Federal politicians -- all 150 MPs and 76 Senators -- are back in Canberra this week, coming back from their parliament break early for an extraordinary session which will decide whether Australia heads to an early election. It is an intricate, complicated and tricky set of circumstances and parliamentary procedures which have brought our nation’s leaders back to the nation’s capital; here’s what you need to know.
WHAT’S GOING ON?
Parliament rose on March 17, and its members had planned to stay well away from Canberra until May 10 during the long, seven-week break between the autumn and winter sitting sessions. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull scuppered those plans almost instantly, announcing on March 21 that he would be recalling the parliament on April 18 for three weeks to consider his bills to reestablish the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), and that if the Senate did not agree to pass the bills, he would ask the Governor-General to dissolve both houses of parliament and hold a double-dissolution election on July 2.
The parliament has been prorogued, an arcane and little-used procedure which essentially means all the prior existing business of the parliament -- all the previously slated bills, debates and discussions -- would be wiped from the slate and that the ABCC bills would be the first priority. More on that here.
TODAY IS APRIL 18. SO NOW WHAT?
Well, it’s probably going to get very silly. The Senate is scheduled to resume at 9:30am. There will be some pomp and ceremony in the chamber to mark the official resumption of parliament -- a procession of the chamber officials, some speeches to remind our politicians about what’s going on -- and the senators will get a chance to start speaking soon after that.
But arguably, the Senate does not have to consider the bills at all. The Parliamentary Library, in a great explainer on proroguing, says that while senators are compelled to arrive in the chamber, “the Senate can determine its own sittings and can be adjourned by its own resolution. Once the session has been opened the Senate has the power to adjourn until some time in the future should the majority of Senators choose to". Essentially, the senators have to turn up, but technically, they can immediately vote to go home.
This is where it comes down to tactics, and who actually wants to have a double dissolution election in July. By voting to not consider the ABCC bills, Turnbull has his excuse to ask for a DD election. Labor will not support the ABCC bills, but it is unclear whether -- when push comes to shove -- they will hand Turnbull his election trigger.
ARE THE ABCC BILLS LIKELY TO PASS?
Even discounting the possibility that the Senate could choose to turn around and go home without even considering the bills, the ABCC legislation will face stiff opposition. The government needs the support of six of the eight crossbench independent senators to pass the bills. Five -- Bob Day, David Leyonhjelm, Nick Xenophon, Dio Wang and Ricky Muir -- have said they will either support the bills as they are, or will support the bills with a few amendments. That means the government needs one more, which will prove difficult.
John Madigan, Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus have been fiercely opposed to the bills so far. Lambie and Lazarus believe they are popular enough to win back their seats in a double dissolution, so even the threat of losing their jobs likely won’t sway them.
Independent Senator Nick Xenophon has said he thinks it "unlikely" the bills will pass, telling ABC "it's almost inevitable that we'll have a July 2 election."
Likewise, Leyonhjelm thinks the double dissolution will occur.
"My guess is we'll probably go most of the week, but not next week and not the following week," he told Sky News.
"I doubt it'll even get past the second reading and we won't even get into consideration of amendments."
WHAT ABOUT THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES?
Ah yes, the other chamber. While the Senate will be the hotspot of action on Monday, the House will also sit. The revised sitting calendar says that the House will be in session on Monday and Tuesday, then… well, we don’t know yet. It’s likely the House will sit for more days, which will be decided and announced this week, but right now, the 150 MPs in that chamber don’t have any solid commitments from Wednesday onwards.
Turnbull, his senior team, Labor leader Bill Shorten and the gang will all be around Parliament House this week, to keep an eye on things. If the Senate causes trouble, or refuses to even consider the bills, Turnbull would be within his rights to jump in the car and make the short drive to Yarralumla and ask the Governor-General for an early election. Labor is pretty upset about the two-day sitting week for the House, with the daily Question Time -- where the opposition has a chance to grill the government -- likely to not be happening every day this week.
“If the taxpayer is going to fly us to Canberra we should turn up for work for the entire week, there should be Question Time every day,” said the manager of opposition business, Tony Burke.
"What we have in the program announced today is a prime minister wanting to work part-time and government that thinks it's too good, too far above the rest of Australia to be answerable to anybody.”
Strap in, anything could happen. Tune in on the parliament livestream from 9:30am, or come back here -- we’ll be watching it all unfold, and updating you as we go.