Three-year parliamentary terms are woefully short

By Heath Pickering. Deputy Editor, Election Watch

Federal elections must be held every three years while, globally, 90% of countries have four or five-year terms.

This statistical anomaly is a hangover from federation. And it's not likely to change any time soon. A 2004 report by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended extending parliamentary terms to four years. Plus, calls to extend parliamentary terms have received bipartisan support. But parliament hasn’t acted.

Australia’s newest parliamentarian, Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman, used his maiden speech in parliament to criticise Australia’s three year parliamentary terms and advocate for four year terms. He said, “it’s worth reflecting” that “every 33 years out of a every century are potentially lost to good governance.”

According to a dataset published by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the majority of national lower houses worldwide have either four or five year terms. For example, out of 77 countries which have a bicameral (two chamber) parliamentary system (like Australia), 71 have either four or five-year terms, while only three, including Australia, have three-year terms.

Australia, Mexico and the Philippines are the only three countries that use a three-year lower house term in a bicameral (two-chamber) parliament. Australia’s three-year term has more in common with Britain’s 322-year-old Member of Parliament Act of 1694—which established three-year terms—than it does with the UK’s current five-year terms updated in 1911.

Most other established and emerging democracies have five-year parliamentary terms, including the lower houses in Canada, France, India and Indonesia.

The US holds Congressional elections every two years. However, there is an expectation that a candidate will hold their seat for the four-year presidential term—they only have a cursory ‘mid-term’ election in a political system where voting is not compulsory.

Out of 191 countries examined in the IPU dataset, there are only seven countries with three-year terms, including New Zealand, El Salvador and Qatar. Unlike Australia, however, these countries’ parliaments do not have a senate.

Federal parliamentary terms in Australia are usually only 32 months

If three-year terms are considered particularly short, in reality, the actual average length of a term in Australia since 1990 has been 32 months, as governments rarely complete the full 36-month three-year cycle.

This means that voters are going to the polls four months early at every federal election.

Advocates of three-year terms argue that the short election cycle enables voters to hold greater control of the political process. They say this increases democratic participation while limiting damage from ‘bad’ leaders.

Advocates of longer terms argue:

  • it would encourage governments to make long-term policy decisions
  • It would enhance business confidence
  • taxpayers would save significant costs from having fewer national elections
  • it appeases voter apathy to frequent elections
  • all State and Territory lower house terms are four years

The idea of not having four-year terms runs counter to Australian state elections. Queensland became the last Australian state to enact four-year parliamentary terms, following a referendum earlier this year.

In Western Australia, state elections are held every four years on the second Saturday in March, following the passing of the Electoral and Constitutional Amendment Bill 2011. That is, WA has both a fixed and a four-year term.

There is an important difference between ‘fixed terms’ and ‘length of terms’. These are two separate issues; the former offering a legally binding time and date for an election, and the latter debating the length of the parliamentary term.

Australia’s federal electoral system is compounded by both problems—a short parliamentary cycle and undefined election dates. Currently the Prime Minister can, through the royal prerogative, decide to call an early election at a time that is politically convenient.

The UK dissolved the royal prerogative in 2011. Their parliament passed legislation that enacted fixed-term elections every five years.

The challenge of increasing the length of federal parliamentary terms

The maximum term of the House of Representatives is set by Section 28 of the Constitution of Australia, which states:

“Every House of Representatives shall continue for three years from the first meeting of the House, and no longer, but may be sooner dissolved by the Governor-General.”

Increasing the parliamentary terms would require Constitutional change through a notoriously difficult referendum process requiring a majority vote of the electorate and the states.

Australia tried this in a 1988 referendum that sought to increase the term to four years for both houses. The vote failed, as most referendums do, with only 33% of voters in favour – and no states supporting the change.

Like Australia, New Zealand has three-year parliamentary terms (and no senate). The same referendum was considered in 1990, but failed with only 31% of voters supporting a four-year term.

The financial costs of elections continue to rise

The other problem is the cost of elections. This year’s election is likely to cost a minimum of $227 million. Other similar liberal democracies like the UK, Canada and France have five-year terms. This means they have fewer elections and fewer costs.

In the last 50 years, Australia has held 19 elections, while the UK and Canada have held 12 and 15 respectively. If Australia had five-year fixed-term elections, we would have gone to the polls just 10 times and would have saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

All things considered, do we want to go back to the polls in 2019, 2020 or 2021?

This article was co-published with The Huffington Post.

Banner image: Flickr/RoyWales


politics; election Politics; Election