In the evening of 13 September, 1897, the Premier of the Colony of Western Australia, Sir John Forrest, got to his feet at the Constitutional Convention in Sydney and moved that the word “three” in Clause 40 of the proposed Commonwealth of Australia Bill be omitted and in its place the word “four” be inserted.
In support of his motion he spoke just 123 words. There was no seconder and no other speaker. The motion was lost on the voices.
His proposal, of course, was for four, rather than three, year terms for the House of Representatives, proposals for which have been mooted on many occasion in the ensuing 109 years. The most recent was tossed out this week in a method as dismissive as the convention’s treatment of Forrest’s motion.
And so the now Section 28 of the Constitution reads: “Every House of Representatives shall continue for three [not four] years from the first meeting of the House, and no longer, but may be sooner dissolved by the Governor-General.”
It is likely to remain that way for a long time, and Australia will be the poorer for it.
A bipartisan parliamentary committee recommended a referendum be held to approve four-year terms for the House of Representatives and eight-year terms for the Senate. But Cabinet rejected this. The public learnt of the rejection through an answer Prime Minister John Howard gave in a doorstop interview.
“It’s probably not a bad idea in principle but I am in no great hurry to deal with it. . . ,” he said. “I’m not sure that the Australian public would vote for it. That’s my personal view and therefore it’s not something that is very high on my agenda. Look I am interested in things like petrol prices and the affordability of the first home for young Australians.”
But a four-year term would allow for difficult decisions that might be unpopular in the short-term but be accepted in the longer term.
Better still would be a fixed four-year term, so everyone would know the election date. Business, the public service and the public would much prefer it.
The trouble is that the business of politics is not good government but to get re-elected. Sometimes the two go hand in hand. Sometimes they do not. Examples of the latter abound in the form of vote-buying and idiotic measures to make the government look like it is doing something in a crisis. The first-home buyers’ grant and the LPG-conversion subsidy are obvious examples.
One of the most important factors in getting re-elected is the timing of an election. The ability to set the election date is a huge advantage to the Prime Minister. No Prime Minister will give it up. And given the Prime Minister, ultimately, determines referendum questions no proposal for a fixed term is ever likely.
But once you start talk of changing the parliamentary term, the obvious question becomes: why not fix the term? So Howard hit the thing on the head before any debate could get going.
The constant argument against constitutional change has been: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
It is a silly argument. In other aspects of life people are keen to improve things which are not necessarily “broke” but are not running optimally – especially things created by imperfect humans. We have new models of cars, new versions of software and so on.
The Constitution was created by humans. It is not some mystical religious text that came carved in stone from atop a mountain.
The transcripts of the constitutional convention reveal some powerful thought, but also some muddled thinking, and in the case of the timing of elections an utter blind spot.
Samuel Griffiths and then a select committee were responsible for the initial draft and other drafts before each convention. The conventions then examined the drafts clause by clause.
The flaw in this was that provisions on the Senate were considered quite separately from provisions on the House of Representatives.
The convention delegates saw the House of Representatives much like the House of Commons which could be dissolved and convened by the monarch. They even rejected an amendment requiring dissolutions to be authorised by “the Governor-General in Council” instead of “the Governor-General” because it was the Queen’s prerogative to dissolve and there was no need for the “in Council” bit because that would require a Minister or Prime Minister to approve as well. The delegates thought that would be unnecessary because (they erroneously thought) the Governor-General, like the Queen, would only ever act on the advice of the Prime Minister.
Incidentally, the failure of that amendment had huge implications in 1975 because John Kerr could act alone — but that’s another story.
So with that history in mind, the result was Section 28 which allowed for, in effect, the Prime Minister to name the election date.
The delegates considered the Senate’s position completely separately. They obviously had the US Constitution in mind, and said as much. US senators had fixed terms, so the new Australian Senate would follow suit.
In all the immensely detailed discussion, not one delegate had the wit to see the obvious problem – the elections for the Senate and House could get out of sync. There was a lot of discussion about electing senators before they took their seats, by as much as a year. But no-one thought outside the square to say why not fix the term of both Houses?
The Royal prerogative was too ingrained.
Now, 109 years later we have a messy system of elections. It is not calamitous, but it could be improved.
We could have four-year fixed terms for the House and eight-year terms for senators with half being elected every four years. We could do away with double dissolutions by allowing Bills rejected by the Senate to be passed by a joint sitting after the next ordinary election.
The people would vote for it. The long history of rejections is not because people are opposed to change; it is just that Prime Ministers almost invariably ask the wrong questions: ones that enhance their power not reduce it.
I cannot imagine a Prime Minister who for one second would put the good government of Australia before his own power and advantage to determine the election date, least of all this Prime Minister.
And thus this week’s dismissive approach to the good work of the parliamentary committee.