Marie Huttley-Jackson with her daughter Genavieve, 8, who has been diagnosed with Lyme disease, or Lyme-like illness. Photo: Jay Cronan
Advocates for the recognition of Lyme disease fear their hard-fought victory for a Senate inquiry would be derailed if Malcolm Turnbull called a double- dissolution election.
The odds of that happening were shortened on Monday, when the prime minister recalled both houses of parliament for April and brought forward the budget.
If he were to call a double dissolution, voters would head to the polls on July 2, but the government would enter caretaker mode before then.
The inquiry into Lyme disease, due to report in June, has accepted more than 350 submissions and is investigating the existence of the controversial disease and doctors’ treatment of patients.
In one submission, a 42-year-old wrote after months of pain, several doctors and no diagnosis, “I now felt hopeless, as I had been unable to find any answers and as a result people began to imply, or indeed tell me, ‘that all of my issues were all in my head’.”
The inquiry was moved by independent senator John Madigan, and supported by the entire Senate crossbench, as well as Nationals senator Bridgette McKenzie.
But under a double-dissolution election all Senate seats become available, and all seven crossbench senators could potentially lose their seats.
This was made more likely by changes to Senate voting rules, passed last week, that make it harder for minor-party or independent senators to be elected.
“When there’s a double dissolution, our sponsors for our Senate inquiry were the crossbenchers and if they’re not re-elected we’ll need somebody [else],” Lyme Disease Association of Australia spokeswoman Marie Huttley-Jackson said.
Ms Huttley-Jackson said with the changes to rules, which made crossbenchers’ seats more vulnerable, it also “puts us in a vulnerable position”.
Nick Economou, senior lecturer in politics at Monash University, said the fate of any Senate inquiry post-election would be in the hands of senators returned.
But he said the Lyme disease inquiry, which would not appear to polarise senators along political lines at least, might well survive.
“If there were sufficient numbers of senators interested in it, it would continue,” Dr Economou said. “It really depends on the composition of the Senate and on the attitude of the government of the day.”
Senator Madigan said Lyme disease was an issue that “never would have seen the light of day if it weren’t for the crossbench”.
“There’s always got to be somebody driving these references. I would hope that somebody else would pick up where I left off, but I’m not assuming that that will happen,” he said.
“We’re going to have to do what we can to the best of our ability to stress to [other senators] the importance of this Senate inquiry, and hopefully they will continue to have an interest and drive it in the event the crossbench are not returned.”
He said it was “beyond belief” how sufferers were dismissed by the community.
“These people just want to get well, they want to participate in society and all they’re asking for is to get better,” he said.
Senator Madigan said he would seek to shore up support for the inquiry among government and opposition senators in the coming weeks.
Prime Minister Turnbull has recalled Parliament for April 18.
The government will try to pass a bill restoring the Australian Building and Construction Commission and a separate bill, already rejected twice by the Senate, toughening standards for union governance.
If the government’s bills are not passed, Mr Turnbull said he will call a double-dissolution election for June 2. The budget will be delivered on May 3, a week early.