Careful what you wish for: Why a double dissolution over housing could spell trouble for the GreensJul 5, 2023
They can’t say they weren’t warned. Shortly before coming to office Anthony Albanese said, ‘I’ve been underestimated my whole life’.
It was a significant personal reflection during a hectic election campaign, one that spoke to Albanese’s resolve, his self-belief, and a subtle barb at the failure of others to recognise his political determination and tactical skills – most clearly on display during the fractious parliament of the Gillard years. Well, the Greens should have listened to that rare moment of reflection, because they certainly underestimated Albanese when they again voted with the Coalition and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, to defer debate on the government’s signature $10 billion Housing Australia Future Fund Bill.
To say the Greens’ decision has infuriated the government would be a massive understatement. The Housing Australia Future Fund would support the construction of 30,000 new social and affordable housing properties, with a minimum $500 million each year over the next five years, including 4,000 properties for women and children facing family and domestic violence and older women at risk of homelessness. The Greens’ high-risk decision to block the building of this much needed social and affordable housing, while insisting that the government facilitate state-based rent caps which the federal government does not have the power to do, has the government seething. Albanese described it as ‘incomprehensible’, ‘playing politics’, ‘absurd’ and ‘untenable’, and he’s clearly in for the fight over it.
The government immediately declared the delay a ‘failure to pass’ the Bill under s.57 of the Constitution, and therefore a potential ‘trigger’ for a double dissolution election should the Senate again refuse to pass it in October. Greens’ leader Adam Bandt’s denial that delay constituted a ‘failure to pass’, a claim quickly disabused by the solicitor-general, suggested he was either unaware of the history or unprepared for the government’s escalation of this issue. Either way it was a moment of political hubris not strength.
That the Greens would delay the injection of much needed housing stock during a housing crisis, of which supply is incontrovertibly the root cause, is staggering. It has dismayed social housing advocates and homelessness providers who have urged the Greens to recognise the dire need for new housing and pass the Bill, ‘Australia cannot afford to delay its response to the housing crisis any longer’. Independent ACT Senator David Pocock, Tasmanian Senators Jacqui Lambie and Tammy Tyrrell, have all called for the Bill to be passed, even while recognising that it doesn’t go as far as they would like. Lambie accused the Greens of playing politics with ‘the most vulnerable people’s lives … this is about putting a roof over people’s heads’. As the housing minister Julie Collins has said, ‘every day of delay is more than $1.3m that does not go to housing for people that need it’.
By declaring this a ‘failure to pass’ the government has shifted the political dynamic dramatically and the Greens should watch that electoral prospect with some trepidation. A double dissolution, at which both the House of Representatives and the entire Senate go to an election, places the Greens in an invidious position in the Senate – precisely because the outcome is unknown and unknowable. The normal complexity of predicting Senate results is complicated at a double dissolution by the lower quota needed to be elected – reducing from 1/7 of the total vote required at the usual half-Senate election to 1/13 of the total for a double dissolution.
With the government still polling remarkably well 18 months into its term, at around 4% higher than at the 2022 election, and an opposition under Peter Dutton flat-lining at electoral wipe-out levels, the government would expect to be comfortably returned with an increased majority in the House. The Senate result, always difficult to predict, is made even more uncertain at a double dissolution by the reduced quota. Nevertheless, given current polling, the lower quota required in the Senate increases the chances of Labor picking up at least one extra Senate seat in Queensland where it currently holds three, or even in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia where it holds four.
The situation for the Greens is more difficult to predict. The other side of the lower quota is that while it may be easier for Labor to pick up an extra Senate seat in some states, it may also be easier for minor parties to win some. Psephologist William Bowe, aka ‘Pollbludger’, told Pearls & Irritations that while Labor could end up with five seats in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation could also pick up several seats at a double dissolution. The 2016 double dissolution for instance, under Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, saw a record number of Senate cross-benchers elected, with the Greens losing one Senate place to have nine Senators, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation gaining four and Nick Xenaphon Team, three. The 2016 Senate count took over four weeks to finalise such was its complexity.
The Whitlam government’s double dissolution in 1974, called by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam 18 months after Labor had come to office on the basis of 6 ‘trigger Bills’ blocked by the Coalition and the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) in the Senate, tells a very different story. The Whitlam government was returned at the 1974 double dissolution with the loss of one seat in the House of Representatives – the first consecutive election victory for a Labor leader. The bigger story was in the Senate, where both Labor and the Coalition gained three seats and the DLP lost all five of its Senate places.
It is a salutary reminder that the Senate is an inconstant and unpredictable chamber for minor parties, particularly at a double dissolution. Professor Mark Kenny said of the Greens’ double dissolution prospects, ‘they could theoretically go backwards. Mind you, they could go forward too, for the exact same reason, because the quota is lowered’. In other words, how this might play out is anyone’s guess – and that’s the risk. And it’s also why the Greens should capitulate in October and pass the Housing Bill.