Misgovernment in New South Wales. Tabloid frenzy. So, what else is new? Nothing really, except the unusually high degree of both: the state is already on its third premier since the last election, and the Sydney Morning Herald and Daily Telegraph are promoting petitions to demand an early election.

The SMH petition, headed “Reclaim your vote”, is oddly unrelated to any remedy for current problems: it calls for a referendum with the next election to insert in the constitution some (unspecified) “mechanism to call an early election”. But at the next election the Labor government will presumably be defeated (at least if the SMH has any say in it), removing the immediate problem and the impetus for reform.

The Telegraph petition, however, is much worse: it calls on the NSW governor, Marie Bashir, to secure an election on her own initiative, against the advice of her elected government. The only way she could do so constitutionally would be dismiss Keneally and install a minority coalition government, which then would be defeated on a vote of confidence. We would be taking the constitution back to the days of William IV.

As my colleague William Bowe ably points out, the complaint about “fixed four-year terms” is a furphy: “That the terms are ‘fixed’ is neither here nor there, as the government would hardly be holding an election in the present circumstances if only the constitution allowed it to.” (The SMH seems particularly confused about this, heading its latest story “Thousands of voters back petition for fixed terms”, when if anything it’s a petition against fixed terms.)

Even with fixed terms, a government that wants an early election badly enough can always get it, simply because in a Westminster system if the party with a majority refuses to carry on in government, there is no realistic alternative to an election. That’s how the German government secured an early election in 2005, despite nominally “fixed” terms, by engineering a vote of no-confidence in itself.

But no government with a secure majority calls an early election unless it thinks that improves its electoral chances. With 15 months of its term to run, there is simply no way the Keneally government would be going early, regardless of what the constitution said.

What its opponents need, as the SMH dimly realises, is a mechanism to not just call an early election, but to do so against the government’s wishes. Bowe notes that would take us into deeply unfamiliar territory, à la California, and while I’m less averse to that path than he is, it’s certainly something we should think about carefully. Tabloid hysteria is probably not our best guide.

The most sensible and obvious reform that could come out of this would be to abandon the experiment of four-year terms. Thirty years ago, all the Australian states except Tasmania had three-year terms; Queensland is now the only one to retain them. Despite the claims of its proponents (who include the business lobby, most pundits and of course most politicians), it’s hard to see any evidence that the change has improved the quality of government.

As New South Wales demonstrates, our combination of a two-party system and rigid party discipline means that governments have considerable power to defy public opinion. That makes electoral discipline all the more important, and shorter terms help to keep governments in check.

Like many reformers, supporters of longer terms tacitly assume that their side will be in office, and that the additional power they enjoy will be used to pursue measures they approve of. But it’s important to remember that greater ability to do good usually involves greater ability to do harm, and it’s an easy bet which one to expect from government.

Peter Fray

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