The M Word; the looming election and the right to legislate

On 29 August 2019, the Forty-Fifth Parliament of Australia will expire. Under the provisions of the Commonwealth Electoral Act 1919 (and section 28 of the Constitution), the latest date for the election of the House is 2 November 2019. Of course, the actual date will be sooner; half of the Senate expires in 2019, and the law requires that the half-Senate election be held and completed in time for their replacements to take office on 1 July 2019 – practically, this sets a date of 18 May 2019 at the latest for that.

A double dissolution cannot take place within six months of the expiry of the House – no later than 28 February 2019 – and we all know how well the government didn’t do the last time they called one of those.

Historically the electorate has tended to treat a separate half-Senate election as an excuse to kick the government without kicking it out; Australian governments have been very reluctant to let the houses get out of sync, so we can expect to see the next election be a House and Half-Senate – the sort we usually get. This must happen between 4 August 2018 and 18 May 2019[1].

Antony Green observes that, when we take into account Victoria and New South Wales’ impending elections, factor in the timing of the Easter/ANZAC Day holidays in 2019 (they are in the same week), and the rarity of elections in December through February, the most likely period for an election is September-October 2018[2].

Despite Turnbull’s assertion that there won’t be an election this year[3] there’s a long-established history of politicians, well, lying about this. Only once in Australia’s history has an election taken place after the parliament expired, in 1910[4].

We can, as the ALP is doing, proceed under the assumption that this is an election year.

Regardless of the outcome, no matter who wins, we can expect to be bombarded with the dreaded “M” word; mandate. The winner will claim a mandate to implement their policies to their heart’s content, as though handed the right to rule by God, and will hurl all sorts of insults at any obstructionists in the Senate or the Opposition benches. We’ve seen it happen after every election.

Here’s a funny fact; there’s no such thing. Not in Australia. If you hunt through the Constitution, you’ll find no mention of it. Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice uses the word three times – and never to imply the government has such a thing[5]. It appears once in the House of Representatives Practice – when detailing the reasons given to the House by the government of the day for the dissolutions of the House in 1917, 1955, and 1963[6]. It does not appear anywhere in the sense of the government being allowed to just implement its policies.

It’s the same in America[7].

For use to find such a thing as a mandate, it is to Mother England, with her Salisbury Doctrine, that we must turn. Simply put, the Doctrine states that the House of Lords will not block any tabled bills listed in the election manifesto of Her Majesty’s Government – they can only be “reasonably” amended (no amendments designed to sink the bill are allowed). The manifesto is a publication containing the policies a party stands for and would implement if they form government – we’d call them a collection of “core” promises. Any policies a party wants to implement that are not in the manifesto it cannot claim to have been elected for; these policies are fair game[8]. (This is not to ignore the Parliament Acts that allow the Commons to overrule the Lords – but circuit-breakers for disagreement between the houses is not the focus here.)

There is no Salisbury Doctrine in Australia. All policies and bills are fair game in either House of Parliament – especially given how prone our governments are to designating promises as “non-core” after the fact or just outright breaking them.

In Australia, the only mandate a government has is that it may try. No-one is under any obligation to let it succeed. Indeed, as Arthur Fadden found out in 1941, a government doesn’t even have a mandate to be the government if enough members of the House decide they don’t want it there. And we needn’t revisit the events leading up to the Dismissal to recall that, in the absence of a government majority, the Senate has never behaved as though anything like the Salisbury Doctrine applies here.

So when you hear a government on Canberra’s Capital Hill getting shouty about a mandate, think “bullshit”.


[1] Lundie, “‘So When Is the next Election?”

[2] Green, “Federal Election Timing.”

[3] Tillett and McIlroy, “Malcolm Turnbull Says the Election Won’t Be until 2019.”

[4] Lundie, “‘So When Is the next Election?”

[5] Odgers and Evans, Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice.

[6] Wright, House of Representatives Practice.

[7] Youngberg, “There’s No Such Thing as a Presidential Mandate.”

[8] Dymond and Deadman, “The Salisbury Doctrine.”


Dymond, Glenn, and Hugo Deadman. “The Salisbury Doctrine.” London: House of Lords Library 30 (2006).

Green, Antony. “Federal Election Timing and How to Move the Dates of the Next NSW and Victorian Elections.” Antony Green’s Election Blog (blog), May 4, 2017.

Lundie, Rob. “‘So When Is the next Election?’: Australian Elections Timetable as at 1 September 2016.” Australian Parliamentary Library, September 1, 2016.

Odgers, J. R, and Harry Evans. Odgers’ Australian Senate Practice. Edited by Rosemary Laing. 14th ed. Australia: Department of the Senate, 2016.

Tillett, Tom, and Tom McIlroy. “Malcolm Turnbull Says the Election Won’t Be until 2019.” Australian Financial Review, January 22, 2018.

Wright, Bernard C., ed. House of Representatives Practice. 6th ed. Australia: Department of the House of Representatives, 2012.

Youngberg, David. “There’s No Such Thing as a Presidential Mandate,” January 10, 2018.