Labor leader Bill Shorten holds a baby crocodile during a visit to the aboriginal community of Maningrida as part of the 2016 election campaign in West Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia, May 2016.   
Mick Tsikas / Reuters

On July 2, Australians will head to the polls. Malcolm Turnbull, the prime minister, is seeking a second term for his conservative Liberal-National coalition against Bill Shorten’s Labor Party.

This is an unusual election. On Turnbull’s request, the Governor General, Queen Elizabeth II’s representative in Australia, dissolved both houses of parliament, which means that every member of the House of Representatives and the Senate faces reelection. This is only the seventh “double dissolution” in the country’s history and its first since 1987. Double dissolutions are intended to resolve constitutional deadlock when both houses of parliament fail to agree on the passage of legislation.

Turnbull is Australia’s fourth prime minister in three years, leaving many observers perplexed at the level of volatility in an otherwise stable democracy. Australia is unique in the ease with which parties can replace their leaders. With the exception of the Labor Party, which changed its leadership selection rules in 2013 to allow party members to participate, all that is needed to remove a leader is a majority vote of the parliamentary party. Once a leader loses the support of the dominant faction, his or her days are numbered.

The trigger for this double dissolution was the Senate’s refusal to pass a bill that would have established a federal watchdog for the construction industry. But many Australians think that the dispute simply provided a convenient excuse. After all, an Essential poll conducted in late March found that 49 percent of Australians held no opinion about the watchdog.

Australia is unique in the ease with which parties can replace their leaders.

A more likely explanation for Turnbull’s decision has to do with the government’s fractious relationship with independent senators, including Nick Xenophon, Glenn Lazarus and Jacquie Lambie, and with the minor parties, such as the Greens and the Motoring Enthusiast Party. The Liberal-National coalition has clashed with senators from other parties on key issues such as university fee deregulation, health care copayments, and welfare reform. Turnbull hopes that the double dissolution election, coupled with reforms to the Senate voting system that will make it more difficult for “micro-parties,” or those elected to parliament with a very small proportion of the vote, to gain parliamentary representation, will strengthen his mandate.

Since deposing Tony Abbott as Liberal leader and prime minister last September, Turnbull has faced mounting pressure from the right wing of his own party. Abbott, who commands a strong majority in his suburban Sydney constituency, looks likely to return to parliament and will represent a potential source of instability for any future coalition government. If Turnbull and his government are reelected, he may well attempt to assert his personal authority more aggressively by pursuing a more socially progressive agenda. Turnbull will claim that he has a mandate from the Australian voters to push his legislative program through the Senate.

Malcolm Turnbull is sworn in by Australia's Governor-General Peter Cosgrove as Australia's 29th prime minister at Government House in Canberra, September 2015.
Malcolm Turnbull is sworn in by Australia's Governor-General Peter Cosgrove as Australia's 29th prime minister at Government House in Canberra, September 2015.
Lukas Coch / Reuters

This may be easier said than done. Historically, many smaller parties and independent senators have comprised the Senate. This diversity is a product of the electoral system, a variant of proportional representation, under which parties need only to achieve a proportion of the vote rather than a majority. Further, many Australians generally “split their ticket” on election day by voting for one party in the House of Representatives and another in the Senate to dilute power between the two chambers. This electoral system has allowed smaller parties to gain more influence. The Greens, for instance, have won a foothold as an influential third force in Australian politics. There is no guarantee, therefore, that the party that wins the election will also control the Senate.

Two weeks out from the election, the contest is too close to call. Some polls indicate that Turnbull leads Labor’s Shorten as the preferred prime minister, although he has lost ground throughout the campaign.

The parties differ on the underlying ideology of the role that government should play in securing economic prosperity, protecting the environment, and providing social services.

A quarter of all voters remain uncommitted to either leader, and many intend to vote for one of the minor parties or independent candidates, such as the Greens or the Nick Xenophon Team, as an alternative to, or to protest against, the two major party groupings. Australia uses an alternate vote system, where voters rank candidates, which means that the second preferences of those who vote for the minor parties matter. In the 2013 federal election, over 60 percent of seats in the House of Representatives were won only after voters’ second and subsequent preferences were taken into account. In 15 seats (or ten percent of the House), the winner of the contest was not the candidate who held the majority of first preference votes.

So far, neither party leader has paid much attention to the ostensible cause of the election, the construction industry watchdog. Instead, the parties are focusing on a range of issues that consistently feature in Australian federal campaigns: economic management and taxation, the provision of healthcare and education, and environmental protection.

A group of around twenty protesters occupy Malcolm Turnbull's electoral office, demanding the end to the policy of offshore detention of asylum seekers in the Sydney suburb of Edgecliff, Australia, October 2015.
A group of around twenty protesters occupy Malcolm Turnbull's electoral office, demanding the end to the policy of offshore detention of asylum seekers in the Sydney suburb of Edgecliff, Australia, October 2015.  
David Gray / Reuters

There are clear ideological differences between the two major party groups. According to opinion polls, voters trust the Liberal-National coalition more on economic management. The coalition proposes wider corporate tax cuts than Labor, more generous tax incentives for property owners to invest, and a business-oriented approach to tackling climate change by providing financial incentives to polluters to reduce carbon emissions. Labor, which opinion polls suggest the public trusts more on education and healthcare, is proposing more investment in medical services and education. It has indicated that if elected, it will implement an emissions trading scheme to reduce carbon pollution. 

For younger voters, key issues include climate change, the treatment of asylum seekers, and same-sex marriage. Yet both Labor and the coalition have similar policies toward asylum seekers: both are committed to processing refugees in camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, forcing boats carrying refugees to turn back, and resettling refugees elsewhere in the region. Only the Greens pledge to end offshore processing and mandatory detention.

And even as other countries have legalized same-sex marriage, the major Australian parties have tried to depoliticize the issue. Rather than passing legislation to guarantee the right to marriage, the coalition intends to put it to a national plebiscite. And although Shorten has pledged to introduce a bill legalizing same sex-marriage within 100 days if elected, the issue remains a matter of conscience for Labor parliamentarians who are not yet bound by party policy.

Stark ideological differences remain between the parties on issues such as health, education, the environment, and the economy. As a result, the outcome of the election will have a significant impact on the economic and political direction of the country over the next few years. Given that both parties are committed to reducing the budget deficit, there are likely to be relatively modest spending increases or tax cuts, regardless of who wins. But something will change: the underlying ideology of the role that government should play in securing economic prosperity, protecting the environment, and providing social services.

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  • ANIKA GAUJA is an Associate Professor in the Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney.
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