November 06, 2015

Horse 2025 - In Defence Of Unknowable Terms Of Parliament

For those who would like to say that I haven't done my research and thought this through, please refer to my previous multiple thousands of words and 25 blog posts on the subject:

Horse 1716 - Parkes
Horse 1717 - Barton
Horse 1720 - Deakin, Watson, Reid
Horse 1724 - Fisher
Horse 1728 - Cook
Horse 1738 - Hughes
Horse 1758 - Bruce
Horse 1761 - Scullin
Horse 1780 - Lyons
Horse 1796 - Page
Horse 1837 - Menzies
Horse 1850 - Fadden
Horse 1856 - Curtin
Horse 1873 - Forde
Horse 1880 - Chifley
Horse 1901 - Menzies (again)
Horse 1916 - Holt, McEwen
Horse 1926 - Gorton
Horse 1939 - McMahon
Horse 1949 - Whitlam
Horse 1968- Fraser
Horse 1983 - Hawke, Keating
Horse 1999 - Howard
Horse 2016 - Rudd, Gillard
Horse 2023 - Abbott, Turnbull

Have I got your attention?



Are you sitting comfortably?

Then we'll begin.

For those who look across the past eight years of Australian democracy and accuse the system of not working, I'd like to remind everyone that since 2007 we have had five Prime Ministers but from the time that I was born up until 2007, we had just four.
Over the long run and if you include Sir Henry Parkes (who probably would have been Prime Minister if he was still alive), then all up we've had thirty Prime Ministers in 120 years. Over the long run, that's one every four years; which I think is fine.

If you look across the various systems of government, then two years between elections as they have in the United States House of Representatives is demonstrably too short because if leads to continual electioneering and gridlock in the legislature, four years is too long because it leads to weeks and weeks of campaigning which is mostly pointless and hideously expensive and five years like they have in the UK is obviously a terrible idea because it means that bad governments stay in for too long and hated governments might only really need to face the electorate twice in a decade.
I personally think that an uncertain term of about three yearsish in a not very exact sort of way, is good for democracy and also allows a government who is bold to actually force a mandate for something, as say Whitlam did in 1974 or Menzies did in 1951 (the latter failed in banning communism).

In the general scheme of things, Australian politics generally goes through periods of friction and then stability. In the opening eight years, we had six Prime Ministers as the states learned or didn't learn how to rub shoulders together, we had six Prime Ministers as the Second World War roared around the world and following the retirement of Sir Robert Menzies we also had six Prime Ministers as politics went through a generational shift.
What we're looking at now, following on from Hawke, Keating and Howard who were all Silent Generation Prime Ministers, is another generational shift where we've had four Baby Boomers. Time will of course tell if Malcolm Turnbull is finally able to achieve the sort of stability we've seen in ages past but there no reason to suggest that the hope for years to come isn't another age of parliamentary stability. The other side of the coin is that in periods of long parliamentary stability, it must really really suck to be the Leader of the Opposition who has to sit opposite that, like Doc Evett, Arthur Calwell and Andrew Peacock did.

A nominally three year parliamentary cycle at least gives an Opposition Leader a reason to keep at the job. Someone like Tony Abbott who lost the 2010 election after one of the most protracted series of bunfights in corridors that we've seen in this country, spent three years fighting tooth and nail to finally win the top spot in Australian politics and whilst commentators might like to say that it led the nation into toxic politics, it actually belies the fact that more than 500 bills passed through the parliament in that period of time; making it an especially productive period in political history. Had Abbott had to wait four or even five years in the cold, he might had lost heart and given up altogether.

One of the usual arguments which is put forward for having fixed terms is to fight against the advantage of incumbency. I think that this is mostly nonsense. It makes some degree of sense to claim that that is the case in a nation like the United States where the elections for the House of Representatives have no bearing on who actually forms cabinet government but  in a country like Australia, governments are almost never swept to power, old governments are swept out of office.
The incumbency argument makes even less sense in the light that in a system that can show periods of change, then it's probably best to design a system that gives a wee bit of advantage to the incumbents because it adds to stability
Besides which, as New South Wales and Victoria have shown quite comprehensively, having fixed election dates in no way improves government; with bad governments such as the Labor government from 2007-2011 which lurched from side to side like a zombie sheep, having no way to be removed by the electorate. If New South Wales had shorter terms like the Commonwealth has, then New South Wales would have been rid of the pox much sooner.

I can tell you that the next United Kingdom general election will happen in May 2020 and that the next US Presidential Election will happen in 2016, with campaigning already starting in America now; as the the rest of the world watches on in glorious horror at the sheer profligacy and expense of it all. Surely it's much easier to just go "Snap - election in five weeks. Off you go!" and everyone is happy.
Besides which, I like the idea of having no idea when the next election is. It might be in the spring, or the winter, or an autumn; who knows? Nobody knows! I think that it also helps to keep things interesting and may we all live in interesting times.

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