The Poll Bludger’s position on four-year terms is simple: elections are good, so longer terms are bad. The Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has taken a different view and recommended their introduction, with consideration given to both a simple extension of the time-frame in which an election may be called, and to the Victorian/South Australian model where the first three years are fixed and an election may be called at any time in the final year. The proposal was predictably well received by politicians, who having gone to the trouble of being elected would like to remain that way for as long as possible, and by business groups, who find entrenched governments easier to influence than public opinion. In fairness, the cause has no shortage of more objective supporters. Glenn Milne typified the view of editorialists and the commentariat when he complained that "under the three-year system, apart from year one, governments are essentially on a constant campaign footing, and the national interest be buggered"; while Marion Sawer and Norm Kelly of Democratic Audit articulated the academic consensus in saying "four-year terms are generally seen as more appropriate for effective government".
All the pillars of the establishment are in line, but this is one issue where they must contend with an unfamiliar player – the electorate, whose consent is required for the necessary constitutional amendment. A poll conducted by Ipsos Mackay for Channel Ten suggests it won’t be forthcoming. Of the thousand voters surveyed, only 40 per cent said they would back it in a referendum, with 54 per cent opposed. Even more persuasive is the precedent of the 1988 referendum when four-year terms were among a package of four proposals that conspicuously failed to capture the public’s imagination, faring second worst out of the four with 32.9 per cent of the national vote. Scott Bennett of the Australian Parliamentary Library suggests that this failure was largely the fault of the Hawke Government, which "confused the issue by including in the proposed change a reduction of Senate terms to four years as well as a provision for simultaneous elections". This seems a little unfair since it fails to acknowledge that longer House terms inevitably raise problems for the Senate which have no obvious answer.
At present, Senators serve fixed six-year terms (provided there is no double dissolution) which are staggered so that half the Senate faces the electorate every three years, which must happen at some point in the final year of their term. In most circumstances this acts as a restraint on governments wishing to call early elections for the House, since voters are not like psephologists and do not see the charm of separate mid-term half-Senate elections. To maintain this system, four-year terms for the House would mean eight-year terms for Senators (JSCEM’s "Senate Option 1"), which voters will never wear. The alternatives are abandoning the assumption of synchronised House and Senate elections, which they will like even less; tying Senate terms to the variable terms for the House, so they will be between six and eight years ("Senate Option 2"); or the 1988 option, which actually looks pretty good when stacked up against the alternatives.
The real flaw of the 1988 referendum was not that it was tied to unavoidably contentious Senate proposals, but that it offered no concession to fixed terms. The spectacle of a race in which one of the contestants fires the starting gun at a time of their own convenience bothers voters far more than does relatively frequent elections. Scott Bennett’s paper quotes a paper written in 1980 by a trio of University of New South Wales academics (Donald Horne, Elaine Thompson and Sol Encel) which correctly diagnosed a simple extension of terms by one year as:
The worst of all possible worlds. It gives an extra year to a government without accountability to the people and yet the opportunity for a prime minister to call an early election at will still remains.
It is interesting that this was written when it was and where it was, because one year later voters in New South Wales agreed to do exactly what they warned against, backing four-year terms at a referendum with 69.0 per cent support. Thus began a dark age that continued until 1995 when another referendum introduced fixed quadrennial elections for the last Saturday in March, receiving 75.5 per cent of the vote. Queensland dodged the bullet in 1991 when the Goss Government’s attempt to deliver yet more power to every future Joh Bjelke-Petersen fell narrowly short of succeeding, with 49.1 per cent support. It is widely felt that it would have got up if Goss had the sense to conduct it concurrently with the state election the following year. Nevertheless, New South Wales is the only exception to the rule that there are three-year terms in jurisdictions where voters have had a say in the matter, and four-year terms where they haven’t.
To conclude, a perfect summation of my own views courtesy of Laurie Oakes:
The argument politicians put is that a three-year term is too short to allow governments to operate in the national interest. A government, they say, implements the hard decisions in the first year, beds them down in the second, and spends the third year trying to win re-election. But what is wrong with that? It sounds pretty efficient, in fact. How would four years be any better? Presumably it would enable a government to implement the hard decisions in year one, bed them down in year two, then have 12 months resting on its laurels and enjoying the comforts of incumbency before having to worry about the next election. It is easy to see how that would benefit parliamentarians, especially those in the governing party, but less easy to see how it would benefit voters.