One particular subject which keeps on recurring in Australian politics is someone suggesting that the country would benefit from changing to fixed terms as though this were some sort of panacea for the ills of chaotic government. The latest volley which was fired off, came from David Coleman MP and published the Sydney Morning Herald last week. Yet again, the call goes out for fixed terms and in particular, four year fixed terms.
These short terms are out of step with the rest of the world. Most democracies elect their parliaments for four or five years – only a very small number have unfixed three-year terms.
- David Coleman, Member for Banks, in the Sydney Morning Herald, 21st Feb 2017.
What's telling is who is calling for this. David Coleman as Member for Banks is a member of the Liberal Party and the MP for an electorate which for most of its existence was firmly in the hands of Labor. As a backbencher with relatively little name recognition among the public, he can introduce legislation which changes the sitting terms of parliament to virtually no fanfare whatsoever. This can fly right underneath the radar before anyone knows what's going on and well before most people have notice to question it. This sort of thing is well within the policy of the IPA as well, who have written similar columns in the past calling for abolition of compulsory voting*. I think that this should be seen as a direct attack on the fabric of democracy itself.
I also think that it's worth reviewing a few of his criticisms and see if they stand up to the light of public scrutiny.
Governments would get more done. It's hard to implement complex, long-term policy reform in the two years or so between elections. A fixed four-year term reduces the impact of short-term political drama and allows for a more strategic approach to decision making.
I live in the great state of New South Wales. Ever since I was a wee lad, successive state governments (and federal governments) have had the broad policy of privatising everything that they could flog off. Quite frankly if "governments getting more done" is a reason for fixed four year terms then I object in the strongest possible tones. I would rather governments get nothing done at all than shove through an agenda which would make the state worse.
If you read through the Federalist Papers of the United States, the reason why the House Of Representatives had its terms fixed at two years was to increase accountability of its members. If the members of the House knew that they had to watch their back, then in theory, they wouldn't enact policy and legislation which would be at odds with the electorate. In all honesty, I think that the short terms of the House Of Representatives in the United States is one of the few features that I actually like for precisely that reason. If the electorate doesn't like a candidate, then the ability to remove them should come around more often than not.
In Australia and during the Constitutional Conventions, it was finally argued and agreed that two years was too short and that the minimum term under normal circumstances should be two and a half years; with the longest that they could drag on for being three years.
Again, I like this because it means that members of the House Of Representatives are subject to the scorn of the people if they do not act according to the people's will.
Economic activity would increase. Businesses and consumers tend to hold off on investment during election periods and the phony war that precedes them.
This is something which bothers me. Consumers in just about every traditional model of the economy don't actually make any investment spending. Consumers either consume their income or save it. Businesses are the ones who make investment spending but their motivations are to do with the profit motive and unless there are some specific raft of policies which are spelled out in an election manifesto then this theory just doesn't stand up to reason. I would believe this assertion if someone could provide a proper data set but I can't find any evidence that this is true. Besides which, in the long run, holding off a business decision for six weeks because of an election makes diddly-squat difference except for the payment date of the transaction; to then make the leap that economic activity would increase purely as a result of holding fixed four year terms is a non sequitur.
Consistency with the states. Every state except Tasmania now has fixed four-year terms.
I live in the great state of New South Wales. As the Member for Banks in Sydney's southwest, I hope that Mr Coleman does as well.
Ever since the end of the Carr Premiership we have had successive shambolic governments under Iemma, Rees, Kenneally, O'Farrel and Baird. It seems to me that a fixed for year term is of precisely zero advantage if the politics of the parliament are as stable as a table made of snakes. All that we've seen in New South Wales is the prolonged pain of waiting for a term to end so that we can replace one table made of snakes with another table made of snakes.
Looking north to Queensland and at the end of the last days of the Newman government, and Queenslanders were positively seething; after also being livid at the end of the Bligh government. By being hoodwinked and sold a bridge, Queenslanders will now find themselves having to wait longer to get rid of bad government as a result of the Queensland Term Length referendum in 2016. Mark my words, future Queenslanders will live to regret it.
If we look south to Victoria, see that Ted Baillieu's government ended up being as popular as a plate of cold sick (which eventually forced him to resign) and when Denis Napthine took over, the electorate couldn't wait to get rid of them as soon as possible. The current Andrews government with the resignation of the Speaker Telmo Languilled and Deputy Speaker Don Nardella as part of an ongoing expenses scandal has proven to be as equally as unpopular and again, Victorians are counting down the days to get rid of them as well.
Consistency for consistency's sake just doesn't seem like a worthwhile idea to me; especially when by all accounts, what you want to change a thing to is just about universally reviled. That's like noticing that nobody likes Brussels Sprouts and then for consistency's sake, making everyone have Brussels Sprouts. A proper solution would be to find something that works rather than just looking around and seeing what everyone else is doing. The reason why we have terms which are neither fixed nor longer than three years is because those arguments to see what would work have already taken place.
I think it interesting that Australia went through a similar process to what the United States went through with regards nutting out a Constitution. We might not be as good as mythologising our founding fathers (and to be honest I also like that we don't hold them up as demi-gods because a lot of them were racists, misogynists and outright knaves) but when people like Parkes, Barton, Reid, Deakin and Fisher yelled at each other and hurled abuse at each other for eleven years, they finally arrived at a thing which contained answers and compromises to the successes and failures of both the Westminster System and the US Congressional system of government.
Our Constitution doesn't contain a bill of rights for instance, because it was decided that having that would blinker people's vision as to what rights that they had. Our Senate adopted equal representation of the states like the United States' Senate and Canada did but unlike Canada, or indeed the UK, we have an elected upper house. In Australia, we looked at what worked and what didn't work in other countries and came to the conclusion that fixed terms do not work. If you want proof of what a total disaster fixed terms are, remember that it will take another 32 months before the people of America get a say about Donald Trump. Is that too long? David Coleman MP says "no".
More generally two and a half years answers the most important of questions that need to be asked to power of "how can we get rid of you?" with an answer which still throws dread into the 150 people on the floor of the green room in Canberra. As I write this, President Donald Trump won't be up for reelection until 2020, the Tory Government under Prime Minister Teresa May also won't be up for reelection until 2020, but the Australian Parliament will be facing an election in 2019. I ask you, who will fear the people that have the power to remove them, the earliest?
This is why I think that as Member For Banks, David Coleman has an obvious personal interest in this question. An election is the means by which the people of the electorate of Banks can get rid of him. That should give him cause to do a good job so that they give him a good appraisal or give him cause to fear the people who through the ballot box can fire him. I think that calling for a system that invites the voice of the people less often is cause for concern and shows a distinct mistrust of the democracy that put him there.
Anything that places a politicians job security ahead of the rights of the electorate seems like an elaborate con job to me. If you have a table made of snakes you should be able to get rid of it as soon as possible.
*No seriously, they did: http://ipa.org.au/publications/2089/voluntary-voting