Double Dissolution Election Explained: Why Malcolm Turnbull Has Taken This Extraordinary Step

21/03/2016 2:30 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Hands up who likes double dissolutions? Governor General Peter Cosgrove could be charged with making it happen.

Help! What the hell is going on?

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has today announced a recall of Parliament to debate a series of Bills that, if not passed, will result in a double dissolution election.

A what now?

A double dissolution. It's when both house of Parliament -- the Senate and House of Reps -- are dissolved to enable a federal election. As the Parliamentary Education Office explains:

"The drafters of the Constitution saw the possibility of a deadlock occurring between the two houses, in which there may be disagreement over a bill. Section 57 of the Constitution provides a mechanism to resolve the disagreement, by dissolving both houses of Parliament and calling an election to let the voters decide what the outcome will be."

And we've got a deadlock now?

We do. The government is super frustrated it can't push certain bills through the Senate. We'll get to those bills in a minute. But first...

You should know that a double dissolution election is different to other elections in one very important way.

When you have a double dissolution election, all senators' terms expire. Even those senators on six year terms -- who would have served in the next Parliament regardless of the election result -- are ousted and have to be re-elected.

So the current senators blocking the government's proposed legislation could be out of a job?

Right. The independent senators who may find it difficult to be elected again anyway under proposed senate voting reforms which kept the chamber up for most of last week.

Wow, and now they've really got to decide whether they're more committed to their jobs or to stopping these bills passing.

Yep, that's the corner Malcolm Turnbull has now pushed them into.

The Senate is a house of review. That's its function. Could this be considered bullying?

Not according to Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. “They (the senators) must understand our commitment to this," he said today. "We are not joking. This is not some sort of play. This is an issue that must be resolved."

OK, let's go back to the beginning. What are the bills the government is finding it so tough to get through the Senate?

We're talking here about the Registered Organisations Bill and the ABCC Bill. ABCC stands for Australian Building and Construction Commission. It's a body which the Howard government established to police industrial issues in the construction industry, which employs about nine percent of the Australian workforce.

Why is the ABCC so important to Malcolm Turnbull?

Mr Turnbull said several times on Monday, and has spoken often in the past, about the need to ensure investment to strengthen Australia's economy. Since the construction sector is such a large employer (much larger than mining), he believes businesses in this industry must be freed up to flourish and employ as many Australians as possible.

Are there ideological factors at play too?

Let's just say that Malcolm Turnbull struggles to bring some of his Liberal Party colleagues along with him on many issues. But cracking down on trade union corruption is always a way to win friends both inside and outside his party.

But didn't we just have a Trade Union Royal Commission that gave 79 recommendations as to how to deal with rogue union officials?

We did, and one of its key recommendations was to re-establish the ABCC.

Malcolm Turnbull wants this.

He really wants this. "I make no apology for interrupting Senators' seven-week break to bring them back to deal with this legislation," he said on Monday. "This is an opportunity for the Senate to do its job of legislating rather than filibustering."

"The go-slows and obstruction by Labor and the Greens on this key legislation must end. The Senate will have an additional three sitting weeks to deal with the ABCC and registered organisations legislation."

And if we still have an impasse, then we're all off to an early poll.

We are. On July 2.

Have we been down this road before?

We have. There have been six double dissolution elections in Australian political history. On four of those six occasions, the incumbent government retained office.

And if we go down the path again in 2016, what happens to these two bills?

Here's the irony. They almost certainly get passed anyway in one form or another. As the Parliamentary Education Office explains:

"After a double dissolution election, the bill(s) which triggered the double dissolution may be presented to both houses of Parliament again. If a deadlock occurs once more, the Governor-General may order a joint sitting of both houses of Parliament. At a joint sitting, all members of parliament from both houses meet together to vote on the bill(s).

Under a joint sitting, the combined numbers of both houses would likely ensure the government gets its way. So it looks there'll be an ABCC. We can do it the hard (and expensive) way, or the easy way. It's all up to the senators now.

I drifted off. For the last time, why is Malcolm Turnbull really doing this?

Well, there are those who'd say he's just looking for any trigger for an early election... not that we're suggesting that.

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