The Greens’ agreement to Senate voting changes has made a double dissolution very attractive for the government – but it has also sparked a preselection battle between the party’s two South Australian senators.
In a double dissolution the Greens could only get re-elected one of the two – the high-profile Sarah Hanson-Young, or Robert Simms, who filled a casual vacancy last year.
The preselection will open on Friday and be completed by mid-March. The preselectors, who will decide the order on a double dissolution ticket, are the party’s about 600-700 South Australian members. Hanson-Young said on Monday night: “I am hopeful, but it is a matter for the members. The good thing about being a member driven party is that they get to decide.”
The Greens have ten senators who would face the people at a double dissolution. Apart from losing one seat in South Australia – where on 2013 figures independent Nick Xenophon’s ticket would get three seats – they could be struggling to hold the line in one or two other states.
They have two senators in each of Western Australia, Victoria and Tasmania and one in NSW and Queensland. The new optional preferential voting system gives them a slightly better chance of maintaining their position elsewhere than South Australia.
The Senate voting changes, which will prevent “preference whispering” electing micro candidates, will pass by mid-March on the combined vote of the Coalition and the Greens.
In an ordinary half-Senate election, the Greens would have six senators up for re-election. Given the strong Greens vote in 2010, some of those would be at risk.
An inquiry being held by the Parliamentary Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters will take evidence on the proposed new voting system on Tuesday.
It will hear from, among others, the Australian Electoral Commission, as well as Glenn Druery – who has organised preference deals among small parties.
The government could not realistically contemplate a double dissolution without the change in the voting system because of the prospect of getting a similar plethora of crossbenchers – although not the same individuals – as it faces now.
Ministers continue to talk up the threat of a double dissolution. Industry Minister Christopher Pyne said if the Senate refused to pass the government’s legislation to reinstate the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), “it makes it very difficult not to go to the polls because how else do we do the things we’re elected for?
"We had a mandate for that change before the last election, it was our policy, the crossbenchers, Labor, and the Greens are blocking it. You know there’s only a couple of options left available to a Government in those situations.”
Treasurer Scott Morrison said: “The prime minister has made it pretty clear that he is not bluffing on any of this – he is deadly serious but that is ultimately a call for him as to what he would do.”
Malcolm Turnbull told reporters the ABCC legislation “is critically important to restoring our prosperity, our continued economic growth, investment and jobs in the future. We need to ensure that the construction sector which employs about one million Australians is governed by law”. He pointed out that the bill was now being presented for the second time – which would make it a double-dissolution trigger if rejected. The government already has other triggers.
When he was asked whether it was so vital that if it was not passed he would go to a double dissolution, Turnbull said: “I am just urging the senators to pass the legislation … and I just say to you that while all constitutional options remain open, my expectation is, and my assumption is, that the election will be held in the normal way, at the normal time, which is August and September or October this year”.
At a meeting last week Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Greens leader Richard Di Natale discussed the prospect of the government calling a double dissolution. They canvassed the issues involved, including the government’s need to get supply if an election were held on July 2. It was the first formal meeting the two have had.
In remarks at the start of Monday night’s cabinet meeting, which was expected to discuss the politics around the tax issue, Turnbull said: “The challenge for us this year is to ensure that we lead Australia in a way that delivers a successful transition from an economy that has been buoyed by a mining construction boom to the new economy.
"In this election year we know that the choice will be who is best able to lead Australia through that transition, who is best able to deliver the innovation, the investment, the infrastructure, the jobs that are going to ensure that our children and our grandchildren have the great, high-paying jobs of the 21st century.”