It’s been a memorable start to the year for connoisseurs of parliamentary procedure and constitutional law, and yesterday’s conditional election announcement has made sure the air around Canberra will be thick with talk of filibuster, prorogation and dissolution for some time to come.
A crescendo will be reached when Parliament convenes for its newly established session on April 18, at which the government will throw down the gauntlet to the Senate crossbench over its bill to restore the Howard government’s Australian Building and Construction Commission.
Crossbench complaints that the government’s tactics amount to “bullying” and “blackmail” would have puzzled the architects of the constitution, for whom the double dissolution mechanism was carefully conceived as a corrective to the enormous power and influence being granted to the new Senate, contrary to a Westminster tradition that had evolved to recognise the primacy of the lower house.
Where a Senate majority persisted in its intransigence, a prime minister could focus minds by threatening to hold them accountable to the people for their actions, just as Malcolm Turnbull is doing right now.
Needless to say though, Turnbull’s calculations are informed more by politics than policy. Even if the government fails in its ostensible objective of getting the Senate to wave the legislation through, it will still have a clear policy narrative to pursue as it heads towards an election of its favoured manner and timing, rather than drifting towards it by default as it appeared to be doing before yesterday.
The double dissolution mechanism is not the only section of the constitution that Turnbull has turned deftly to his advantage.
The real surprise yesterday was the news that both House and Senate would convene on April 18, courtesy of the governor-general’s power to prorogue Parliament — a manoeuvre normally associated with preventing Parliament from sitting, rather than forcing it to.
It had been widely assumed that the Senate itself had the last word on the matter at the end of Friday’s sitting, when it refused to pass an adjournment motion giving the Senate President, Tasmanian Liberal Senator Stephen Perry, discretion over the timing of the next sitting.
When reports indicated the government was considering bringing the House back a week ahead of schedule to introduce the budget on May 3, it appeared to be stuck with the problem that the Senate would not resume until a week later — one day before the May 11 deadline for calling a double dissolution, leaving too little time to confirm the ABCC bill as a trigger.
Prorogation cut through the knot by ending what is formally known as the parliamentary session, an item of nomenclature that often gets mixed up with the distinct concept of the parliamentary sitting period, such as the one that ended on Friday.
Importantly, prorogation gives the governor-general — acting, naturally, on the advice of the prime minister — the power to “appoint such times for holding the sessions of the Parliament as he thinks fit”.
There was a time when prorogation happened at the end of every calendar year, but the normal practice in living memory has been for a single session to encompass the entire term of Parliament.
Consequently, it’s largely forgotten that much of the pomp and circumstance that attends the first meeting of Parliament after an election, including the governor-general’s speech outlining the government’s program, is actually a feature of any new session — something that is sure to confuse voters when it happens on April 18.
Of the four occasions when federal Parliament has been prorogued since 1961, two were done so the Queen could open a new session of Parliament while she was visiting Australia.
The implications of this musty item of constitutional arcana were so obscure that even Laurie Oakes had to describe it last night as “a seldom-used section of the Constitution that everyone had overlooked”.
Certainly it escaped the notice of the Greens, who are left to explain what they thought to achieve by insisting the government keep the ABCC bill off the agenda when they agreed to force electoral reforms laws through the Senate last week.
The rest of the crossbench has four weeks to weigh up the two options the government has placed before them.
One involves the near-certain loss of a $200,000-a-year job, four years ahead of time, for the sake of obstructing a bill that the government will more than likely be able to pass after winning the election.
The other is to acquiesce to a bill that most have opposed in the past, even though there is no cast-iron guarantee that the government won’t pull a double dissolution on them anyway, using the alternative trigger of the Fair Work Australia (Registered Organisations) bill.