When is the next federal election? Everything you need to know

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In the coming months Australians will head back to the polls to elect a new federal government.

When that happens is up to the prime minister of the day, but there are a lot of things for Scott Morrison to consider, including arcane rules and procedural logistics.

Here is when the next Australian election is likely to be.

Election window dictated by 'very tight timetable'

people casting votes in booths
Australians will decide on a new federal government in the coming months. But when? Source: Getty

Australia is pretty unusual among democracies in that we have maximum federal term limits of just three years.

"We have a very tight election timetable,” says Professor Ian McAllister, the co-director of the Australian Election Study.

"Virtually every other country in the world has four or five year terms," he tells Yahoo News Australia.

"It means that political leaders have relatively little room to manoeuvre."

Because the term limits of the House of Representatives don’t align with the Senate (which has fixed terms of six years), to have a typical election which involves the entire lower house and half the upper house, prime ministers have about a 10-month window to choose the election date.

That is because it can’t be called until one year before the end of Senate terms, and due to the complicated process of counting the votes in the upper house, at least six weeks is required after the election before Senators begin their term.

We are already well into that window, which began in July.

Effectively, for a customary election to be held this time around, it must happen by May 21, 2022.

Timeline to the next Australian Federal Election - key dates pictured
An election this year looks highly unlikely, with March 2022 having the shortest odds with the bookies.

Are there other possible election day outcomes?

Well yes, but they’re very unlikely.

As the ABC’s election guru Antony Green points out, there is a highly improbable option for a half-Senate election by May 21 and a separate House or Representatives election as late as September 3, next year.

Holding the House of Reps and Senate elections at different times has only happened twice in history (1929 and 1963) and voters are sure not to appreciate a third.

There is also the possibility of a double dissolution election which would clear out the entire Senate. It is what Malcolm Turnbull called in 2016, but that is also very unlikely. Major parties don't like doing that as it halves the number of votes needed to get into the Senate, leading to more fringe candidates obtaining seats.

When is Scott Morrison’s best chance to win?

With the logistical stuff out of the way, there is only one thing that determines when Scott Morrison goes to the Governor-General to make it official: when he thinks he has the best chance to win.

"He can call the election whenever he wants, the main issue is whether he’s going to win or not," Professor McAllister says.

Currently the incumbent Coalition trail Labor in national polls on a two-party preferred basis, but that wouldn't worry the PM who would also be keenly judging internal polling, and targeted focus group sessions, according to Dr Haydon Manning, adjunct professor at Flinders University. 

"It's certainly not uncommon for a PM to face that kind of deficit in the polls, and come back to win," he says.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison drinking a beer
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is given a beer for his 51st birthday during campaigning for the last federal election. Source: AAP

For Mr Morrison, the sweet spot will be after the country hits national vaccine targets and has opened up but before hospitals come under too much strain. 

"The great risk still lurking out there is what will occur once restrictions are relaxed. If our hospitals are suddenly struggling it’s not going to be a great time for an election ... plus the prospect of restrictions coming back into play.

"It's a profound set of balls for him to juggle," Prof Manning says.

Once the PM goes to the Governor-General and the election writs are issued, there is a minimum of 33 days before polling day – and the all important democracy sausages – can take place. 

Why the federal election likely won’t be held in summer

The chances of an early election are evaporating by the day.

"There might have been a window about now or next month [November] if the vaccine rollout went well, but of course that did not happen," Prof McAllister says. 

The fractured state of the country's pandemic response makes a November election unlikely – and that means the government probably has to wait while Australians enjoy the beach this summer.

"They [voters] don’t like elections in the summer because they’re away and they find it annoying.

"So summer is basically out."

Prof Manning agrees: "It’s pretty rare to have a December election, let alone a February one, so realistically you can rule out summer."

The last time a federal election was held in summer was December 1, 1984, when Bob Hawke was re-elected.  

Anthony Albanese and Jim Chalmers
Leader of the Opposition Anthony Albanese (right) and Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers. Source: Getty

March favoured by bookies for federal election timing

March is the short-odds favourite to host the election. 

"Really we’re looking at March, April or May, next year," Prof Manning says.

According to the odds makers, March is the most likely sitting around $2.75, April is about $8 (due to the inconvenience of Easter holidays) and May currently sits at about $3.75. December has the fourth shortest odds at about $4. 

Once announced, expect a campaign of about five to six weeks. Then it's back to the polls.

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