Total recall

Insert Joe Tripodi-Kristina Keneally joke here

The New South Wales Labor government must be wondering if it can make it to the March 2011 election without suffering a revolution. The Sydney Morning Herald is inviting readers to sign a petition in support of a “recall initiative”, an innovation associated with that most famously well-governed of polities, the state of California. As it works in California and a few other American states, a recall election is held if demanded by a number of petitioners equal to 12 per cent of votes cast at the preceding election. The ensuing recall election is a full statewide poll on whether a new election should be held. In 2003, 1,356,408 valid signatures were obtained to recall Democratic Governor Gray Davis, initiating a recall election that passed with 55.4 per cent support and a gubernatorial election at which Arnold Schwarzenegger polled 48.6 per cent to the Democratic candidate’s 31.5 per cent.

Speaking on the ABC’s The World Today, Herald editor Peter Fray said only that he considered the recall initiative an “option” that was “worth exploring”, which makes his paper’s actions all the more provocative. Editorialists including the Herald’s own have long been telling us that fixed four-year terms give governments the time they need to make tough but necessary decisions. The recall initiative would swing the pendulum wildly in the opposite direction, leaving governments in constant terror of a death that could come at any time. This and other aspects of direct democracy seem to be linked to California’s endemic budgetary problems, which are exactly the sort of thing our newspaper editors are normally very keen to avoid.

It’s customary to note here that those who specifically decry “fixed four-year terms” are partly missing the point. That the terms are “fixed” is neither here nor there, as the government would hardly be holding an election in the present circumstances if only the constitution allowed it to. Provision does exist for an early dissolution if the government is defeated on confidence or supply, but such defeats can only occur in the lower house, where in spite of everything Labor retains a solid working majority. Notwithstanding that it remains the norm federally and in other states, there is apparently no enthusiasm for the idea that the upper house should equally have power to force a government to election. The power to block supply was removed from the Legislative Council in 1933, as was entirely appropriate for a chamber that was still not popularly elected and would not become so until 1978. But the modern Legislative Council is elected by a pure system of statewide proportional representation, and surely has equal claim on a popular mandate to a Legislative Assembly which Labor is able to control with 39 per cent of the vote.

However much it might have to recommend it in the current circumstances, the notion that any upper chamber should be able to call time on a government under the proverbial “extraordinary and reprehensible circumstances” seems to have been eternally discredited by 1975.

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.

85 comments on “Total recall”

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  1. I am convinced that the argument that a recall provision would prevent governments from making hard decisions is an overwhelming one in support of retaining the status-quo.
    In NSW, I would suggest, we have seen an example of an attempt by politicians to hide the necessity of a “hard decision” from the electorate, and then after the election, secure in the knowledge of an unfettered 4 year term attempt to implement the solution.
    I refer in paticular to the privatisation of NSW electricity assets.
    It must be remembered that Bob Carr in the early part of his premiership proposed a sell off of electricity assets. He backed down in the face of an ALP conference hostile to the proposal.
    In 1999, the then Opposition leader took a policy of an electricity sell off to the election. Bob Carr campaigned strongly against it and ridiculed the proposal.The Opposition lost the election badly.
    Fast forward to the election campaign for the March 2007 election. Electricity privatisation was not on the agenda. Indeed unions, concerned about a possibility it would be, wrote to the then Premier Iemma about it and were informed reassuringly the government had no proposals.
    Shortly after the election, Iemma announced the government was concerned about electricity generation (an issue not raised during the election) and commissioned a report.
    Wow….the report recommended the privatisation of electricity.
    Faced with this ‘sudden’ emergency, Iemma took the hard decision to privatise electricity.
    The rest is history, including the stand-off with unions, the stated intention of Iemma to disregard the decision of Labor’s state conference that privatisation not proceed, and the eventual downfall of Iemma.
    Yes, sometimes circumstances arise that require hard decisions to be made, but I would think it unwise to under-estimate the ability of politicians to attempt to deceive the people.

  2. Presumably spurred on by the SMH ‘petition’, the Suday Telegraph in order to maintain market share, is ramping up it’s earlier ‘petition’ with an article headlined A last gasp to fix this messed up state
    The article contains statements highly critical of NSW Labor by Blue Mountains MP Phil Koperberg and Bathurst MP Gerard Martin. This follows criticism of NSW Labor by Coogee MP Paul Pearce, published in the eastern suburbs local, the Wentworth Courier this week.

  3. Well, a bit of common sense demonstrated by the populace of NSW.

    [So far, 15,279 people have completed the petition started by The Sydney Morning Herald, which calls for the referendum to be held at the next state election in March 2011]

    The other 99.8+% of the NSW population is more focused on more important issues – when Ponting will get sacked as the Australian captain, finding the very last spot in Westfield’s carpark, the next G&T…

  4. “leaving governments in constant terror of a death that could come at any time”

    Philosophically, I quite like this idea; the government SHOULD operate on the basis that it’ll be kicked out at any time. Put the number of signatures required high enough that it will take major problems for enough support to be gathered, and lets go.

