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your guide to double dissolution: what is it and is it likely?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In parliament last Wednesday, everyone’s favourite YouTube celebrity/Greens Senator Scott Ludlam challenged Tony Abbott to call a double dissolution, saying ‘if it’s an election you want then bring it on’. The phrase was repeated by Greens leader Christine Milne and Opposition Leader Bill Shorten (hopefully with some sassy finger snaps) who have both challenged the government to pull the trigger on a double dissolution.

But what exactly is a double dissolution? The phrase has been used a lot in the past few years – particularly since the hung parliament following the 2010 election – but its meaning is not widely understood, particularly by those of us born after 1975.

What is it?

A double dissolution is when both houses of parliament – the House of Representatives, headed by the Prime Minister, and the Senate – are dissolved and an election is called to replace every single politician.  It’s happened more often than you might think – six times since federation in 1901 – but the most famous was in 1975 following the dismissal of then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

However a double dissolution is not the same as an early election, which can be called by the Prime Minister at any time. It’s also not the same as sacking the Prime Minister, although the only sacking of a sitting PM in Australia’s history was followed by a double dissolution.

How does it work?

Under Australia’s Constitution, certain conditions have to be met before a double dissolution can be called.  To become law, a bill must be passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate, so if the Senate votes to reject something that has been passed by the House of Reps it does not become law. To form government, a political party needs only to control the House of Reps, so by requiring bills to pass both houses of parliament (one of which is not necessarily controlled by the party who have formed government) the system places a limit on the power of the government.

For a double dissolution to take place a bill must be passed by the House of Reps and rejected by the Senate, and then at least three months later in the same or the next session of parliament that exact same bill (without any amendments or additions) must again be passed by the House of Reps and voted down in the Senate.  This is the ‘trigger’ for a double dissolution, but as Julie Bishop said this week: ‘just because you’ve got a trigger doesn’t mean you have to pull it’.  For a double dissolution to take place the Prime Minister must appeal to the Governor-General, but they don’t have to do it just because a trigger has taken place.

What’s the purpose of it?

The purpose of a double dissolution is to abolish parliament when a stalemate has been reached between the two houses and start again from scratch. If the Senate won’t pass any legislation from the House of Reps then the government cannot function.  A double dissolution is like someone coming in a flipping the chess board when a stalemate is reached so the players have to start again (more or less).

What’s the Whitlam connection?

What happened in 1975 was that the Senate refused to pass any bills from the House of Reps.  This is what’s called blocking supply – bills that allow government to function and spend money on a day to day basis are blocked, so the government can’t do anything.  There had already been a double dissolution in 1974 triggered by some 21 bills that had failed to pass both houses on multiple occasions, which was called by Whitlam.  He was voted back into power, but the resulting Senate was still hostile and the House of Reps still couldn’t get any bills through.

When the opposition (headed by Malcolm Fraser) blocked supply in the Senate, Whitlam refused to call another double dissolution and the Governor-General was called in to resolve the stalemate, which he did by flipping the chessboard.  He sacked the government, and Fraser formed a ‘caretaker’ government, meaning he was temporarily Prime Minister.  In this capacity, Fraser then called a double dissolution, scattering the politicians all over the living room floor like so many chess pieces.

How likely is a double dissolution under Abbott?

Pretty unlikely.  So far only one bill has failed to pass the Senate on two occasions and typically this has to happen with lots of bills before a double dissolution is deemed necessary.  And the situation in 1975 had some other unique elements as well – two Labor Senators had died while in office and were replaced by a Liberal and an Independent, as the law at the time meant their replacements were chosen by the Premier of the state they represented.  Both Senators came from states with Liberal governments, so both were replaced with people who were Liberal-friendly even though they’d been voted in for the Labor party, and that’s what led to the hostile Senate.  That law has now been changed in order to prevent a constitutional crisis like the one in 1975 from happening again, but it’s one of several reasons the Whitlam dismissal was (and still is) so controversial.

Right now, though, the make up of the Senate is about to change.  On 1 July the Senators who lost at the last election will be replaced by their successors.  The balance of power will be shared by the Greens, the new Palmer United Party senators (so far Palmer himself is the only PUP member to be in parliament, as he was the only one in the House of Reps), and the Motoring Enthusiasts Party’s Ricky Muir, who has a steep learning curve ahead of him.  Abbott seems confident he can work with these new Senators to implement his agenda, but nothing is certain.  The game is about to change completely, and with so many new players involved, anything could happen.

Bring it on.

One thought on “your guide to double dissolution: what is it and is it likely?

  1. Just a few supplementary comments. Among the many weaknesses in our system is that it allows a dispute over legislation, such as the budget, to become a means for throwing out an elected government.

    There is no logical reason why the blocking of supply by the Senate in 1975 should have resulted in the removal of the recently elected Government, and a new election. That occurred only because of the exercise of royal power by the Governor-General.

    When people discuss the Senate and supply, they seem to miss its connection with the republican issue. Abolition of the monarchy should include abolition of its powers, such as the power to remove elected governments. The possibility of the government being removed through Crown power provides an incentive for a hostile Senate to block supply. In other words, the availability of this outdated royal right encourages political instability.

    This issue is being completely ignored by the republicans. If you want a republican proposal which also removes Crown power and makes the Senate less of a threat to stability, you can support the Advancing Democracy model at

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