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  • Writer's pictureAlistair Nicholas

Early federal election looking more likely

Increasingly the signs suggest Prime Minister Scott Morrison could call an election this year, or perhaps early in 2022. Here's what's driving the likelihood of an early election, factors militating against it, and some possible dates and signs to watch for.

Last date possible

It is important to keep in mind that the last possible date the election can be held is 21 May next year to ensure new senators elected in the half-Senate election can be sworn in by the start of their term on 1 July. (Under Section 13 of the Australian Constitution half of the senate faces election every three years.)

Why the six-week lead time? Because counting Senate votes is complex and often takes considerable time.

While the half-Senate election must be held by 21 May, it is true that the House of Representatives election is not due until 3 September next year. However, it is very unlikely that Morrison would hold two elections in the same year as there could be an electoral backlash if people had to go to the polls for federal parliament twice in the same year. Therefore, the last date possible for the combined elections for the House of Representatives and the half-Senate is 21 May 2022.

Why go early?

Just two months ago the prospect of an early election appeared highly unlikely. Quite simply put, the Federal Coalition Government wasn’t in a strong electoral position given public perceptions that it had mismanaged the covid vaccine rollout. (See, for example, Is the COVID vaccine rollout the greatest public policy failure in recent Australian history?) With infection rates and deaths rising since the Delta variant outbreak in June, and NSW and Victoria in harsh lockdowns, an early election remained unlikely.

But as the saying has it, “a day in politics is a long-time”. The political tide has certainly changed for Morrison. With Australia's two largest states - NSW and Victoria - now moving closer to 80% double vaccination rates and other states likely to start following the trend to “herd immunity” later this year, together with promises of increased freedoms, the backlash against the Federal Coalition is starting to ease.

Also in Morrison’s favour is the popular electoral support he has garnered following the Federal Government’s decision to scuttle the floundering submarine deal with French firm Naval Group in favour of a nuclear submarine deal with the US and UK under the newly established AUKUS agreement. The electorate has also been in favour of the Coalition Government’s perceived strength in standing up to China; even Labor Party polling has shown strong backing in marginal seats for the Coalition’s stance on China. Morrison could be looking at running a "khaki election campaign". The signs bode well for the Coalition at present.

Add to that the risks of delaying the election until May 2022. The main one is, even after we have achieved 80% vaccination rates, that infections, hospitalisations and even deaths will rise as the unvaccinated and those with co-morbidities succumb to the virus. Also consider that the national economy could suffer further if the states respond with a series of unpredictable on-again, off-again lockdowns every time there is an outbreak. Morrison is unlikely to want to delay the election for too long. To borrow a line from Victorian Premier Dan Andrews about lockdowns, Morrison may want to go early, go fast and go hard with the federal election.

When are we likely to go to the polls?

We may be looking at a December poll, with the best dates being 4 or 11 December (elections are held on Saturdays). Morrison is unlikely to call an election for 18 December as that is after the commencement of the school summer holidays and too close to Christmas (indeed, it is the last Saturday before Christmas). Of course, a complicating factor for Morrison is that the NSW Government postponed its local government elections to 4 December due to the Delta outbreak in June; and Morrison may not want to mix federal issues with local government issues by going at the same time. That makes 11 December look more likely, but the overlap will still risk mixing of federal and local issues during the campaign. If the Prime Minister decides he wants a campaign that will give him “clean air” to focus on federal issues, he might start to look at a date in early 2022 (see below).

Risk factors

There are, of course, a range of factors that could push the Prime Minister to wait until 2022. For example, if Covid numbers continue to rise particularly in NSW and Victoria once restrictions in those states are eased, or if other states experience outbreaks and rising case numbers, as indeed is happening in Queensland at present, the Prime Minister may choose to wait in the hope of a more favourable environment after the summer holiday period has finished.

When will we know the election date?

The minimum notice period for an election date is 33 days (see here for further information on the process). That means that for a 4 December election the Prime Minister must ask the Governor-General to issue the election writs by 1 November. If he decides on an 11 December election, he will need to approach the Governor General for the writs before 8 November. If these two deadlines are missed, we will know the election won’t occur until next year.

If not December, when?

If Morrison doesn’t call the election for December the next most likely date for an early election would be 26 February, if called it is called before the Australia Day holiday (26 January). Or, if called after Australia Day, it could be held on 5 March. Morrison will probably want the election held before 19 March as that is the date of the South Australian state election, though the SA Constitution Act allows its election to be deferred in case of a Federal Election.

Signs of a pending election announcement

A good sign that the Prime Minister might be about to call an election would be a string of of good news and positive policy announcements, particularly announcements about increased public spending and/or tax cuts. If those start happening in the next few weeks, a December election would be a certain bet.

Given the prospect of a "khaki election" expect to hear some more announcements on military spending and what the new AUKUS alliance means for Australia. There also could be announcements aimed at China, without saying the "C" word. For example, a decision to cancel Chinese company Landbridge's lease of the Darwin Port would be a clear sign that the khaki election campaign has commenced. Such a decision would be tied into the AUKUS deal and higher rotations of US service personnel through the port, which was alluded to in this ABC article.

Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be an interesting ride to the end of the year or into early next year. And, if you’re a political junkie like me, it’s going to be a fun ride too.

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