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Turnbull’s Folly: The Double Dissolution Disaster

The Senate results are finally in, and one thing’s abundantly clear – Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to take Australia to a double dissolution election instead of just calling a standard election has backfired big time.

Roll back the clocks to March this year, and unable to convince the Senate that they should pass his ABCC legislation, Turnbull threatened Senators with a double dissolution of parliament, saying:

The time for playing games is over.” (21 March 2016)

Turnbull’s goal? Clearly he believed the outcome of a double dissolution election – where all seats in the Senate are up for re-election instead of just under half – would give him a Senate more inclined to deliver on the LNP’s agenda. He could have just called a standard election – but he didn’t. Perhaps he thought the threat of a double dissolution would get some Senators at risk of losing their seats to toe what he perceived to be ‘the line’. But they didn’t – and so Turnbull threw caution to the wind and tossed the Senate dice in the air – believing this would enable him to better negotiate his way through parliament. It turns out – not so much.

A quick reminder of the pre-2016 Federal Election Senate

In brief there are 76 seats in the Senate – 12 Senators from each State and 2 from each Territory. Here’s what the Senate looked like prior to the Federal Election:


In numerical terms – there were:

  • 33 LNP Senators
  • 25 Labor Senators
  • 10 Green Senators, and
  • 8 Cross-Benchers – Jacqui Lambie (JLN), Glenn Lazarus, Dio Wang (PUP), Nick Xenophon (XEN), Ricky Muir (AMEP), David Lleyonhelm (LDP), Bob Day (FFP) and John Madigan (DLP).

This mix of Senators meant that in order for the LNP to pass any of its legislation through the Senate prior to the 2016 Federal Election, they needed the votes of 39 Senators. With only 33 of their own Senators, they still needed the support of either the ALP or the Greens to pass legislation – and failing that, six of the Cross-Benchers. None of these groups were inclined to support some of the LNP’s key legislation, which brings us to…

The 2016 Double Dissolution Senate

Following Turnbull’s throw of the double dissolution dice, an election was held in early July. Counting for the outcome of Senate seats was finally completed yesterday, and the Senate now looks like this:


When compared to the 2013 Senate there are:

  • 3 less LNP Senators
  • 1 more Labor Senator
  • 1 less Green Senator
  • 2 more Xenophon Senators (in addition to Nick Xenophon)
  • 4 One Nation Senators (Pauline Hanson plus three others)
  • Of the remaining four independent senators – only Jacqui Lambie, Bob Day and David Lleyonhelm remain (from the previous Senate), and are joined by Derryn Hinch.

Pauline Hanson and Nick Xenophon now hold the balance of power

As a result of the 2016 election, the LNP now has to get nine additional Senators (instead of six) to support any legislation they want to put through parliament. This will be impossible without the support of either the ALP, the Greens or Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party plus Nick Xenophon’s team (and two other Senators). This effectively gives Hanson and Xenophon the balance of power in the Senate.

What if Turnbull had called a standard election instead of a Double Dissolution?

A number of commentators are blaming the influx of independent Senators and the poor outcome for the LNP in the Senate on changes to the way Senate preferences were allocated this election. However in reality, the challenging outcome is more likely to be due to the fact that a double dissolution election was called instead of a standard one. This had the effect of increasing the number of positions that needed to be filled in the Senate and correspondingly lowering the barrier to entry.

I did some quick calculations on the back of an envelope today by looking at preference flows for each of the counts in each State to see what the Senate might have looked like if Turnbull had called a standard election instead of a double dissolution – and there is a material difference:


No single group would hold the balance of power

Here’s a summary of the key differences in outcome if Turnbull had decided to call a standard election instead of a double dissolution:

  • The LNP would have one more seat (31 instead of 30);
  • The ALP would have two fewer seats (24 instead of 26);
  • There would be no change for the Greens or Nick Xenophon’s team;
  • Pauline Hanson would have three less seats (one seat instead of four);
  • Jacqui Lambie would have one more seat (two seats instead of one); and
  • The remaining three cross-benchers (David Lleyonhelm, Bob Day and Derryn Hinch) would be joined by Glenn Lazarus, Ricky Muir and Dio Wang (PUP).

The outcome if Turnbull had called a standard election instead of a double dissolution would have been that the LNP would only need eight (instead of nine) additional votes to get legislation through the Senate. More importantly, the LNP would have more options in terms of negotiating legislation through the Senate as they would not be limited to having to seek the approval of Pauline Hanson and Nick Xenophon when they were unable to negotiate with the ALP or the Greens (which is most of the time).

In a world where Turnbull had called a standard election instead of a double dissolution, no minor party or Independent would hold the balance of power in the Senate. And while Pauline Hanson would still be there, she would be there on her own and her voice would just be one of many cross-benchers – instead of her being hailed as the ‘queen of the Senate’. Turnbull’s double dissolution folly has unwittingly – but not unforseeably – handed Hanson the keys to the Senate Kingdom, thereby giving her a major influence over all of our futures for the next three years.

Which brings us to…

The real Losers from Turnbull’s Double Dissolution Disaster? The Australian people.

As usual, the real losers when our pollies make poor decisions are the Australian people. Governing a democracy is no easy task – it requires an ability to negotiate and compromise to get things done – particularly in a diverse parliament. This is not typically a bad thing – as if politicians from different parties can reach a compromise, this can end up with a far better outcome for the population as a whole than when one political party dominates. Unfortunately Turnbull’s response to the ABCC legislation earlier this year implied that he is either unwilling or unable to negotiate.

However the stark reality for Turnbull and the LNP moving forward is that to get any legislation passed, they will need to pick one of the following to negotiate with in the Senate:

  • The ALP;
  • The Greens; or
  • Pauline Hanson and Nick Xenophon (plus two other cross-benchers).

Our only hope now is that Nick Xenophon stays centered

Malcolm Turnbull’s double dissolution gamble has meant that he’s now going to have to pick between negotiations with the left or Hanson’s far-right version of politics. In the best case scenario, Turnbull would negotiate legislative outcomes with the ALP and/or the Greens since they represent the largest groups of Australians.

However, given the agitation within Turnbull’s own party to lean further to the right, it’s hard to see that happening. This means that instead of the majority ruling – as democracy intended – Australia’s future could very well end up in the tiny hands of Pauline Hanson. That said, Hanson can’t deliver the Senate vote to Turnbull on her own – he needs Nick Xenophon as well (plus two additional Senators). The two additional Senators shouldn’t be difficult for Turnbull – as Bob Day and David Lleyonhelm have regularly sided with the LNP.

This leaves Nick Xenophon to be the buffer between Australia and the far-right of politics. Let’s hope Nick Xenophon can stand firm. He may be all that stands between the sane people of Australia and a Royal Commission into climate change followed by a descent into Trump-like lunacy.

I don’t mean to be alarmist, but Turnbull has a mammoth task ahead of him – one that requires enormous strength of character and an ability to skilfully negotiate with both the left and right sides of politics. If he can’t manage to find the stones and the skill to do this – and he has so far shown himself capable of neither – we are looking at a parliament either incapable of functioning or one dominated by the far-right.

This article was first published on ProgressiveConversation.

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  1. James O'Neill

    It needs to be remembered that the Labor Party also must take a share of the blame for this disastrous outcome in the Senate and the House. If they were truly a centre-left party then they would have directed preferences to the Greens in key LNP seats. That would have made a Labor-Green agreement possible And Labor would be the government.
    Such is the desire of the two big parties to maintain their duopoly of power that they vote against their interests in order to maintain their dominant positions. As you say, the Australian people are the real losers here, except that they also must accept part of the blame for voting in a lunatic fringe.

  2. Pilot

    Senate Queendom not kingdom. Stone the bloody crows!!! What has Australia done to itself. Talk about self-mutilation, this is nutz. Again, Muddles has shown Australia the complete idiocy and “born to rule” attitude of the Lying Nasty Party.
    Still, it doesn’t change my view that Australia will be back to the polls within 12 months with the same old Libspeak, “It’s all their fault!”
    Australia – a great country ruled by idiots. Gawd help us……

  3. Geoff Andrews

    Which is the bigger “disaster”: having a parliament with one of the political duopolies in total control of both the HoR AND the senate or a well hung parliament? The senate’s refusal to rubber stamp some of Abbott’s (and Turnbull’s) follies must tend to lean us towards the latter. Who knows what extremes Windsor and Oakshott vetoed between 2010 and 2013.

  4. Adrianne Haddow

    ‘Australia’s future could very well end up in the tiny hands of Pauline Hanson.”
    It’s not her tiny hands we have to worry about, it’s her tiny xenophobic mind. And the minds of her supporters.
    Australia’s future is continuing to look like the stuff of nightmares.

  5. townsvilleblog

    I agree with James. The perfect time has arrived for the ALP to democratize their party and convert it to a people’s party instead of an organization dominated by AWU/SDA alliance boffins.

  6. Adrianne Haddow

    ‘This means that instead of the majority ruling – as democracy intended – Australia’s future could very well end up in the tiny hands of Pauline Hanson.’
    It’s not Hanson’s tiny hands we need to worry about. It’s her tiny, xenophobic mind.
    Australia’s future is becoming the stuff of nightmares with the continued interference and extreme right wing agendas of ‘honourable’ senators such as Bernardi, Christensen, and Hanson.

  7. flohri1754

    No disagreement from me on all your points. Especially, “This leaves Nick Xenophon to be the buffer between Australia and the far-right of politics. Let’s hope Nick Xenophon can stand firm. He may be all that stands between the sane people of Australia and a Royal Commission into climate change followed by a descent into Trump-like lunacy.” After hearing Hanson’s ex-Coal Mine operator Senator talking today on the ABC I agree even more ….

  8. Jack Straw

    Lately Turnball reminds me of Horshack from Welcome back Kotter. He gets very excited about the smallest of things. His announcement on Banks etc. And he’ll expand on nothingness or waffle.And meanwhile property prices go through the roof.What a joke he is .

  9. Kronomex

    The ABCC double dissolution threat by Turnbull was an excuse because he was desperate to remain leader and PM. He’s still in power (until he gets Et tu, Brute’ed sometime in the near future) but his cunning plan, a la Baldric, has back fired rather badly. His talk of a mandate, more like a spermdate, when they won, roughly speaking, 50.5% (+/- .2 – .3%) of the overall vote is gigantic load of crap! To me, at the very least, a mandate would have to be 75% or higher.

    In the future we can expect to see news about deals, secret and otherwise, being done with the cross bench as ickle bubby Mawcome wants legislation passed and the return of the bills that won’t die. I refuse to use the “zombie policies” nonsense although I can just picture them roaming the halls of parliament looking for unsuspecting photocopiers and other paper products to attack and eat.

  10. Zathras

    I suppose the combined sitting of both Houses to resolve the ABCC stalemate will happen any day now?

    What happens if it isn’t passed? Will that automatically lead to another election or to a no-confidence vote in the PM?

    Who would want to be in government with a potentially unworkable outcome like this?

    This has been a breathtakingly stupid strategy and is typical of the Turnbull style.

  11. nurses1968

    James O’NeillAugust 5, 2016 at 9:04 am

    “It needs to be remembered that the Labor Party also must take a share of the blame for this disastrous outcome in the Senate and the House. If they were truly a centre-left party then they would have directed preferences to the Greens in key LNP seats.”

    Lets be clear Labor preferenced the Greens ahead of the Liberals in ALL seats. The Greens wouldn’t agree to reciprocate in 11 seats.
    In the Senate the preference deals were a stark reminder that Labor can’t count on Greens.The preferences of both Parties were

    Labor: 2 Greens, 3 Renewable Energy, 4 Animal Justice, 5 Sex Party, 6 Liberal Democrats
    Green: 2 Pirate Party, 3 Science Party, 4 Socialist Alliance, 5 Animal Justice, 6 Labor

    Labor: 2 Greens 3 Sex/HEMP 4 JLN 5 Glenn Lazarus Team, 6 Katters Australian Party
    Green: 2 Renewable Energy, 3 Marriage Equality, 4 Arts Party, 5 Labor, 6 Australian Cyclists

    South Australia
    Labor: 2 Greens, 3 Animal Justice, 4 Marriage Equality, 5 NXT, 6 Motoring Enthusiasts
    Green: 2 Animal Justice, 3 Australian Cyclists, 4 Marriage Equality, 5 Arts Party, 6 Labor


    Labor: 2 Greens 3 Jacqui Lambie Network 4 Recreational Fishers 5 Sex/HEMP 6 Renewable Energy
    Green: 2 Renewable Energy, 3 Recreational Fishers, 4 Labor, 5 Science Party, 6 Arts Party

    Western Australia
    Labor: 2 Greens, 3 HEMP/Sex, 4 Derryn Hinch Justice Party, 5 Shooters, Fishers and Farmers 6 Nationals
    Green: 2 Renewable Energy, 3 Aus Cyclists, 4 Animal Justice, 5 HEMP, 6 Labo

  12. Steve Laing -

    Well said James. I’ve heard some Labor supporters gloating at the fact that the Greens lost a senate ticket because of their support for these electoral changes, but in actual fact they have done us a great favour by giving us a more democratic outcome even if it did lose them a senate seat.

    Sure, that means that this time we may have got Hanson and her cronies, but we would have likely got more of her ilk anyway (had we had a DD under the old rules) – that was always the likely outcome of Abbott’s xenophobic dog whistling, nothing to do with the senate changes.

    But any preferencing of Liberals by Labor over Greens, or Greens over Labor, was disingenuous beyond belief – putting their own petty squabbles above the needs of the nation is unforgivable given the closeness of the result. The duopoly hate minor parties more than each other, and independents most of all.