  5. Rather than apply a philosophical test to the idea of a recall provision I thought I might look at a ‘self-interest’ test to see what the outcomes might be for the various partys.Remember it has been said that the art of politics is to dress up self interest as moral imperative.

    Labor – often in government in NSW, so would have this damocles sword hanging over it’s head regularly. Kristna Keneally has not indicated a policy on it, other than to say there should be a discussion (is this shorthand for lets hope it goes away). Presently in government and seemingly unable to govern itself, let alone the state. The present government might be a successful candidate for being knocked off under a recall provision. Conclusion: Very unlikely to support a recall provision.

    Liberals – seldom in government, but when it is, would have the damocles sword over it’s head. If the recall provision was implemented at the 2011 election would be the first in Australia to have the sword over it’s head, and during it’s first term in office. However, Barry O’Farrell says he supports the recall. Conclusion: Support for the recall likely to much higher than Labors. However, O’Farrell has already locked the Liberals into supporting it.

    Greens: Constantly told they will never be in government. If true, nothing to lose by it. Conclusion: No self interest reasons not to support the recall.

  6. Peter, do you think the Greens would be likely to perform differently at a ‘recall election’ than a regular one? Can you imagine that a ‘recall’ election might polarise the electorate more? So they might think, this is a choice between change or no change, for instance?

    I’m not sure if there would actually be this effect but it’s interesting to consider.

  7. Itep – 57

    I thought I might offer this answer in the expectation it will invoke the normal abuse being hurled:

    The Greens will act out of principle, not self interest – as they always do.

    😆 🙂 😈

  8. Laocoon, thats 0.2 % that believe that the recall would be of the CURRENT government. If you ask them whether they are interested in recalling a future government, that 0.2% would plummet

  9. I don’t see the logic behind that assumption. Surely if one feels that the current government should face the prospects of a recall election that would extend to any future government.

  10. [Bit of a silly thing to say. Of course governments should be accountable, but they shouldn’t be at risk of termination every second of their term.]
    Why not? The ever-present possibility of dismissal for unsatisfactory performance is a salutary check on other people, so why not on governments?
    [Your argument supposes that all voters are well informed and make decisions based on facts for complex policy issues. People would NEVER vote based on emotion for things like GST or ETS … would they?]
    No, my argument supposes only that democracy presupposes trusting the voters, and that it is inconsistent to trust them and not to trust them. If voters can’t be trusted because they’re not well-informed and act on emotion, then why have democracy at all?
    [To introduce things like recalls or 1 year terms would turn Parliament into something like voting for Australian Idol. I would fight that with my dying breath. Governments are there to govern and make tough decisions. The people get their judgement at the end of a reasonable term.]
    I can’t see the logic in supposing that people would vote more stupidly if they got to do it more often. Practice makes perfect, in my view.

  11. For those ALP blogist who have never been to NSW, this is what the ALP member thinks about the government

    As for the bribery

    Until the government declare a royal commission, or people who has been paying bribes come forward, it is pretty hard to prove. But there has been so many “stories”, and so many coincidence – former premier – desalination – mac bank boards etc. Questions has to be asked

  12. I would just like to make a comment which only tangentially relates to the topic of a recall. However, it is my opportunity for thanking this website for giving me some inspiration.

    We recently got a new puppy.

    She is cute and cuddly. She is beautiful. She is pretty. However she is pretty stupid. She wees and poos everywhere.

    She is lost in our home, her new home. She is totally dependent on us, her masters. Her barking annoys many of the neighbours.

    However, we are hoping she grows into an obedient dog. We had to put our last dog down because he would not follow instructions. We thought that was because he was an alpha male, that’s why we got a female this time.

    We understand however, that no matter how much we love and anthropomorph her, nothing will really change. A dog is a dog.

    We pondered what to call her. Eventually we settled on “Kristina”.

    I only wished one could post photo’s here. I am sure everyone would fall for her puppy charm.

  13. On recalls…

    KK is playing politics here – she (or rather ALP head office in Sussex St) would love to have it to aim at the head of Premier O’Farrell. The scenario is that the Libs are most likely to win government and are likely to do some or all of:

    – raise taxes;
    – reform public transport, including taking on the transport unions and abandoning some ALP white elephants (CBD Metro, anyone?), and trying some new transport PPPs (hello new toll roads);
    – sack a reasonably large number of public servants, including major cleanouts of the top echelons some of the most politicised departments;
    – sell off the power industry in one form or another;
    – etc

    These “reforms” will be unpopular. Rallies will be held in Hyde Park and Macquarie St. There are likely to be power or transport industry industrial stoppages. The ALP would love to have a quick way back in, once O’Farrell goes down this path.

    NSW is a very hard state for the coalition to win. The sheer number of seats in the Illawarra, Hunter and Inner and Western Sydney that the Libs NEVER win makes it extremely difficult for the coalition to get the 47 seats they require at a general election. It’s been made more difficult by the success of independents against hapless Nats in rural areas of the state. So at any election called at some random time by a recall process, the ALP will have the advantage. Not just post 2011, but into the longer term.

    The only solution is shorter terms. Not reverting to flexible terms (which would achieve nothing in the present circumstances) and certainly not a recall process, which just debauches the business of responsible government by making unpopular reforms even more unpalatable.

    Of course, if we elected governments of reasonable competence in the first place, you’d probably want longer terms, not shorter terms. The current situation of a government becoming so tired and old that by general consensus it needs to just be put out of its misery, is rare. Of themselves, the present circumstances are no reason for imposing a recall process.

  14. It has been reported that ‘Richo’ has told a NSW Upper House inquiry today that he spoke with Tripodi, Obeid and Della Bosca in the week leading up to the hatchet job on Nathan Rees because:
    they wanted his “opinion on a few things”, including over “policy” the Government should be pursuing.

    Why does the NSW government need to seek advice from a “has-been”?

  15. Rogan

    O’Farrell doesn’t look like he’s ready to make any unpopular decisions. I don’t know his position or plan on anything.
    He appears to be following Beazley and Costello, just waiting for the prize to be handed to him.
    Does he actually control his party or is he too a prisoner of the warlords.

    It’s easy to dismiss K Squared as a lightweight, but so did Nathan, to his cost.

  16. dovif,

    To be fair, can you post what the Liberal Membership thinks of its representatives at the moment. You know, the ones less than endeared by the right wing takeover of the Party by the Abbott Minchkins.

    As for corruption, the accusations never cease and are never proven. The Upper House just had an inquiry that drew another fat zero despite the evil intent of Hales and the Greens.

    Keep posting your bleatings. One day I’m sure you’ll convince yourself that something is amiss.

  17. greensborogh

    and you should keep sticking your head in the sand

    Really do you really think a minister or a payer of bribe will come forward and get thrown in jail?

    You are clueless

  18. Thanks for your reasoned response. On your performance to date, I thought you might have gone all hysterical on us.

  19. Once again we are straying from the substantive issue posed by this section, namely implementing a recall provision.

    However, Greensborough Growler could you please elucidate on ” the evil intent of Hales and the Greens.”

    I am not aware of anything that would indicate the existence of any evil intent, or any actions carried out because of this supposed evil intent.

  20. Rogan @66 – I like your idea – the recall provision would only take effect on the next election, which means its first victim could be the almost certain O’Farrell government, with it being the means of getting Labor back into power in NSW. I don’t think that’s quite what the SMH has in mind 🙂

  21. [Of course, if we elected governments of reasonable competence in the first place, you’d probably want longer terms, not shorter terms.]
    If the voters think a government is good, they will want it to stay in office. But shorter terms don’t prevent this. Even with one-year terms, a government could still stay in office for twenty-four years (like the NSW government from 1941 to 1965) or even thirty-five years (like the Tasmanian government from 1934 to 1969). But it would need to convince the voters to support it in twenty-four or thirty-five elections running. More frequent elections should put more pressure on the government to pay attention to the voters, which is democratic. And if you had a government which did succeed in winning elections year after year, you would also have more pressure on the opposition to smarten up its act. At the same time, if you had a government which didn’t impress the voters, they wouldn’t have to wait the same length of time to get rid of it. Shorter terms allow more frequent rotation in government, but they still allow for long-running governments as well.

  22. Professor George Williams has entered the recall debate by endorsing the holding of a debate.
    However, he on balance, argues against a recall.
    Should a recall procedure be introduced he suggests some safeguards are necessary:-
    a. The number required to petition for a recall should be set sufficiently high. He suggests it should be at least 20%.
    b. Signatures should be required from people living across the state. He suggests 80% of electorates.
    c. A petition would only be valid if it cited one or more specified grounds for dissolving the parliament, e.g. misconduct. The existence of that ground could be tested in the courts.

  23. One of the arguments used by Professor Williams against a recall provision is that a recall may be used opportunistically against an elected government.
    The Newspoll published today gives an example of a situation where people might be tempted to act opportunistically.
    NSW Labor is on 26% (an all time low for a government, an accolade shared with one other Newspoll taken at the time Iemma was shafted in 2008), the Coalition on 44%, the Greens on 17% (up from 12% in the previous Newspoll and 9% at the 2007 election) and a 2PP of 41(NSW Labor)-59(Coalition).

  24. Incidentally, WA’s upper house was at one point seriously thinking of calling time on the Dowding/Lawrence Labor government while Barry MacKinnon was the Liberal leader in 1990ish.

    I think a government that thinks it’s going to be kicked out at any moment will act solely and purely in its short term political interest and not in the state’s interest, which is why I’m not in favour of it. The major problem in NSW is really that both parties have been captured by internal factions which have more say in the running of the state than the Premier/Opp Leader.

  25. Andrew Tink, a former Liberal MP. gives his view on the recall proposal. It is difficult to discern his point of view. Maybe it comes down to:-
    1. A recall should not be possible less than 3 years from the last general election.
    2. A recall vote be held where 40% of electors petitioned it (currently 1.6 million).
    3. A recall was unfair to those MPs who were elected, but not part of the government which was responsible for voter anger.

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