Australian Financial Review

Coalition could gain control of Senate
Aug 30
Feedback Malcolm Mackerras

On Australia Day 2005 who will be the prime minister of Australia? And who will be the president of the United States of America?

I am willing to make a prediction on the second question but not on the first. John Forbes Kerry will be the 44th American president.

In other words, I think John Winston Howard has a better chance to win a fourth term in Australia than George Walker Bush has to win a second term in the US.

There is a conventional view that each time a leader wins an election it becomes more difficult to win the next. On that basis the chances of Bush and Howard should be the reverse of my assessment.

There is "something" in the view that governments lose support as they get older, but it does not always follow.

I remember Bob Menzies celebrating eight years as continuous prime minister in December 1957. No pundit predicted he would lose the next election, due in the spring of 1958.

And in fact he won his biggest-ever victory in November 1958.

Howard celebrated eight years as prime minister in March this year. Most pundits at the time (but not me) expected him to lose this year.

However, because there is something in the view that governments gradually lose support over time, Howard may yet fail to win a fourth term.

Bush will lose because he is incompetent and reckless. If Howard wins it will be because he is competent and cautious.

Pundits who do not know, often pronounce: "It will be very close". Usually the result is actually a landslide one way or the other. Consequently my favourite comment is to say: "I confidently predict that there will be a result, and that result will lie somewhere in a range between a landslide to Howard and a landslide to Latham."

There is much truth in the aphorism often stated by noted British psephologist David Butler that "electoral history is littered with unexpected landslides".

Readers may get the impression that I have nothing to say about this election. In one sense that is true. So far as the House of Representatives is concerned, there is nothing to add to the above.

By contrast, I have plenty to say about the Senate - the result for which is, in my opinion, predictable.

Howard has been Prime Minister for three parliaments, the 38th, 39th and 40th. They are three of the five parliaments in which the prime minister put in place "toy triggers" designed to create the impression he was likely to double dissolve under section 57 of the constitution.

The first such parliament was the 22nd, under Menzies (1956-58), when 14 toy triggers were put in place. The second was the 33rd under Hawke (1983-84) when there were two.

The numbers of toy triggers under Howard have been four in the 38th, one in the 39th and seven in the 40th.

In case my terminology is not clear, toy triggers are bills. They are put in place as triggers when the prime minister has not the slightest intention to double dissolve. It was never plausible to predict double dissolutions in 1958, 1984, 1997, 2001 or 2003. The technical conditions were available, to be sure. There were also ignorant pundits who predicted double dissolutions.

Any competent observer of the Senate could tell you that the Howard government has always been in a strong position in our federal upper house.

Furthermore, any competent psephologist can tell you that, provided he again wins the House of Representatives with a reliable majority, Howard will be in his strongest-ever position in the coming (41st) parliament.

I mentioned that Menzies put in place 14 toy triggers in 1958. All 14 bills became law in 1959. Provided that Howard wins the House of Representatives again, with a reliable majority, the seven current toy triggers will become law in 2005. Moreover, he will be able to enact further reforms to Australia's industrial relations system.

Subject only to getting his fourth lower-house win, Howard will be in as strong a position in 2005 and 2006 as Menzies was in 1959 and 1960.

At present the coalition has 35senators, Labor 28, the Democrats seven and the Greens two. There are four others: Brian Harradine (Independent, Tasmania), Shayne Murphy (Independent, Tasmania, but elected in 1998 as Labor), Meg Lees (Independent, South Australia, but elected in 1998 as a Democrat) and Len Harris (One Nation, Queensland). So the total crossbench is 13 senators.

I confidently predict that from July next year the coalition will have 38 senators and Labor 26, a gain of three for the coalition and a loss of two for Labor. I also predict the crossbench will have 12 senators, being eight Greens and four Democrats.

Notice my prediction of 38 for the coalition. This is exactly half the 76-strong Senate.

I could write a lengthy article explaining the arithmetic of all this, but I lack the space here. Let me say only this: that although the coalition will not have an actual majority in the Senate, its position will be so strong that it will effectively control the parliament as a whole - provided that its lower house majority is still there.

These thoughts bring me to ask myself this question: what was the silliest political comment I have read this year?

I nominate a comment by Kim Beazley reported with approval by Laurie Oakes in a column dated June 29.

According to Beazley, and commended by Oakes, Howard was a fool not to double dissolve in 2003. Howard would have won the House of Representatives again, and by such a margin Beazley averred, that "it would have taken us 20 years to rebuild".

What this nonsense overlooks is that, by double dissolving, Howard would have wrecked the coalition's position in the Senate. To do that would have diminished Howard's effectiveness, not increased it. The truth is that, once your lower house majority is reliable, a lot of extra backbenchers are a hindrance rather than a help.

If Howard had been so stupid as to double dissolve he would now have 32 senators. He preferred instead to have 38, the number he will have a year from now.

So Howard was as wise not to double dissolve in 2003 as Menzies was wise in 1958. And if the House of Representatives result is another win Howard would have every reason to be as smug as Menzies was after his 1958 win.

I ask myself a final question: what will the Senate position be if Latham wins?

Prediction here is very easy. If Latham is prime minister there will be a double dissolution of the 41st Parliament. If Howard and Costello are prime ministers there will not.


  • Malcolm Mackerras is visiting fellow in political science, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, at the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra.