No more years

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.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

16 comments on “No more years”

  1. The report says that it won’t recommend fixed terms because ‘whilst there is some support for fixed-term parliaments, it is not bi-partisan.’ Yet it seems plain as day that you won’t get a term extension without a fixed term – that’s certainly the only basis on which I’d support a four year term.

    It also cites ‘suggestions . . . that flexible election dates result in shorter and cheaper election campaigns.’ The current ‘WorkChoices’ campaign suggests otherwise – a government can run what is effectively an election campaign any time it likes during a term (dipping into taxpayer funds in the process).

  2. Now is not the time to float longer terms: the government’s Senate majority is an issue of concern to many voters, who had grown used to the minor parties acting as a tempering valve. The idea of an 8 year Senate term, similarly would at this point (maybe at any juncture) strike people as an exceedingly long tenure.

  3. I believe the public would be likely (but not certain) to support a fixed 4 year term with senators also on 4 years. They would be more likely to suport that than a floating 4th year date with the first 3 fixed. Also with the 4 year terms, senators would take their seats when they are elected which would reflect the will of the electorate instead of having to wait 6-9 months to take their seat.

    There is no way the electorate will support 8 year terms for senators.

    Presumably with fixed terms the option could still be there for an early dissolution of parliament with a joint sitting of both houses if legislation is blocked twice by the Senate?

  4. Ben, how would you see this happen

    Make each Senate Term 4 years with 9 members form each state and changing the House of Reps to be one seat per 75,000 votes with a 5% national (or state for Tasmania) differntial?

  5. I’m with you poll bludger. I’d be happy to see elections every year!
    That said, I understand I am probably in the minority on this one.
    I agree with previous posters that an 8 year term for Senators will never succeed and once you start to talk about various permutations and multiple referendum questions the likelihood of any of them passing seems to markedly diminish.
    I am surprised that relatively little attention has been paid to the cost of elections and the savings from synchronising elections and reducing their frequency. Most of the talk on this I have heard is based on the ‘greater effective time for governance’ line. With respect, longer terms is definitely no guarantee of better governance.

  6. Another option would be the UK one – 5 year variable terms and permanent ones for upper house members. Surely, that leads to even better government?
    Seriously, though. Perhaps the 8 year term for Senators would be interesting if it were non-renewable? Once elected they would effectively be free agents. I can’t see any government agreeing to try to put that one forward, as the Senate may well act as a true house of review.

  7. There is absolutely no hope of 4 year Federal terms becoming a political reality ever.

    For a start the punters will never accept an 8 year paid holiday for Senators. Just imagine, a Senator re-elected just once would serve 16 years in the Senate. Nice work if you can get it.

    Plus 4 years is too long for a government. Loz Oakes was 100% right.

    People often forget about the bad governments who serve 4 year terms, such as the SA Bannon and Victorian Cain/Kirner state governments in the early 90’s. Those governments were bedevilled with terrrible financial scandals. Electors were mightily relieved when their 4 year terms expired.

    Politicians don’t like to be regularly accountable to the people so they argue effective government is impossible because the haven’t got the guts to make difficult decisions within 3 years. Of course the voters recognise this as utter poppycock.

  8. I believe the only proposal for reforming parliamentry terms succeeding in a referendum is fixed four year terms for both houses of parliament (i.e the whole senate being elected at once, instead of half of it). A future Labor party government will probably propose such an option and will pass pretty easily in a referendum.

  9. Ben, how would you see this happen

    Make each Senate Term 4 years with 9 members form each state and changing the House of Reps to be one seat per 75,000 votes with a 5% national (or state for Tasmania) differntial?

    The constitution says that the House of reps must have twice as many members as the Senate. Given you want the senate to be reduced to 54 members, the House of reps has to be reduced 112 members, which would increase the number of voters in an average electorate (now around 90,000)

  10. Andrew, I like the idea of non-renewable free agents in the Senate. In fact I am less appalled by the thought of long upper house terms than most – of themselves they encourage independence, which is a second reason I would vote no if the 1988 referendum proposal was put up again.

  11. Gday Tristan

    I was implying that the nexus should be boken between House of Reps numbers and Senate Numbers in my previous post, as I dont wish to see electorates becoming so large that MP’s hire huge armies of staff and never see a constituent and thus become even further removed from their electors

  12. The senate election issue is interesting. In practice the election really is to sort out the last few senators after safe spots go to the two major parties.

    I accept that the idea of the major party senators taking a more independent role must be good for the Senate and Country.

    But if you were running a major party you just would not risk giving yourself a Barnaby for 8 years unless you really really needed his/her talent and didn’t think you could get him into the HoR.

    So the independent role could only evolve to the extent that the majors can’t spot independent streaks in possible candidates.

  13. I thought Barnaby was well chosen to represent the QLD Nats, who beleive they are a major party on their own.

    They needed someone who could stand up as an independent brand name to try and appeal to the agarian socialists and so far he has delivered in spades, particularly as Howard wont let the the QLD Libs merge with the QLD Nats

  14. At its heart, the push for fixed terms is anti-democratic. It implies that taking public opinion into account will lead to bad policy. Either that, or the elected representatives are not to be trusted when an issue deserves consideration by the electorate. The current requirement for Vice Regal approval to dissolve the Parliament should be got rid of.

    By the way please don’t use the UK as an example. Unlike the US and Australia, they suspended elections altogether during WWII. The question of election timing for the Senate is easy to resolve, get rid of it.

  15. G’Day Peter, sorry I’ve taken a while to post.

    Your idea is interesting, although I suppose people would be up in arms about the less populous state of Tas having 9 senators!!

    I would like to see all electorates have the same average enrollment, unlike the situation now where each state or territory has the same average enrollment. It leads to the situation where the NT has average enrollments of 56,465 (2004 election) and the ACT has 113,770. Also the average size of SA electorates is quite high compared to the other states.

    Surely averaging out the numbers over the whole country would make it fairer?

  16. Gday Ben

    I agree in princible with what you say, but I dont think it would pass a refferendum.

    With Tassie currently having 12 Senators, the argument Id run is having less pollies and s system that would always have a hun Senate, which I think people actually want.

    The only other way to introduce what you are talking about is to change S128 so that only the majority vote condition is needed to change the constitution and not the second condition of the majority of voters in the majority of states. However I think that would fail currently

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