the formal trigger bill not playing a significant role during the subsequent election campaign.
Part of section 57 of the Constitution provides:
If the House of Representatives passes any proposed law, and the Senate rejects or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree, and if after an interval of three months the House of Representatives, in the same or the next session, again passes the proposed law with or without any amendments which have been made, suggested, or agreed to by the Senate, and the Senate rejects or fails to pass it, or passes it with amendments to which the House of Representatives will not agree, the Governor-General may dissolve the Senate and the House of Representatives simultaneously. But such dissolution shall not take place within six months before the date of the expiry of the House of Representatives by effluxion of time.
Section 57 also provides that, following the election, if the Senate a third time rejects the bill or bills that were the subject of the double dissolution, the Governor-General may convene a joint sitting of the two houses to consider the bill or bills, including any amendments which have been previously proposed in either house, or any new amendments. If a bill is passed by an absolute majority of the total membership of the joint sitting, it is treated as though it had been passed separately by both houses, and is presented for royal assent. The only time this procedure was invoked was in the 1974 joint sitting.
The double dissolution provision comes into play if the Senate and House twice fail to agree on a piece of legislation (in section 57 called "a proposed law", and commonly referred to as a "trigger"). When one or more such triggers exist, the Governor-General may dissolve both the House and Senate - pursuant to section 57 of the Constitution - and issue writs for an election in which every seat in the Parliament is contested.
The conditions stipulated by section 57 of the Constitution are:
There is no similar provision for resolving deadlocks with respect to bills that have originated in the Senate and are blocked in the House of Representatives.
Though the Constitution refers to possible actions by the Governor-General, it had long been presumed that convention required the Governor-General to act only on the advice of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. However, as the 1975 constitutional crisis demonstrated, the Governor-General is not compelled to follow the Prime Minister's advice. In these cases, he or she must be personally satisfied that the conditions specified in the Constitution apply, and is entitled to seek additional information or advice before coming to a decision.
- When the two Houses have so far disagreed, the proposed law passed by the House of Representatives having been twice rejected by the Senate (throughout these reasons I shall include in the word "reject" or "rejection" the failure to pass or a passage with amendments unacceptable to the House of Representatives), an appropriate period of time having elapsed between the first rejection and its second passage by the House of Representatives, the Governor-General is empowered to dissolve both Houses at the same time. The power given by s. 5 of the Constitution is only a power to dissolve the House of Representatives. The dissolution of the Senate can only be effected by action pursuant to s. 57. The basis of this power of dissolving the Senate along with the House of Representatives is described in the first paragraph of s. 57. It seems to have been thought that, when exercising this power, the Governor-General dissolves both Houses in respect of or in relation to some specific proposed law which has thus been twice rejected by the Senate in accordance with the prescription of the first paragraph of s. 57. But this, to my mind, is a basic misconception. Whilst it is true that there must have been in fact the required rejection of a proposed law by the Senate before the Governor-General may lawfully dissolve both Houses he does not dissolve the Houses in relation to or in respect of any particular law. He merely dissolves the Houses. (at p. 450)
- The means by which the Governor-General makes known his act of dissolution is by a proclamation. It seems that such a proclamation customarily contains a recital to the effect that some specific proposed law, or on this occasion specific proposed laws, has or have been rejected as required by s. 57. But, in my opinion, such a recital referring to a specific proposed law is quite unnecessary. Indeed, it may be apt to be misleading. In the first place, it is not given to the Governor-General to decide whether or not in fact the occasion for the exercise of the power of double dissolution has arisen. In my opinion, only this Court may decide that fact if it comes into question. But of course, the Governor-General must make up his own mind whether the occasion has arisen for him to exercise his power of double dissolution and he may recite that it has. But what he determines for himself is in no wise binding. To recite that a specific proposed law or specific proposed laws has or have in fact satisfied the prescription of s. 57 may tend to give the impression that the Governor-General is deciding that matter of fact. Secondly, such a recital tends to give support to what I consider the misconception that the dissolution is in respect of or in relation to a specific proposed law or specific proposed laws. (at p. 450)
There have been 7 double dissolutions: in 1914, 1951, 1974, 1975, 1983, 1987 and 2016. However, a joint sitting following a double dissolution pursuant to section 57 has only taken place once, in 1974.[note 1]
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In an election following a double dissolution, each state elects their entire 12-seat senate delegation, while the two territories represented in the Senate each elect their two senators as they would in a regular federal election. Because all seats are contested in the same election, it is easier for smaller parties to win seats under the Senate proportional voting system: the quota for the election of each senator in each Australian state in a full Senate election is 7.69% (), while in a normal half-Senate election the quota is 14.28% ().
While the threshold is lower for smaller parties, for more significant parties the distribution of candidates' votes as they are eliminated has a rounding effect. A double dissolution favours parties that have a vote significantly greater than a multiple of the required double dissolution vote and greater than a multiple of the normal quota. It disadvantages those that do not. For example, a party achieving 10% of the vote is likely to get one candidate out of six elected in a regular election (as minor parties' votes are distributed until they get to 14.28%) but the same party with the same vote is likely to have one candidate out of 12 elected during a double dissolution election (as their second candidate will be left with 2.31% and be excluded early in the count). A party with 25% is likely to achieve three candidates out of 12 during a double dissolution election (three candidates and 1.83% of the vote for their 4th candidate distributed to other candidates) and two out of six in a regular election (one candidate taking 14.28% and the second holding 10.72% remains standing until minor parties' preferences push the second candidate to a quota).
