Australia announces voting reforms, signalling possible early polls

 Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (right) and New Zealand counterpart John Key in front of the Sydney Opera House on Feb 19, 2016.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (right) and New Zealand counterpart John Key in front of the Sydney Opera House on Feb 19, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

CANBERRA (REUTERS) - Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull introduced a Bill on electoral reform on Monday (Feb 22), signalling a potential dissolution of Parliament and an early election to break political deadlock.

Independent and minor party senators elected at the last election in 2013 have continuously stalled key aspects of the government's agenda, including changes that would make higher education and healthcare more expensive and limit access to welfare.

The proposed reforms, making it harder for smaller parties to enter Parliament through vote sharing deals, are seen as necessary for the government to dissolve both houses of Parliament and call an election.

"Before the Bill hit the floor, an early election was hypothetical. It is on the table now," said political scientist Peter Chen from the University of Sydney. "There is no way they can negotiate with any of the senators any more. Legislating for this Parliament is over."

The changes will likely anger independent and minor party members of the Senate, which the government relies on to pass legislation opposed by the opposition, meaning Mr Turnbull may rush to an early election to avoid a long period of parliamentary stagnation.

"The system has been taken advantage of," he told reporters. "The last election was widely criticised and Australians were astonished to see people elected whose votes were a fraction of one per cent."

Mr Turnbull, who deposed former prime minister Tony Abbott in a party coup last year, told party ministers earlier this month that a double-dissolution election was a "live option".

A double-dissolution election is rarely used in Australia and allows for snap elections for all the seats in both houses to break an impasse.

The earliest a double-dissolution election could be held is in June. However Mr Turnbull said on Monday that he plans to hold an regular election in September or October. "Calling an early election could help Turnbull consolidate his support within the party, but there is also a big risk it could back-fire," said Dr Chen.

Mr Turnbull has been consistently leading opinion polls since he came to power last year, but there are signs the honeymoon period may be ending.