On Saturday, Queensland will vote on a proposal to move from triennial election cycles to constitutionally fixed, four-year parliaments. Verging on 50, I find myself in the unfamiliar position of opposing a proposal for constitutional reform. Queensland’s political system needs a shake-up. But unfortunately, this proposal — fewer elections without any compensating checks or balances — is regressive. Here are the key reasons why.
First, it dilutes the birthright of the ballot. The Chartists, who helped win universal suffrage over a century ago, wanted annual elections and parliaments. The world is more complex than in the Victorian era. But contemporary governments with a clear agenda have managed to move mountains in a three-year term: Gough Whitlam, Paul Keating, John Howard mark IV and Campbell Newman all made their reform marks.
Reducing the number of elections is hardly democratic. Democracy is not about “efficient” government in the corporate sense; it’s about representative government. Businesses claiming that elections depress consumer confidence or economic activity repeat a silly furphy. While a few industries are sensitive to policy flux, money does not evaporate. It is contradictory to claim that electors must be shielded from elections at footy final time, yet somehow are so unnerved by campaigns that they stop spending.
More tellingly, consider Queensland’s political framework and culture: it has no upper house to review government bills or actions; it has no charter of rights to allow judicial review of legislation; and it has no proportional representation. So Queensland has far fewer registered parties than anywhere else in Australia and its parliament is particularly unrepresentative of the diversity of opinion. Queensland doesn’t even have an entrenched parliamentary committee system — even though that was meant to accompany this referendum.
In short, Queensland has minimal checks and balances. Not surprisingly, it has experienced a culture of strong-men premiers, from Messrs Gair through Bjelke-Petersen and onto Beattie and Newman.
What of the (distinct) issue of fixed terms? In normal times, it is a pretty good idea. But industry and public servants can have fixed terms without a referendum. The UK Parliament fixed its term in 2011, to require two-thirds of Parliament to agree to an early election.
Some have painted this referendum as a contest between stability and accountability. Yet when you fix terms in constitutional concrete … well, as Victoria found out when its minority Liberal government crumbled recently — and as Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk unwittingly pointed out when she threatened an early election last week — be careful what you wish for.
This referendum would consign the present hung Parliament to four years of instability, not stability. There would be no path to a circuit-breaking election, short of the opposition and government agreeing on a time and rationale to pass a gentleperson’s “no-confidence motion” — a motion in which the opposition would also have to promise to not sweet talk the independents into supporting them.
On the woeful process behind it alone, this referendum should not pass. I know people with PhDs and practising lawyers who are not aware it is being held. What chance has the average citizen, who knows nothing about manner and form entrenchment, or how state constitutions differ from the national?
This vote was hurried on, a just over a month ago, to piggyback on council polling day, much to the chagrin of local government. It has employed nothing but a century-old model of 1000-word, black and white pamphlets for the “yes” and “no” cases — even though the Australian Parliament has stressed, for nearly two decades, the importance of proper education and modern media to enhance the deliberative process before referendums. Instead, a million Brisbanites will turn out for the Brisbane City elections, with many hundreds of thousands saying “Referendum, what referendum? Ah, here’s my party’s how-to-vote card to tell me what to do.”
The real problem with this proposal is not captured in the line “it’s about job security for politicians”. Most MPs are decent and hardworking. The underlying problem is not with politicians as people, it’s with systems. The worldwide pathologies of a scatterbrained media and parties without social bases are not a product of the length of the electoral term.
If this referendum passes, Queensland’s constitutional framework will be virtually identical to the Northern Territory’s. That’s right, not the other states, which have upper houses and proportional representation, some with charters of rights and some even with competing state-based newspapers, but the Northern Territory. And how well has that panned out?
This referendum is a charter for further entrenching executive power. It should be defeated. Then we might go back to the drawing board for a rational compromise. Steered properly, Queensland might just discuss if not an upper house, then voting system reform, or a legislatively fixed three-year term.