Since the abolition of group voting tickets in the lead-up to the 2016 general election, it is no longer possible to create "calculators" that assess the senate election outcome with reasonable accuracy. Antony Green's working guide is that "if a party has more than 0.5 of a quota, it will be in the race for one of the final seats". His calculation of the percentage of primary-vote required for the first six full- and half-quotas at a double dissolution election are as follows:
Senate Quotas Ready Reckoner Quotas % Vote Quotas % Vote 0.5 3.8 1 7.7 1.5 11.5 2 15.4 2.5 19.2 3 23.1 3.5 26.9 4 30.8 4.5 34.6 5 38.5 5.5 42.3 6 46.2
Unlike the case of a normal half-Senate election, the newly elected Senate, like the House, takes office immediately. The Senate cycle is altered, with the next change of Senate membership scheduled for the third date that falls on 1 July after the election. The senators from each state are divided into two classes: the first class receive three-year terms and the second class receive six-year terms (both of these may be interrupted by another double dissolution). Thus for the Parliament elected in the March 1983 double dissolution election, the next two Senate changeovers would have been due on 1 July 1985 and 1 July 1988, while the term of the new House of Representatives would have expired in 1986. Bob Hawke decided to call a regular federal election for December 1984 after only 18 months in office, to bring the two election cycles back into synchronisation.
|Normal six-seat Senate election[context needed]
In which a candidate requires 14.28% of votes
|Double dissolution 12-seat Senate election
In which a candidate requires 7.69% of votes
|Party X (10% votes)||Party Y (25% Votes)||Party X (10% votes)||Party Y (25% votes)|
|One seat (with 4.28 percentage points in preferences)||Two seats (with 3.56 points in preferences)||One seat (remaining 2.31% distributed)||Three seats (remaining 1.93% distributed)|
|A sixth of the seats (14.28% of seats)||A third of the seats (28.56% of seats)||A twelfth of the seats (7.69% of seats)||One quarter of the seats (23.07% of seats)|
Section 13 of the Australian Constitution requires the senate to divide the state senators into two classes following a double dissolution, with three-year and six-year terms. This has traditionally been done by allocating long terms to the senators elected earliest in the count. The 1984 amendments to the Commonwealth Electoral Act required the Australian Electoral Commission to conduct a recount for half the seats which was seen as producing a fairer allocation. This alternative allocation has not yet been used. Following double dissolution elections in 1987 and 2016, the order-elected method continued to be used, despite Senate resolutions in 1998 and 2010 agreeing to use the new method.
The following table is a summary of the relevant details:
|Date of double dissolution||Date of election||Governor-General||Prime Minister||Leader of the Opposition||Relevant bills, circumstances and outcome|
|30 July 1914||5 September 1914||Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson||Joseph Cook||Andrew Fisher||Government Preference Prohibition Bill 1913. The Cook government was defeated and the bill lapsed.|
|19 March 1951||28 April 1951||William McKell||Robert Menzies||Ben Chifley||Commonwealth Bank Bill 1950 [No. 2]. The Menzies government was returned with a reduced majority in the lower house, but now with a majority in the Senate. The bill was presented to Parliament again and passed both houses.|
|11 April 1974||18 May 1974||Sir Paul Hasluck||Gough Whitlam||Billy Snedden||6 bills.[note 2] The Whitlam government was returned, but still without a majority in the Senate. The bills were reintroduced and again rejected by the Senate. A joint sitting took place, where all the bills were passed. Subsequently, the High Court ruled that the Petroleum and Minerals Authority Bill had not been eligible for the double dissolution process, as the Senate had not had sufficient time to "fail to pass" it.|
|Sir John Kerr||Malcolm Fraser (caretaker)||21 bills.[note 3] Fraser had opposed the bills as Leader of the Liberal-Country coalition Opposition. He had been appointed caretaker Prime Minister when the Whitlam government was dismissed by Sir John Kerr after being unable to obtain passage of its appropriation bills. The Fraser minority government immediately lost a no-confidence motion in the lower house; but Kerr dissolved the Parliament on Fraser's advice (a condition of his appointment). Fraser remained the caretaker Prime Minister during the election campaign. On 13 December the Fraser government was elected in its own right, with a record majority.|
|5 March 1983||Sir||Malcolm Fraser||Bob Hawke||13 bills.[note 4] The Fraser coalition government was defeated at the election, and the bills lapsed.|
|5 June 1987||11 July 1987||Sir||Bob Hawke||John Howard||Australia Card Bill 1986. The Hawke government was returned, but the bill was abandoned after the election.|
|9 May 2016||2 July 2016||Sir||Bill Shorten||3 bills.[note 5] The Turnbull government was returned at the election, with a reduced and very narrow majority. All three bills passed with amendments after debate in the new parliament.|