House of Representatives Practice, 6th edition – HTML version

3 - Elections and the electoral system

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General elections

The following constitutional provisions relate to a general election, that is, an election for all Members of the House of Representatives:

  • The Governor-General may dissolve the House of Representatives.[70]
  • Every House of Representatives shall continue for three years from the first meeting of the House, and no longer, but may be sooner dissolved by the Governor-General.[71]
  • The Governor-General in Council may cause writs to be issued for general elections of Members of the House of Representatives.[72]
  • After any general election the Parliament shall be summoned to meet not later than 30 days after the day appointed for the return of the writs.[73]

A general election follows the dissolution of the House by the Governor-General,[74] or the expiration of the House by effluxion of time three years from its first meeting. The period between the first meeting and dissolution, called a Parliament, has varied between seven months (11th Parliament) and a period just short of the three year maximum term (18th and 27th Parliaments). The 3rd Parliament has been the only one to have expired by effluxion of time.[75] Notwithstanding the generality of the above:

  • The Governor-General may dissolve both Houses simultaneously upon certain conditions having been met under section 57 of the Constitution, resulting in a general election for the House and an election for all the Senate.[76]
  • Apart from section 57, the constitutional provisions relating to dissolution only concern the House of Representatives. The election of Senators does not necessarily take place at the same time as a general election for the House of Representatives.
  • The distinction between the ‘Governor-General’ dissolving the House and the ‘Governor-General in Council’ issuing writs for a general election should be noted. While the decision to dissolve the House may be made by the Governor-General,[77] the decision to call a general election can only be made on and with the advice of the Executive Council, that is, the Government.[78]

While the majority of Parliaments have extended for more than two years and six months some Parliaments have been dissolved well short of the maximum three year term. Reasons for the early dissolution of the House have included:

  • defeat of the Government on the floor of the House (1929, 1931);
  • double dissolution situations (1914, 1951, 1974, 1975, 1983, 1987);
  • synchronisation of House elections with Senate elections (1917, 1955, 1977, 1984);
  • the Government’s desire to obtain a mandate for various purposes (1917, 1955, 1963); and
  • perceived political or electoral advantage.[79]

70. Constitution, s. 5.
71. Constitution, s. 28.
72. Constitution, s. 32.
73. Constitution, s. 5.
74. See Ch. on ‘The Parliament and the role of the House’.
75. For a list of federal elections see Appendix 12.
76. For further discussion see Ch. on ‘Disagreements between the Houses’.
77. However, in practice this power is exercised with the advice of the Federal Executive Council; see Quick and Garran, pp. 404–6. For further discussion see Ch. on ‘The Parliament and the role of the House’.
78. Constitution, s. 32; and see s. 62.
79. Occasionally reasons for dissolving the House have been published, see Table 1.1 ‘Early Dissolutions of the House of Representatives’ in Ch. on ‘The Parliament and the role of the House’.

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