Australia

When will Australia's next federal election be?

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison has suggested it won't be until 2019 - but six months is a long time in Australian politics.

When Scott Morrison took over from Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister last week, he told voters he would not rush to an early election.

The former treasurer is hoping his new cabinet team can claw back support after the leadership turmoil of August delivered the Coalition its worst opinion polling in a decade.

Labor says the government has lost control of its own ranks and is calling for an election as soon as possible.

But Mr Morrison has some options at his disposal. If he sees a strategic opportunity he can call it as early as this year, or he can draw out the campaign to give his government time to change direction.

Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten.
Scott Morrison and Bill Shorten.
AAP

The 'least suboptimal' Saturday

The next federal election has to be between 4 August 2018 and 18 May 2019 for a variety of constitutional reasons.

The last election was an unusual double dissolution where the whole Senate and House of Representatives were contested. This time, Australia will get back into the usual pattern of electing the full House of Representatives and only half of the Senate.

Within that bracket, it’s up to the government of the day to pick what Tasmania-based election analyst Kevin Bonham calls the “least suboptimal” weekend.

There are state elections to avoid – Victoria is voting on 24 November and New South Wales is due in March next year. The campaigns could run parallel, but it would be unusual. The elections themselves cannot be on the same day.

The conventional wisdom is to avoid December and public holidays like Anzac Day and Easter. People don’t like thinking about politics when they’re trying to relax.

So on balance, May looks like the most likely option.

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What does the PM say?

Mr Morrison faced questions on the timing of the election on his very first day as Liberal leader, having just trounced former cabinet colleagues Peter Dutton and Julie Bishop in a three-way contest.

He poured water on speculation of an early poll.

“We intend to be governing. And we have got able to do as a fresh new team. So I don't think anybody should be making any plans for any elections any time soon,” he said.  

His predecessor Malcolm Turnbull long insisted the election would be in 2019.

Some Canberra insiders predicted an early run if the government stole a seat or two from Labor in July's Super Saturday by-elections.

They didn’t, but nonetheless, experienced analysts say an early election is not out of the question.  

But 'things change'

Swinburne University adjunct professor and elections expert Peter Brent says most leaders say they won’t call an early election… until they do.

“Yes, they do it regularly. Most of them have done it. They say ‘I intended to serve the full term’ and then those that have gone early have gone early and said ‘circumstances change’.”

Coalition strategists will be keeping a close eye on opinion polls – and on what happens in the by-election for the Sydney seat of Wentworth vacated by Malcolm Turnbull.

The government is likely to hold the very safe Liberal seat, but the size of the swing to Labor will be seen as a litmus test for the Morrison regime.

“If there was some kind of polar flip in the polling that suddenly made them competitive they might be tempted,” Mr Bonham told SBS News.

Labor has consistently trumped the Coalition in every two-party preferred Newspoll since mid-2016.

The split hovered around the 51-49 mark for months before the change in Liberal leadership, which saw Labor race ahead to 56-44.

Can we trust the polls?

The Trump and Brexit campaigns defied the expectations of pollsters, but Mr Boneham Newspoll has proven itself to be reliable in recent elections – partly thanks to Australia’s compulsory voting system.

“We don’t have the same challenge that pollsters have overseas with trying to work out who’s actually going to vote,” he said.

“If the Coalition were looking for evidence that the national polling recently was wrong then the by-elections don’t provide it.”

Immigration a key issue

The July by-elections also offered a preview of the debates likely to dominate the campaign, with immigration policy emerging as a key battleground.

The Coalition is warning a Labor government would be “soft” on maritime asylum seekers and the people smuggling trade would again ramp up its efforts. Labor has promised to continue the current policy of boat turnbacks and offshore processing.

The government had been championing the fact permanent migration of skilled workers and their families has dropped to its lowest level in a decade under the watch of Peter Dutton, claiming more visas were rejected by a superior vetting process.

But the appointment of Immigration Minister David Coleman could see the government take a different approach.

In response, Labor claims the Coalition has cut permanent migration while allowing a surge in temporary work visas – although the opposition often counts students and working holidaymakers in its statistics despite the strict limits on their work rights.

Mr Bonham says the politics of migration will play a significant role.

“It may be sort of beneath the surface, rather than overt,” he says.

“There is a big undercurrent [of anti-immigration sentiment] and it’s not just on the right, either.”

“We may well see a lot of parties hinting at it in different ways.”

SBS INTERACTIVE: All work, no stay - The shifting landscape of Australian migration

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