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The election fix is in, but it’s not always a good thing

Calling a federal election eight months out has opened the door for a debate on fixed terms. But the pros and cons of fixed terms lack clear evidence either way, writes political academic Scott Prasser.

Julia Gillard made a good case for fixed terms in announcing a far-off 2013 poll yesterday. But does it deliver better government?

At present in Australia, the governments of NSW, South Australia, Western Australia, Victoria and the two territories have fixed terms. Queensland, Tasmania and the Commonwealth have election dates chosen by the governing party. Queensland rejected the fixed-term option at a referendum in 1991. In relation to the Senate, and this is an important distinct, it has fixed terms but not fixed election dates — the government can still call half-Senate and double dissolution elections but senators are elected for a set period.

Overseas it is a mixed bag. New Zealand doesn’t have fixed terms, nor the United Kingdom, France, the Republic of Ireland or the national government of Canada. Across the Canadian provinces it varies like in Australia. It also varies across Europe. The United States has fixed terms for national and state governments.

The arguments for fixed terms are both political and constitutional. It provides supposed certainty to both the electorate at large and to business in particular (of course, if business had their way there would be no elections, but that’s another story).

Having fixed terms is supposed to take the “politics” out of elections — to remove the perceived advantages of an incumbent government that can choose an election when most beneficial to its interests, to coincide with some national event, royal visit, scandal enveloping the opposition, or in some cases to call an early election about a scandal it knows is going to break or before the latest budget figures or economic forecasts are to be released.

And, the argument goes, it ends all the media speculation when attention should be given to dissection of policy issues.

For those concerned about the powers of upper houses and remember the 1975 constitutional crisis, it’s argued that fixed terms for the lower house prevent any usurpation by an upper house of the parliament where governments are formed. This had some validity when upper houses were not directly elected, but it’s no longer the case in Australia and has never been the case with our Senate, unlike its Canadian equivalent or the US Senate up until the first decade of the 20th century.

Fixed terms are also supposed to reduce the frequency of elections and save costs. Though some would argue we need more elections, not less, to make politicians accountable.

But consider the case against. In a Westminster democracy — based as it is on forming governments in terms of their ability to maintain support in the legislature — fixed terms can undermine the power of parliament and the concept of responsible government. If a government loses its majority in parliament then in some circumstances they can remain in office. Or if a government is so corrupt and incompetent it’s very hard to remove it from office or force an election — fixed-term provisions make this difficult to do. Under some fixed-term arrangements, a government can receive a vote of no confidence but not be required to call an early election. That’s a problem if you’re concerned about accountability.

Of course, the date for a fixed-term election may prove inappropriate if there is a natural disaster or some unforeseen circumstances before or during an election campaign. However, countries with fixed terms seem to accommodate this.

There are different version of a fixed model which can confuse voters. Take Queensland last year, where the Bligh Labor government altered the fixed terms of local government in order to accommodate its late state election. Fixed terms can, in some circumstances, be “fixed”.

Then there is the issue of election campaigns. When there are not fixed terms, governments function normally until an election date has been formally approved by the governor or governor-general. Once that happens, governments go into “caretaker mode” with all the consequential constraints on using the public service. With fixed terms the process is not as clear. Indeed, the Prime Minister in setting a date so far out for an election is doing an Anna Bligh — who set the date but didn’t formally ask the Governor to dissolve parliament and go into caretaker arrangements until after she recalled parliament and the members of her government attacked Campbell Newman under parliamentary privilege. The PM’s move now puts the public service in a quandary as everything they will now be doing has an odour of elections and politics.

But all these arguments lack clear evidence either way — they, like the issue of longer terms for parliaments, reflect opinions and views and self interests of the parties concerned.

*Scott Prasser is executive director of the Public Policy Institute at the Australian Catholic University in Canberra.

8
  • 1
    Mark Edmonds
    Posted Thursday, 31 January 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    UK does have fixed terms: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fixed-term_Parliaments_Act_2011 Granted it’s relatively new.

