CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia’s government raised the prospect of an early election on Monday by saying it could force the upper house Senate to sit in December to deal with laws which could become an election trigger.
If the Senate rejects or blocks laws twice, with an interval of three months, the government then has the option of calling an early double-dissolution election, where all lower house and Senate seats are up for election.
The government is seven votes short of a majority in the Senate, and needs support of the opposition, or five Greens and two independents, to pass its laws.
The next regular elections are due in the second half of 2010, but an early dissolution would give Prime Minister Kevin Rudd the option of calling a snap poll in March or April.
Here are questions and answers about Rudd’s options:
DOES RUDD WANT AN EARLY ELECTION?
Rudd has talked down the chances of an early election, saying voters do not like them. However, he is not ruling it out in order to pressure the opposition, which is struggling in opinion polls and is deeply divided over policy.
An early election would allow Rudd to cash in on his continued high popularity. Opinion polls suggests he would win a second term with an enlarged majority at the expense of his conservative opponents, who are still coming to terms with losing power in November 2007 after almost 12 years in office.
Analysts suggest Rudd may want an election before next May’s budget, with unemployment set to rise throughout 2010 and with the Reserve Bank of Australia set to increase interest rates as the economy recovers from the global downturn.
On the other hand, Rudd might opt for a regular election later in the year, when his ministers and lawmakers will be able to attend openings of thousands of local school projects funded by the government’s economic stimulus spending.
WILL RUDD HAVE A TRIGGER FOR AN EARLY POLL?
Right now, Rudd does not have a legal ground for a double-dissolution election. But he could have a trigger after November 16, when the Senate will be asked to re-consider 11 bills to set up a carbon trade scheme.
The opposition has said it would consider amending the carbon trade plan to help it pass, although there have been no serious negotiations with the government yet. However, the continued threat of an early election may force the opposition to back down and allow the carbon trade package to pass.
The second potential trigger would be private health insurance laws, which were initially rejected last week. The laws increase taxes on the wealthy by limiting their access to private health insurance rebates.
The earliest the laws could become an election trigger would be in February 2010, unless the government forces the Senate to sit extra weeks in mid December.
However, the government would be wary about calling an election on laws which increase taxes. Rudd would remember former conservative prime minister Malcolm Fraser, who was voted out in 1983 when he called an election on bills to increase sales taxes.
WHAT ARE THE RISKS OF AN EARLY ELECTION FOR RUDD?
The biggest risk is a surprise defeat or a sudden drop in support, which is what happened to former Labor prime minister Bob Hawke. He was elected in 1983 and maintained sky-high poll ratings throughout 1984. Hawke called an early election in 1984 to cash in on his popularity, but ended up losing seats and almost losing power after a late opposition surge in the final week of the election campaign.
The second concern for Rudd is that a double dissolution election might not resolve his problems in the Senate.
A double dissolution sees all 76 Senators up for election, rather than a normal election where only half of the Senate faces the electorate. That makes it easier for minor parties and independents to win seats.
Latest opinion polls suggest the Greens and independents might pick up more Senate seats in a double dissolution, leaving Rudd with just as many problems in the upper house.
Reporting by James Grubel; Editing by Michael Perry and Tomasz Janowski
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