It’s bad form for pollies to leak Parliamentary
Committee reports. It’s officially not done – but seems to be happening more
and more. Canberra omerta applies to the practice, of course. No one gets named – but
there’s a lot of tut-tutting, as a look through Hansard will confirm.

Then there’s that other practice – not
leaking, but briefing on reports – which seems very clearly to have happened
with the report of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters
inquiry
2004 election.

The JSCEM carries out these sorts of
inquiries after every poll. What makes this one so sensitive, however, is the
foundation it will offer for the changes to the Electoral Act the Government is
expected to use its majority in both Houses to push through.

Steve Lewis seemed well across the detail
of reports last week, going by his report in Friday’s Australian.
“Federal parliamentary terms could be increased to four
years and voters will be required to show proof of their identity at polling
booths, under sweeping electoral reforms,” he wrote – complete with comments
from the PM.

The Committee’s Chair is Victorian MHR Tony
Smith, a long-term staffer to Peter Costello. And in his column today, Costello
booster Glen Milne
had more on four year terms. Yet the Committee’s report is not due to be tabled
for a full week. Crikey understands that not all members
have finished their comments on the draft recommendations. There is anger that
they have been pre-empted.

And pre-empted for what?

“I remain, in
principle, in favour of four-year terms,” The Australian had the PM saying on
Friday morning. That afternoon, however, he seemed to be pouring cold water on
the idea. “Prime Minister John Howard is not
convinced he would have voters’ support if four-year federal parliamentary
terms were put to a referendum,” was how the Adelaide Advertiser report on
Saturday kicked off.
It has the PM saying he was “not mad keen to have a referendum” on the issue.

It was a similar story with The Age. Its story opened: “John Howard doubts Australians would support
giving their Federal Parliament four-year terms.”

Yet Milne plugs on with details today,
quoting an analysis from Scott Bennett in the Parliamentary Library doing the
rounds of Government MPs on what happened when four year terms were voted on in
1988 and supposedly offers a way out – particularly on the vexing issues of
Senate terms, double those of Members of the House of Representatives under the
Constitution.

Milne also throws in these lines:

“Four-year
parliamentary terms are back on the political agenda thanks to the drive of up-and-coming
young Liberal MP, Tony Smith, who chairs the powerful joint standing committee
on electoral matters…

“To paraphrase Peter Costello’s message to the joint party room a
couple of weeks back: In the first year you implement necessary (and often politically
hard) reforms. In the second year you bed them down and in the third you fight
like crazy to ensure your electoral survival.

“In other words, under the three-year
system, apart from year one, governments are essentially on a constant campaign
footing, and the national interest be buggered. With four-year terms, that
national interest – which is what it’s meant to be all about – might just get
a look in.”

Four year terms, of course, would be very
handy to Camp Costello if The Visionless Thing ever becomes Prime Minister. Very, very
handy, going by Milne’s column. There’s been a gag round the House for more
than a year now that he should really swap his yellow Press Gallery pass for a
lobbyist’s one.

While John Howard’s still in the job,
however, we still have the view we had on Friday. His comments in the Oz that
morning were just teasing. Despite all the briefing Costello loyalists can do.

Peter Fray

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