With both John Howard and Mark Latham delivering big party-room speeches last week, speculation is again rife about when the next Federal election will be called. When the Prime Minister eventually does ask the Governor-General to dissolve parliament, it will bring to an end a familiar routine in Australian politics.
Just over every two years, speculation begins about when the Prime Minister will go to the polls. Pundits pour over their calendars to try to pick the date, and the parties abandon all serious policy-making to concentrate on joint appearances with pythons on Kerrie-Anne Kennerly, and inspections of the Big Brother house. The reason for this elaborate game of political charades is that under Australia’s current electoral system, the Prime Minister has the discretion to call an election at any time in the three years after the last national ballot. This system makes an intriguing show for political tragics but it’s bad news for the Australian public.
What’s so bad about three-year terms?
Firstly, it means that there is too little time between elections. It is an old aphorism - but no less powerful for its age - that governments spend their first year settling in and paying off election promises; their next six months making hard decisions; and the remainder of the term preparing for the following election. Yet is six months of fair-dinkum policy-making the best Australia can expect from each electoral cycle?
Secondly, the current system leaves the timing of an election solely up to the Prime Minister. This gives the Prime Minister the power to call an election at any time for expedient political purposes, bestowing a remarkable - and in our view unfair - advantage on the governing party.
In a new book, Imagining Australia: Ideas For Our Future, we propose establishing fixed four-year election terms for the Australian Parliament. This will bring it into line with nearly all of the States and Territories. New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory have all enacted four-year fixed election terms in recent years.
We also propose - unlike most advocates of fixed four-year terms - that elections for the House of Representatives and the Senate be held on a staggered schedule. To use a sporting analogy, elections for the House of Representatives might be held in an Olympic Games year, and elections for the Senate in a Commonwealth Games year. This would mean a federal election of some description once every two years.
There are several benefits to such a proposal. Staggered elections will help to transform the Senate into a serious house of long-term national policy formation. Removing the Senate electoral race from the partisan prime ministerial election process would help to focus more attention on individual Senate candidates rather than political parties. This would in turn help to increase the independence and prestige of the Senate and ultimately, its effectiveness.
This proposal would require people to vote federally once every two years. In practice, this is not significantly different from the present situation where federal elections are held on average once every 2 years and 4 months. However, under our proposal, important policy issues will continue to be debated in the electoral arena on a biennial basis.
For this proposal to work successfully in our Westminster-style government, a mechanism would be required to allow the fixed electoral term to be shortened and fresh elections held, if the government lost a formal no-confidence vote in the House of Representatives. If the newly elected government could only serve the remaining time until the next scheduled election, this would diminish the possibility that a government might purposely subvert the fixed-term regime by engineering a vote of no confidence against itself.
We would also need to do away with our double dissolution procedure, which is expensive and unwieldy. Instead, we propose allowing the House and Senate to appoint an equal number of delegates to a joint meeting to broker a compromise. If this step failed, then a joint sitting could be convened, with contested legislation put to an absolute majority vote. Such a procedure would be more efficient, and would also eliminate the usefulness of tactically blocking supply in the Senate to force a double dissolution election, as happened in 1975.
Australia’s electoral system has served us well over the last century, but there are many ways in which it could be improved. Moving to fixed four-year terms would be a good start.
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