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John Quiggin

Fixed terms make sense

John Quiggin Australian Financial Review

11 October 2007

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.

John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

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