The case for fixed terms

An election may or may not be called this weekend. In my last column in the Fin (over the fold), I put a case for fixed three-year terms.

Last Tuesday saw an unusual anniversary – three years since the election of 2004. It’s unusual to go three years between elections, let alone three years without an election being called. In 2001, John Howard waited until three years and two days after the 1998 election to call on the Governor General. Before that, you have to go back to the McMahon government in 1972 to find such a long delay. The only Parliament to exhaust its term was that of 1907-10, which saw two changes of government between elections.

The fact that this is possible at all is due to the fact, that rather than having a three-year term of office for governments, we have a three-year term for the House of Representatives. There is, potentially, an almost indefinite break between the dissolution of one House and the first sitting of the next.

The Constitution requires Parliament to be summoned at least once every twelve months, which, combined with the three-year life of the House, imposes a four year limit on the interval between elections, and the practical requirement for supply implies a tighter limit. But how much tighter?

Since the current House first met on 16 November 2004, its term has another five weeks or so to run. So, the next election could, in principle, be delayed until January, though Howard has promised an election before Christmas, and presumably no government would be so desperate as to campaign over the summer holidays.

Meanwhile, in the UK, the prospect of an election two years ahead of time, raised by a string of good polls for newly-installed PM Gordon Brown, has been put to bed by a fluctuation in the opposite direction, apparently in response to a well-received speech by Opposition leader, David Cameron.

The vagueness of the constraints illustrates, in this, as in many other cases, the immense discretionary power held by the Prime Minister in Westminster-based systems. If elections are intended as the primary democratic check on executive power, it seems counterproductive to allow the executive so much freedom to manipulate their timing.

The obvious answer, is a fixed date for elections, as in presidential systems like the US and France. Canada has just made the shift, and New South Wales has had a fixed four-year term since 1981. New Zealand adheres to a full three year term by convention, and the Liberal Democrats have just proposed a fixed four-year term for the UK.

Proposals for a fixed term are usually tied to an extension of the current three years to four, which raises difficulties that have so far proved fatal. Whereas it would probably be possible to fix a three year term by amending the Electoral Act, a four-year term requires a Constitutional amendment. Moreover, it would be necessary either to extend the term of office to Senators to eight years or re-elect the whole Senate every four years.

Given the dismal history of referendums in Australia, a proposal combining three changes in one would almost certainly be doomed. Arguably the most sensible combination (fixed four year terms for both houses) was put to the people in 1988 and failed miserably, gaining only 33 per cent of the vote.

Whether introduced by referendum or by legislation, a change to a fixed term is unlikely to succeed without the backing of both major parties. The Liberal party has generally opposed fixed terms in the past, but the reasons for this stance might be obsolete in the event of a change of government.

It is natural for the party in government to oppose any check on the power of the executive they control. But if a newly elected Kevin Rudd were willing to tie his own hands and forgo the possible luxury of a snap election, it’s hard to see why a sensible leader of the opposition would refuse this gift.

Also, the Liberals have always seen fixed terms as, in some sense, a repudiation of the actions of the Senate in blocking Supply in 1975. But, during a decade of dealing with a fractious Senate, the party’s affection for the Upper House has gone the same way as its commitment to Federalism, and the period of control since 2005 has done little to rekindle it. A loss of control at the election would probably be the final straw.

The final objection to fixed terms is that they would lead to long campaigns. But after the seemingly endless pseudo-campaign of the last few months, few people will take this seriously.

12 thoughts on “The case for fixed terms

  1. I would still prefer 4 year fixed terms, as the Government would then have about 3 years of policy making before going into election mode.

  2. I am for three year fixed terms and not four year terms.

    Until we can find ways of preventing such outrageous abuses of power that the Howard Govenment has perpetrated for the past three years, there is no way should allow the length of time before such governments are required to face the judgement of the Australian people be extended.

  3. or we could beg our masters to extend to us the power to call elections, the power to select ministers, and fire them for incompetence or corruption. when discussing belling the cat, why not go for the big bell?

    they might go for fixed 20 year terms, i could support that, it would save a certain amount of pretense.

  4. Since the Senate is supposed to be a house representing the States, why not have Federal Senators elected during State elections?

  5. Prof. Quiggin, although there was a 1981 referendum vote in favour of extending the maximum parliamentary from three to four years in 1981, fixed four year terms weren’t introduced until legislation to change the NSW constitution was enacted in 1992, when the Consitution (Fixed Term Parliaments) Amendment Bill 1992 was passed. A 1995 referendum was required to finally bring the change into force.

    (The shift to fixed terms was part of the deal Nick Greiner, as the head of a minority government, negotiated in 1991 with the independents — John Hatton, Clover Moore, and Peter MacDonald — after seeing his post-1988 landslide majority eliminated by a game Bob Carr and a still shell-shocked ALP in the 1991 election. A classic case of someone campaigning and being elected as a moderate and principled small-l Liberal and then governing as a vindictive, authoritarian and sneeringly dismissive big-C conservative. He managed to piss away what should have been a multi-term majority within a single parliamentary term. A lesson for Peter Costello should he ever become Prime Minister.)

    I agree that a three year fixed term is to be preferred to a four year term. Four year terms are too long for a bi-cameral system where the upper house term is 2 times the lower house term. In NSW, Legislative Council (upper house) MPs serve 8 year terms, and that’s far too long a time to go without electoral judgement.

    Call me strange, but I like elections. They’re the only time when politicians take an interest in the views of their constituents, and a prepared to act on them, no matter how superficially. Extending the term from three to four years simply adds another year of strictly enforced discipline to toe the party line, another year of twiddling thumbs for the opposition, another year kabuki-like parliamentary antics, and another year of disdain for popular sentiment.

  6. John B, you’re quite right about the date – the subs at the Fin picked this up too. And I agree with you on both Greiner and enjoying elections.

  7. John Bignucolo Says: October 14th, 2007 at 1:37 pm

    A classic case of someone campaigning and being elected as a moderate and principled small-l Liberal and then governing as a vindictive, authoritarian and sneeringly dismissive big-C conservative. He managed to piss away what should have been a multi-term majority within a single parliamentary term. A lesson for Peter Costello should he ever become Prime Minister.)

    Yes, Bob Carr and John Howard must rue the day they abandoned “principled small-l liberalism” (Wets/Luvvies take your pick) and embraced “authoritarian…conservative” policies. Otherwise they would have enjoyed “multi-term majority” run in office instead of being immediately consigned to the Dustbin of History. No doubt John Hewson is busy, as we speak, advising Peter Costello on how “small-l liberalism” is the high road to long term political power.

    Ahh the fairy tale land of liberalism. Where all your dreams come true.

  8. I don’t recall Bob Carr and John Howard ever campaigning on “principled small-l liberalismâ€?. The reference was to Nick Greiner, perhaps I wasn’t clear.

  9. John Bignucolo Says: October 14th, 2007 at 2:25 pm

    I don’t recall Bob Carr and John Howard ever campaigning on “principled small-l liberalism�.

    Dear John,

    Yes and you probably dont recall the moment when they were “immediately consigned to the Dustbin of History”. Both events occurred in that harmonious parallel universe, inhabited by good-natured souls like yourself, where evil abroad can all be set at the foot of “Bad King John”. Soon sent packing by the righteous masses.

    You see my point?

  10. I’m pretty sure the 1988 referendum was for an extension in the maximum period between elections from 3 years to 4, but not fixed election terms. Wikipedia has the wording of what went to the vote.

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