Prime Minister Julia Gillard has now won four elections: a caucus vote (unopposed) in 2010, a popular general election in August that year, another caucus election in 2012 (when she secured 71 votes to 31 for Kevin Rudd) and a third caucus vote in March this year when she again won unopposed.
In September 2010 (soon after independent MPs Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott had confirmed Gillard as Prime Minister) I made some long-range predictions including, most importantly, that the 43rd Parliament (the current one) would run a full term of three years and that there would be no byelection. There was the near-universal expectation at the time that the 43rd Parliament would not run its full term; commentators at the time insisted we always have byelections.
Some facts of our federal history illustrate my argument. The last time a full term was run without a byelection was the 18th parliament (1946-49), when Ben Chifley was prime minister and there were only 74 members of the House of Representatives. To quote an article I wrote for The Canberra Times in July 2011:
“The last time there was a term of the House of Representatives without a byelection was in the 19th Parliament. The 19th Parliament was elected on December 10, 1949. It first met on February 22, 1950 and was dissolved (double dissolution) on March 19, 1951. Consequently that term lasted one year and 25 days, making it the third shortest term in all our federal history. Every subsequent term has seen at least one byelection.”
So, if there had been byelections in all those parliaments from 1951, why not in this term? The answer I gave was this:
“I have followed the proceedings of our Federal Parliament ever since April 1951 when the 20th Parliament was elected. During that 20th Parliament there were 10 by-elections, nine caused by the death of a member and one caused by a resignation. In other words there has been a sea change in the way parliamentary vacancies occur. These days vacancies are caused by resignation, not by death. This applies to all our parliaments and to upper houses as well as lower houses.”
I have been following byelections in all the countries of the Anglosphere for some 60 years. The interesting thing is that in five of the six countries the pattern has been roughly the same as in Australia. In the United States (where byelections are called “special elections”), the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, from 1900 to 1980, death was the main cause. Since 1980 resignation has been overwhelmingly the main cause.
This raises an interesting question for us who live in Canberra. Recently the ACT Liberals sacked their senator, Gary Humphries, and replaced him Zed Seselja, a failed member of the ACT Legislative Assembly. When Seselja resigns his Assembly seat another Liberal will be elected as one of the five members for Brindabella. That will be done by counting out the quota of votes which elected Seselja last year. It is interesting to speculate whether the Liberals would have chosen Seselja if a byelection had been required. Of course not! That would have put an Assembly seat at serious risk of loss by the party.
Meanwhile, there has not been a single death in the more than two decades the ACT Legislative Assembly has existed. The forthcoming Seselja resignation, however, will create the 10th casual vacancy — every one of them caused by a resignation. As I often remark, Australian politicians do not die these days.