Explainer: what’s at stake in the Australian election?

Malcolm Turnbull in full flight. EPA

Australia has burned through five prime ministers in five years – and it could soon have another: on July 2, Australians will vote for their next government. But no one seems to have pulled definitively ahead.

The opinion polls predict a close battle between the two political forces that have taken turns in government since World War II: the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal and National coalition.

So what’s at stake – and how can a party win in the Australian system?

As the Australian system is based on the Westminster model, the government is formed by the party (or coalition of parties) that wins a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, which is commonly referred to as the lower house. The leader of this majority becomes prime minister.

The last election to this house was in 2013, when the Liberal and National coalition won government in a landslide. It now holds 90 of the lower house’s 150 seats. The Labor opposition must win 21 seats in the forthcoming election to have the 76 seats it needs for a majority.

Parliament also has a very powerful upper house, the Senate, which has the same powers as the House of Representatives except that it cannot initiate or amend “supply bills” – legislation providing resources for day-to-day government business. There are 76 senators: 12 from each state, and two from each territory. Senators from the states are elected for six-year terms, meaning that at every general election, half of them are up for election.

But this year’s election is unusual as it’s a “double dissolution” election, meaning that both houses of parliament have been dissolved and are up for election at once. It is triggered if the Senate fails to pass a specific bill sent to it from the lower house on at least three occasions. This year, the trigger was a law concerning industrial relations in the building and construction sector. There have only been six elections like this since Australia federated in 1901; the last was back in 1987.

Because it puts all Senate seats up for election, prime ministers use double dissolution as a tactic to sweep out legislative troublemakers.

The leaders

Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister in September 2015, when he overthrew Tony Abbott in a party coup. Abbott had led the coalition to a big win in 2013, but a series of poor opinion polls precipitated a leadership challenge which he ultimately lost.

Turnbull’s leadership had an immediate impact on the party’s standing in the community and he enjoyed strong support according to opinion polls. Before he became prime minister, he supported a range of progressive policies including same-sex marriage and an emissions trading scheme, but in government, he took a much more orthodox tack.

Turnbull’s hesitation is understandable, since his parliamentary coalition includes a significant number of social conservatives. Winning the election could give him a strong mandate for a more progressive platform.

On the other side, Labor leader Bill Shorten has had a longer time leading his party. He was given the leadership after Labor’s disastrous performance in 2013. Like many other opposition leaders in Westminster-style systems, he struggled to advance his party’s policy agenda before the campaign got underway – but once it did, he suddenly became much more effective.

No love lost: Bill Shorten (L) and Malcolm Turnbull. EPA

Oppositions have tended to avoid releasing many of their major policies in contemporary Australian election campaigns as they have feared they could backfire. Shorten, however, eschewed this approach and presented a suite of policies throughout the campaign. Shorten has also surprised many commentators by being a strong campaigner, especially when meeting with voters face-to-face and during televised leadership debates.

The minor parties

While Labor and the coalition battle it out to form a government, Australia’s various minor parties are campaigning to extend their influence on government policy in the lower house.

Winning representation in the lower house has been very difficult for minor parties, with only two parties winning seats at a general election in the post-war period.

The Australian Greens are hoping to hold onto the seat they already have and are in the race for another two. The Xenophon Team, another new party led by independent senator Nick Xenophon, is also well placed to win seats in South Australia.

If both parties are able to win representation, they may become critical actors if neither major party wins a majority and must rely on cross-bench MPs to form government.

The Greens and the Xenophon Team are also inline to have a significant role in the new Senate where it is likely that they will hold the balance of power. In doing so, they will be crucial to shaping government policy.

Issues and policies

The major parties have come at the election from different angles. Labor emphasises government services, while the coalition has campaigned on the need for strong economic management.

Can they do it? EPA

That might well pay off. The election comes as jobs, interest rates and economic prosperity all top the political agenda. Australia faces a downturn in the mining sector, and the three car makers who operate in the country (Ford, Toyota and General Motors Holden) will be all be closing their factories within the next 18 months.

The issue of asylum seekers has also been prominent in Australia throughout recent years, but the major parties are generally avoiding the issue for fear of opening up bitter internal divisions among their members. The Greens, on the other hand, have been raising the issue quite readily, and getting plenty of attention for it.

A similar dynamic is at play on the issue of climate change, which arguably undid Julia Gillard’s prime ministership in 2013. Like asylum seeker policy, climate change policy has the potential to drive a wedge within the major parties. Indeed, Labor and the coalition appear to be locked in holding patterns, while the Greens have been vigorously advocating for greater action on the issue.

By the time of the vote, the campaign will have gone for a gruelling eight weeks. The candidates, parties, and Australia at large will be exhausted. Labor faces a mammoth task in trying to claw back seats from the coalition. If history is any guide, Turnbull appears set to be returned as prime minister.

This will not only give him a legislative mandate, but could also offer Australia a desperately needed sense of political stability after the upheaval of the last five years.

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