IN 1975 the then Liberal Opposition Leader, Malcolm Fraser, formulated a doctrine that an Opposition which controlled the Senate could refuse an elected government Supply (the money to govern) if the Government engaged in “reprehensible conduct”.
Who was to decide what was reprehensible conduct and whether the Government had committed it was not spelled out. Presumably, it was whatever the Opposition said it was. Perhaps, something as ill-defined and minor as a breach of election promise would be enough. Certainly, Fraser did not envisage it being a matter for the courts.
As it happened it came down to numbers and politics. Fraser had the number in the Senate and the numbers in the opinion polls so he blocked Supply and forced an election.
Last week, The Sydney Morning Herald in a front page editorial proposed, in the absence of an Opposition-controlled Upper House, another method of removing what it sees as a “reprehensible” State Government – a citizen-initiated recall.
It argued that the two changes in leadership and myriad of changes to the ministerial line-up (four premiers, five health ministers and six police ministers since 2005) warranted something to remove the prospect of the Government bumbling along until the end of its fixed four-year term.
The NSW Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell agreed.
Both thought changing the NSW Constitution to provide for citizens recall was worth considering. A citizens’ recall is where an early election is called upon the collection of the signatures of a certain percentage of the voters. In California it is 12 per cent within 160 days (and they did it, replacing Gray Davis with Arnold Schwarzenegger as Governor in 2003). O’Farrell and The Sydney Morning Herald thought that the fixed four-year terms were the root of the problem in NSW.
In the ensuing week a few people have written also condemning the fixed term but reacting cautiously to the citizens’ recall.
I argue the other way.
Remember, fixed four-year terms won 75 per cent support at the 1995 referendum – for good reason. It took away the power of the Premier to manipulate affairs and the election date to maximise the advantage of the incumbent.
Business certainty is another reason for fixing terms. It also provides certainty for public servants and political staff.
In NSW the fixed term means that the next State election will take place on 26 March 2011. It means the people of NSW will have to put up with the shemozzle of a Labor Government until then. But let’s be clear, fixed term or not the Government would hang on till then anyway. The record of governments facing defeat is they stay in power until the last minute. Governments with a spike of popularity, on the other hand, are likely to rush to an early election to take advantage of it.
So the prospect of poor governments is no reason for abandoning fixed terms.
We have fixed terms in the ACT, so the problem is relevant here. We might one day have a government as rotten as that in NSW. And even with proportional representation it could be a majority government that could hang on it there is no circuit breaker.
This is where the recall provision comes into its own. It can work in a quite balanced way if the bar is set high enough – and getting 12 per cent of voters to sign up is a high bar. People would have to be more than just annoyed to sign a recall petition. It would be a rare event, especially given people’s dislike of elections. The likelihood of it being obtained would rise in proportion to the rottenness of the government – exactly how it should be. There is some danger of big money swinging behind a recall move, but more so in the US than here.
Some people have suggested that the NSW Governor off her own bat dismiss the Government and call an election. This is dangerous undemocratic stuff. The argument in 1975 that an election was the democratic way to clear the air did not wash because an unelected Governor-General acted to force the early election. If, however, the people forced the early election through a recall process that had been approved by the people, then the whole process would be democratic and legitimate. Sovereignty should lie with the people, not with the representative of an hereditary monarch who obtains authority by “divine” right.
A merit of the recall is that it would answer one of the objections monarchists have to removing the Queen, Governor-General or Governor from political hierarchy. That objection is what to do if the politicians become rotten and refuse to go. Citizens’ recall becomes the answer.
Of course, no system is immune from the incompetent, corrupt or lazy, just as the competent, selfless and diligent can overcome a poor system.
In any event, it is wrong to blame the appalling state of NSW politics upon fixed terms. It would not be different if the term were flexible. There is no way the new NSW Premier, Kristina Keneally, would pop her head into an electoral noose one second before is its absolutely necessary.
Incidentally, a sub-plot of the recall debate is the way media outlets can change their minds with impunity whereas a politician who does so is often vilified by that same media. In 1995, The Sydney Morning Hearld editorialised that if fixed terms were approved “the health of the political process in NSW will be enhanced”. Last week’s editorial wanted to change “a system of government that locks the people of NSW into a four-year fixed electoral cycle”.
As it happens, I think consistency is an over-valued virtue – better to aim to be ultimately right than to be consistently wrong.