It’s Time for a Debate on Federal Fixed Terms

Last month, the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, announced that the nation would go to the polls on September 14th 2013. The announcement made political history and caught the nation off guard.

One issue highlighted by Gillard’s announcement, was that of fixed electoral terms for the Commonwealth Parliament. This is an issue that the Australian electorate need seriously consider.

 Let’s begin with the basics.

The Australian Parliament consists of a House of Representatives and a Senate. For reasons of history and political stability, members of each are elected using different systems of voting and for different lengths of time.

Members of the House are elected for a maximum period of three years. This period, however, is flexible and the Prime Minister has the power to call an election at any time.

Life in the Senate is different. Senators are elected for terms of six years, fixed from the date that they assume their seat, regardless of whether an early election is called.

As Anthony Green shows nationally, the Commonwealth is in the minority in retaining this structure. Although Tasmania and Queensland still have fully flexible lower house terms, each of the remaining States and Territories have adopted fixed terms in upper and lower houses.

The international story is similar. The majority of Canadian provinces have fixed term electoral cycles. In Britain and New Zealand, political debate has so coloured perceptions that prime ministers in both countries have recently set election dates far in advance of what was required.

Back in Australia, a general election is typically held around every three years. Each election sees half of the Senate and the entire House of Representatives up for re-election. A system that keeps Senate and House elections roughly in sync.

But what happens after a number of early elections? Or in the case of a mid-term double dissolution election in which every seat in both houses is up for grabs? Clearly, the result would be a desynchronisation of the electoral cycles between the houses.

In this situation a government has two options: to hold a separate half senate election; or to hold an early general election. Typically governments are politically averse to the first and so the second is more likely.

Next let’s consider why a government would risk a loss by heading to an early poll. There are at least three reasons of which I can think, each revolving around the idea of electoral advantage.

First, a government traveling well in the polls may decide it is better to risk its position when there is a good chance of being returned. In the process it earns itself another three years. This is what happened in 1998 when Howard went to an election in October despite his term in office not expiring until March the next year.

Second, a government without control of the Senate may find it difficult to pass key aspects of its legislative agenda. In this instance it may call a double dissolution election. However, governments are normally reluctant to take this path as it is seen as politically risky. In 2009, for example, the Rudd government decided not to hold a double dissolution election when its emissions trading legislation failed to pass the Senate. By contrast, in 1987Hawke utilised a double dissolution to exploit opposition disunity, winning his government a third term in office.

Finally, as mentioned above, a government may call an election to bring Senate and House elections back into alignment. This may be done to avoid having to hold two federal elections in a single calendar year. This was part of Hawke’s rationale when, despite his government being barely 18 months old, he called an election for December 1984.

What all this means is that the Australian population head to the polls much more often than the nominal three years our system leads us to expect. In fact, since Federation Australians have voted in a Commonwealth election on average about every 30 months. In the 25 years before the turn of the century, this had come down to a little over every 27 months.

What then are the advantages of fixed electoral terms?

The first, and most obvious, advantage is that a fixed term in office removes the problem of short governments causing the desynchronisation of electoral cycles between the House and the Senate. Fixed terms do not, however, address the problem if its occurrence is due to calling of a double dissolution election.

Another advantage would be the significant reduction electoral costs associated with the falling number of elections. Governments in fixed systems are much more likely to run full term. We can therefore expect to see the number of elections held per year to fall significantly.

A third advantage also relates to the increase in time between elections. Short electoral cycles can result in short-sighted policy. Policy designed with the maintenance of electoral appeal in mind is arguably compromised from the beginning. What incentive is there for a government to make difficult policy decisions that are likely only to bear fruit in five or perhaps ten years? The increase in governments running full-term would go some way to addressing this problem.

A final, and particularly significant, benefit of fixed terms is the removal from the sitting prime minister of the ability to call an election at a time of her choosing. This ‘prime ministerial pejorative’ is a substantial advantage of incumbency and allows a government to manipulate election dates for partisan ends. Its removal would be a significant win for the electorate.

On this evidence, there is a strong case for thinking about the structure and length of our electoral cycle. Now that the Prime Minister has opened the debate, we as a nation would be foolish not to make sure it continues.

An edited version of this post also appears on The Conversation, that version is released under a Creative Commons no derivatives 3.0 license.

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