Early election

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Early election

Posted 26/08/2010 by Nicholas Horne

The House of Representatives that is emerging from the 2010 election, and the fact that the next government will be a minority government, raises the spectre of the electorate going to the polls well before the next federal election would otherwise be expected. If an election takes place prior to mid-2013 it will only be for the House of Representatives and the territory senators; the rest of the Senate will not be in play unless there is a double dissolution.

It has been reported that both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have committed to not having an election before August 2013. The fact remains, however, that a Prime Minister can request an election at any time (elections are almost always called before the maximum term of the House of Representatives expires). Where a government has a majority in the House and so can advance its legislation, it is unlikely that a Governor-General will agree to a request for an election early in a new parliament. For the next government in the next parliament, however, majority support may well be fragile, and if it is lost an early election could well be called. Another possibility in the event of the government losing majority support would be for the Governor-General to commission the Leader of the Opposition to form a new government.

Under the Australian Constitution the maximum term of the House of Representatives is three years from the date of its first meeting following an election. As the new House of Representatives has not yet met (and indeed is still being elected), its maximum term cannot be precisely determined at this stage. However, under the constitutional provisions relating to the summoning of parliament the new parliament must meet by late November 2010, so the term of the new House of Representatives will expire at an equivalent point in 2013. The Constitution and the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1918 determine the formal timetable for elections after the House of Representatives is dissolved.

Electoral timing is also affected by the Senate. Under the Constitution state senators are elected for six-year terms (the terms of senators for the ACT and the Northern Territory are shorter, being concurrent with the term of the House of Representatives under the Commonwealth Electoral Act). The Senate, unlike the House of Representatives, is a continuing body, and elections for the Senate are staggered. Excepting double dissolutions, half of the state senators retire on 30 June every three years and face election. Importantly, under the Constitution elections for retiring senators cannot be held earlier than one year prior to their places becoming vacant.

Half of the current Senate commenced on 1 July 2008 following the 2007 election; their terms are due to expire on 30 June 2014. The other half of the Senate was elected in 2004; their terms commenced on 1 July 2005 and are due to expire on 30 June 2011. This latter group of senators have just faced election, and the terms of the senators elected in 2010 will commence on 1 July 2011 and will be due to expire on 30 June 2017.

In the normal run of things the next federal election would be for the House of Representatives, the territory senators, and those state senators due to retire in June 2014. If the next election takes place early, however (for example at any point in 2011 or 2012), and is not a double dissolution election, it will only be for the House of Representatives and the territory senators, as an election for those state senators retiring in June 2014 will not be possible before mid-2013.
(Image sourced from: http://www.commons.wikimedia.org/ )

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