Australia

When will Australia's next federal election be?

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison has suggested it won't be until May 2019 - but things can change quickly in Australian politics.

When Scott Morrison took over from Malcolm Turnbull as prime minister, 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 repeatedly 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 early, or he can wait until May to give his government more time to turn the polls around.

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.

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What does the PM say?

Mr Morrison has given a very clear indication of his plans by announcing the 2019 Budget will be delivered on 2 April 2019. 

The Budget is forecast to show Australia back in a slim surplus for the first time since the global financial crisis, and will give the Morrison government a final chance to pitch a new suite of policies to voters.

That makes the most likely dates for the federal election 11 May or 18 May, with most of April dominated by school holidays and the early part of April too close to the NSW poll. 

An early run?

Going earlier would have two main disadvantages: missing out on that long-promised surplus budget, and overlapping with the NSW state campaign. 

The prime minister is already indicating the return to surplus will be a major theme in the Coalition's campaign, so he'd be reluctant to miss the chance to show the national accounts back in the black. 

But there could be advantages too. 

Parliament is only scheduled to sit very briefly in February before the Budget - but within those few sitting days, the Morrison government could face a historic defeat on the floor of parliament over asylum seeker policy thanks to the expended crossbench.  

Labor would paint that event as proof that the Coalition had lost control of the parliament.

Some Labor strategists are predicting the prime minister might call an early election in March to avoid an embarrassing loss right before the campaign.

Some Canberra insiders predicted an early run if the government stole a seat or two from Labor in July's Super Saturday by-elections, but that didn't happen. 

'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 said the Australian Newspoll had 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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