    The contortions that Malcolm is going to have to go through to pass legislation will be tortuous. If he’d been smart he would have been reaching out to Labor to find a moderate middle ground – but the LNP simply will not have a jot of that, so look to appeasement to One Nation, a rather frightening notion, however appealing to them AND Xenophon will be a Gordian Knot of a challenge!

  13. helvityni

    Poor old Pauline, so badly treated by many men, Howard, Abbott, even by some of her original mates. She might be very pleased that a ‘charming’ man like Mal will speak nicely to her, oh so flattering… I haven’t quite worked out what Nick is all on about.

  14. king1394

    ALP PREFERENCED GREENS IN ALL SEATS. Greens did not preference ALP consistently in the lower house and sent preferences all over the place in the Senate. Greens played the game with Turnbull and gave him the belief that having changed the Senate voting system, Liberals/Nationals would romp in with a rubber stamp Senate. Greens were wrong to do this. I can only think that Greens did not then, and from these comments, still do not understand the consequences of their actions
    See Nurses 1968 for full details above

  15. Miriam English

    Kinda looks like Australians didn’t like being manipulated.

    Politicians, especially those in the two big parties, need to wake up and come into the 21st Century. They act as though their principle education came from Niccolo Macchiavelli’s “The Prince”. That was written way back in 1513. And there is indication that Machiavelli didn’t even intend it as advice to be taken directly, but as a clever kind of satirical misdirection.

  16. nurses1968

    According to some discussion papers that arrived on my employers desk the Greens may come out of this Senate change even worse off as there is no hard and fast rule as to which Senators are half term and which are full term.
    It seems if LNP and Labor played hard ball and decided on just who half term Senators are they could nominate all the Indies Xenophons Hansons and Greens as half term and they would have to stand again at the next election and secure double the votes that they scored this time around.

  17. nurses1968

    Miriam EnglishAugust 5, 2016 at 11:39 am

    “Kinda looks like Australians didn’t like being manipulated.”
    what gave you that impression?

  18. Matters Not

    Satirical or serious is the cause of much debate but when Niccolò Machiavelli wrote this:

    It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

    he was being insightful. And I know of several politicians who accept that his work is quite serious and should be followed. On ‘change’ and it’s consequences, he’s on the money.

  19. John Boy

    Australians are so stupid all the goal post’s are being are secretly being moved or have been removed all together. Australians are complaining that there wages are stagnant. This is just the beginning.There are hardly any jobs left. Or some of any consequence.Unless we start making products and stop out sourcing jobs we are totally finished.At the moment we are changing the deck chairs on the Titanic. Wake Up !!!!!!!

  20. silkworm

    I’m with Helvi. I have no idea what Xenophon stands for. He especially seems to equivocate on climate change.

  21. Matters Not

    change’ and it’s (sic) consequences

    … change and it is consequences … Really. The proof reader’s been sacked. ? ? ?

    BTW, Xenophon stands for Xenophon every day of the week and on every occasion.

  22. ozbrays2

    The Senator’s name is David Leyonhjelm.

  23. Freethinker

    Meanwhile, today, Turnbull defended his Government’s changes to the way senators are elected, saying it “absolutely worked”.

  24. Sam

    Like every Aussie Greek boy I have ever met they are all spoilt rotten by their mothers. And they are usually weak as piss and cave in; just when you need them the most.

  25. nurses1968

    I don’t think Turnbull will have all that difficult a time with numbers in the House of Reps as he has his 76, can count on Cathy McGowan 90% of the time if she continues as previous,Bob Katter most of the time, Andrew Wilkie some of the time and on background should be able to call on Nick Xenophons MP Rebekha Sharkie MP almost always as she seems to have 99.5% pure Liberal blood .
    Wiki says of Rebekha Sharkie MP NXT
    “In 2006, she worked as a researcher for then-South Australian Liberal opposition leader Isobel Redmond. In 2008, she worked as an electorate officer for Briggs for six months. She has also worked for South Australian state Liberal MP Rachel Sanderson.

    Sharkie became a member of the Liberal Party of Australia in 2010,Sharkie considered running for the Liberals in the 2014 state election in the safe seat of Schubert, only to be told that she needed the blessing of federal minister Christopher Pyne and federal Senator Cory Bernardi,”
    She didn’t like to be told what to do so ran for Xenophon so I don’t expect he would tell her what to do too often either

  26. Carol Taylor

    It seems that Turnbull will be able to get anything through the Senate, as long as it fits into the category of some far right-wing crackpot idealogy. Unfortunately for Mal, this will send his already iffy popularity into Abbott territory with renewed talks quickly emerging about finding his replacement.

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