The chair of the parliamentary committee on electoral matters, Tony Smith, wants a referendum on the frequency of elections.
Smith is a Victorian Liberal. That and his committee chairmanship give his views some weight. But four-year terms have a lot of difficulty. The question highlights some flaws in our Constitution which arise out of its mixed British and American heritage.
“We should update our democracy to ensure it is operating as effectively and efficiently as possible,” Smith said this week. “Four years would give more time for governing and policy making. The short three-year terms add to the cost of elections, frustrate the public, do not give certainty to the business community and act as a bit of a handbrake on business decisions.”
Smith wants a referendum at the next election, expected in 2007, with the change taking effect after the following election in 2010.
The snags are whether the term should be fixed, and what to do about the Senate.
At present, senators have fixed six-year terms. Half the senators are elected at each House of Representatives election and take office on July 1 after the election. Their term ends on June 30 six years later. The fixed term has its roots in the US Constitution.
Members of the House of Representatives in Australia do not have fixed terms. The House runs for a maximum of three years, but the Prime Minister can call an election early.
The prime ministerial power to choose the election date – essentially the British model — is the sticking point. A Prime Minister is not going to give that power up easily. And as, in effect, the Prime Minister determines which questions go to referendum to change the Constitution, a proposal for a fixed election date is very unlikely.
Prime Minister John Howard favours four-year terms, but wants to retain the power to call an election anytime in the last year.
The Labor Party wants four-year terms but wants them fixed. Smith wants Labor to abandon this “inflexible” position.
However, Smith spoke about “efficiency” and “certainty”. Surely, you would get more certainty and efficiency if the term and election date were fixed. The officials running election would know when to begin preparation. Business would know far in advance when the election is on. The Public Service would be able to plan better.
Why should the governing party have the unfair advantage of being able to pick the election date? But the efficiency and certainty of a fixed term will no doubt have to give way to prime ministerial power.
A compromise might be that the Prime Minister picks the election date — any time in the last year, but that Members of Parliament would not take their seats until a fixed date at the end of the four years. That happens with the Senate at present. Senators elected at last October’s election, for example, do not take their seats until July 1 this year – more than eight month’s later.
The Senate is a real difficulty. If the House has a four-year term, the senators would either have to have an eight-year term – facing the people every second House election, as now. Or they would have a four-year term — facing the people every House election. An eight-year term might be seen as too long and undemocratic so fail at referendum. But NSW and Victorian Upper House Members have eight-year terms. A four-year term has a big snag. It would mean all 12 senators from each state would face election every time. The quota for election would be 7.7 per cent of the vote. That would give minor parties a better chance of election, so the major parties are not going to buy it. You could divide each state into two electorates of six senators each to keep the present quota of 14.3 per cent, but that is messy and would make the referendum task harder.
Opinion favours changing the present silly system with its fixed Senate terms and unfixed House terms. The present system means senators have to wait for up to a year from the election to take their seats and sometimes separate elections have to be held for half the senate. There were majorities for change in referendums in 1974 and 1977 and 49 per cent favoured change in 1984, but the referendums failed because they did not get a majority of states. An attempt at four-year terms for both the Senate and the House failed in 1988.
So getting the right formula is difficult.
The major problem is that the Prime Minister determines the question, so often the wrong question is posed and the referendum fails. It is not that the people are resistant to fixing problems with the Constitution, it is just that the solutions posed so often favour the party in power and the Prime Minister, and the people reject them.
In any event, extending the term of the House is small beer if we want constitutional reform to update our democracy and make it more efficient and certain.
The most serious flaw in the Constitution has sat exposed and unfixed for nearly 30 years: that the Senate can deny money Supply to the elected Government with a majority in the House of Representatives and make the country ungovernable.
We could easily get a repeat of November 11, 1975. It is quite possible for the Coalition to retain its majority in the Senate at the next election while losing to Labor in the House.
Another flaw is the anachronistic monarchy.
These things are linked. If we are to be a republic, the Head of State should be ceremonial. If the Constitution removes the Senate’s power over Supply and fixes the date of House election, that is two fewer controversial things – sacking Governments and approving early elections — the Head of State has to be involved in.
Tinkering with an unfixed four-year term misses the major questions of constitutional reform.