Tonight Eric Abetz will present his manifesto on electoral reform in a speech to the Sydney Institute (excerpted here). The future of most of his plans, good or bad, will depend only on
whether they have enough support in the newly-fractious government
parties to get them through the Senate.

The founders, however, did remember to put three-year terms in the
constitution, so any move to four years would require a referendum. Bob
Hawke attempted one in 1988 and was defeated by a margin of two to one.
John Howard, however, is being encouraged to try again, notably by
Costello cheerleader Glen Milne in yesterday’s Australian, who in turn draws on a 2000 research paper by Scott Bennett of the parliamentary library.

A few years earlier, in his book Winning and Losing: Australian National Elections
(MUP, 1996), Bennett seemed confused about the 1988 referendum, saying
(p. 73) that it “included a fixed parliamentary term question.” That
was probably just a slip of the pen, but it was repeated last Friday by Steve Lewis:
“the referendum failed because it included fixed terms.” No, it didn’t:
Hawke’s proposal was for fully-flexible four-year terms.

Milne, citing Bennett, is now pushing “a hybrid model. This would see
the term of the Lower House set with the first three years fixed, and
with a four-year maximum.” But that’s just what John Howard has already
proposed, as Milne points out: “[Howard] is in favour of four-year
terms. But only if the prime minister has the flexibility to call an
election in the fourth year.”

Apparently without realising that this puts paid to the idea that
Bennett’s proposal is some sort of “middle way,” Milne then says “Labor
is also in favour of four-year lower house terms – but wants those
terms fixed. There is not much difference between the parties here.” He
can’t blame Bennett for the stupidity of that remark; it’s a Milne
original.

Governments almost never want to cut their term short by more than a
year; flexibility in the last year is all they need. The difference
between that and fixed terms isn’t a side issue, it’s the whole issue.

Labor wants four-year terms, but in opposition it has consistently
demanded fixed terms in return. For Beazley to back down and endorse
the Howard/Bennett model would be not a compromise but a complete
sellout.

That’s not to say it couldn’t happen – a quick flick through TheLatham Diaries
will refresh your memory about Beazley’s history of policy sellouts.
But the electorate is quite capable of seeing through such opportunism.

Flexible four-year terms mean more power to governments with no
corresponding gain in accountability. Their chance of approval at a
referendum was expressed wordlessly yesterday by Peter Brent at Mumble, when he accompanied his story by an animated graphic of a flying pig.

Peter Fray

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