Australia needs fixed four-year parliamentary terms

By Cathy Harper
Election Watch Project Lead

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Australian democracy would operate much more effectively if we had fixed four-year terms at federal level.

When Australians vote in the federal election on May 18 it will be less than three years since they last voted, and less than three years since they voted in the election before that.

Over that period, we’ve witnessed political chaos that has taken leadership instability in this country to unprecedented levels - we’ve changed Prime Ministers six times in about nine years.

Our system of three year terms at a federal level, with the election date able to be set by the government, contributes to leadership uncertainty and the difficulty in making long-term policy.

The Constitution specifies that terms of the House of Representatives are a maximum of three years. However, the exact election date is decided by the government (if approved by the Governor General) and federal governments have on average only last for a bit more than two and a half years.

The situation is different at a state level. All states and Territories, except Queensland, have moved to fixed four year terms. Internationally, four or five year terms are the norm in democratic systems.

Graph - length of parliamentary lower house terms

Australia’s short election cycle at a federal level has been the subject of much criticism for decades. These criticisms centre around the political and economic uncertainty created when elections are held less than three years apart; and the difficulty of creating long-term policy when the political reality is that parties spend a significant proportion of that time preparing for the next election.

Then there’s the cost of holding elections every few years or less. The 2016 election cost more than $286-million, which is about $19 per voter. Holding federal elections are a huge logistical exercise. Australia has about 16 million enrolled voters, and our compulsory voting system ensures more than 90% participation.

Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars would be saved if federal elections were held less frequently.

There have been serious efforts to change the situation. A referendum was held in 1988, in which voters were asked whether they wanted to “alter the Constitution to provide for four-year maximum terms for members of both Houses of the Commonwealth Parliament”. Constitutional referenda in Australia are inherently difficult to pass due to the requirement that the proposal be approved by most voters and by the majority of states.

Voters were particularly reticent on this issue. Less than 33% of voters voted in favour of the proposition and no states voted in favour. A parliamentary committee report found that despite widespread support for increased federal parliamentary terms, the proposal was defeated because it was combined with other more contentious proposals.

More recently, the then Opposition Labor Leader, Kevin Rudd went to the 2007 election promising to hold a referendum on introducing fixed four-year terms for the House and the Senate. Mr Rudd won the election, but no referendum eventuated.

As recently as last year, current Labor Leader Bill Shorten said he believed there was widespread support for reform to deliver four-year fixed terms, and the then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull agreed to discuss the idea. Again, no serious proposal for change materialised.

It’s not an easy situation to change. As already noted, referenda rarely succeed. History has shown that to have any chance of success the proposal for change must be have fairly broad bi-partisan political support. This is not an easy thing to achieve at the best of times – much less in the increasingly fractured and distrusting electorate.

The public would also have to be on board. This would require an extensive period of public discussion both in terms of the substantive issue and the appropriate wording. Much has been written about the disinformation disseminated ahead of the ‘Brexit’ referendum in the United Kingdom in 2016 by its opponents. The possibility that a discussion on changing three-year terms could also become bogged in a quagmire … cannot be discounted.

There’s also the complication that a change to the term of the House of Representatives would mean House elections could no longer be timed with Senate elections. Senators currently have six-year terms, with elections held for half the Senate every three years. Voters may not support an increase of Senate terms to eight years. They may also not be enthusiastic about the alternative – having to turn up to vote in separate elections for the House and the Senate.

The most realistic option for change would be to advocate for fixed three year terms, as recommended in a 2008-09 parliamentary research paper. This could include legislating for fixed three year terms (except that the constitutionality of such legislation might be open to challenge); or reaching bi-partisan agreement for fixed three-year terms.

Recent political history has shown that a small group of disgruntled MPs within a party can unseat a Prime Minister – even under circumstances that are unclear or unnecessary in the eyes of voters.

Introducing fixed terms would go some way to reducing the uncertainty in Canberra and give our leaders more breathing space to govern effectively.

Image credit: Australian Electoral Commission/WikiCommons

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