  • 2
    Posted Thursday, 31 January 2013 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand how announcing the election date early ‘puts the public service in a quandary as everything they will now be doing has an odour of elections and politics’. Surely the Australian public service is in the same (non) quandary as the public services in the jurisdictions with fixed terms.

  • 3
    David R
    Posted Thursday, 31 January 2013 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    I support fixed terms and preferably four years not three. However, I do think there need to be some provisions for dissolving the parliament before the full term in extraordinary circumstances.

  • 4
    Posted Thursday, 31 January 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    @ David R

    All sensible. Presumably you would keep Senate terms aligned with the Reps, so would you have them 4 or 8 years? I prefer 4.

  • 5
    Pedantic, Balwyn
    Posted Thursday, 31 January 2013 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    So if the State governments,with notable exceptions, think it’s OK, why is it a problem for the Feds?
    Why because precious Tony must object, part of his DNA!

    Commonsense suggests that four (4) yearly elections are suitable to all parties. It would consign to history the
    media hysterics and the inability of any party to develop a and launch policy for evaluation and public scrutiny.

  • 6
    klewso
    Posted Thursday, 31 January 2013 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

    I’m a three year man myself - makes them more accountable come “review time” (for their positions) in interviews with their boss, us? Not the party bosses.
    I reckon that extra year (fourth) gives them an initial gap year to kick the crap out of somebody and then buy back affection in the next three.
    If 4 is your go, why not 5 (like France?), or 6?

  • 7
    michael r james
    Posted Thursday, 31 January 2013 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    New Zealand doesn’t have fixed terms, nor the United Kingdom, France, “

    France has fixed terms for all its three elected national positions: Presidency (5y), Assembly (5y), Senate (6y).

    I can’t quite nail down the mechanism for how the dates are chosen but I would bet it is tightly delimited (especially with the Presidential and Assembly elections being close to each other). There are mechanisms (other than resignations — eg. de Gaulle; or death eg. Pompidou) to remove the President in the case of constitutional malfeance or inability (health etc), effectively an impeachment by a High Court. The President can dissolve a dysfunctional Assembly but again under tightly controlled conditions.
    …………………….
    The only reason not to have fixed terms is that the politicians have arranged it to maximize their political advantage — which is hardly a valid reason in a democracy. Rightly, the mechanism for removing a elected politician/government prematurely should require a very high bar.

    I think Australia has definitively proven that short terms work against long term planning (in Oz 3 years but because of the ability of the government to call elections, the average term in Australia is actually closer to 2 years! yet another reason why it should be nixed.)

    And yes Klewso, it should be 5 years (like France and UK). As much as I dread the thought of someone like Abbott getting a potential 5 years, the reality is it happens anyway: Howard ruled for almost 12 years. (Along with 5y fixed terms there should be term limits of two for PMs.) The psephologists will tell you that Australian voters mostly give a government two terms which means nominally 6 years but (as per above) is often 5 or even less — by itself this suggests that most people understand that one 3 year (or shorter) term is not enough to have proven their agenda etc. Of course, two consecutive terms adding up to 5 or 6 years is manifestly NOT the same as one fixed 5y term. Instead of concentrating on long term issues for the country they are forced into short-term, populist crap and bribes in a perpetual election cycle.

  • 8
    Paul White
    Posted Sunday, 3 February 2013 at 4:42 am | Permalink

    It hasn’t occurred to the (slowly going bankrupt) Australian Media that the principal reason Gillard named the election date is that she doesn’t want the LNP to dump Abbott between now and September, 2013.
    Gillard knows her best chances of winning the 2013 election is a LNP with Abbott as leader.

    The LNP polling popularity has been trending down since the introduction of the Carbon Tax.

    A Tax scare campaign is a good election strategy ( Remember Keatings GST scare campaign).
    However the strategy is for the SCAREY to occur at the election… not 18 months before the election.
    Abbott’s strategy has been incredibly dumb and every time he mentions the Carbon Tax he is shooting himself in the foot. Gillard loves Abbott and she doesn’t want to loose him to a LNP leadership change.

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