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.