Flat White

Four year terms are a bad idea

24 February 2017

7:13 AM

24 February 2017

7:13 AM

The election of Donald Trump, the vote for Brexit, and the return of One Nation have all threatened the centre-right status quo, while on the left, throwback leaders like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have emerged. All of these movements share one key belief: that government no longer represents the people.

It would seem a bizarre time, then, to propose reducing the frequency of elections with the explicit aim of freeing those same unrepresentative politicians from scrutiny so they can “get more done”. But this is exactly what Liberal MP David Coleman proposes.

On Tuesday, Coleman released draft legislation that would introduce four-year fixed terms to the Commonwealth House of Representatives, and lengthen Senate terms to eight years. The Government would lose the ability to call an early election, except for a double dissolution. Otherwise, the term of the government could only be ended by the passage of a no-confidence motion or by the Governor-General.

Coleman claims three main benefits for this change. All, however, are either illusory or could be achieved in other ways.

The first argument is that longer terms would enable governments to better respond strategically to long-term policy challenges. We should consider, though, the possibility that the public do not want a more active, managerial government. Especially not when that activity will take place away from their scrutiny. And if the public does want a longer-lasting government with a wider vision for structural reform, then a government that implements such an agenda should have no trouble being re-elected.

Coleman then argues that elections cause investor uncertainty, which harms the economy. Of course, taken to its logical end point, this is an argument against democracy altogether. And if investors are really deterred by election season, this reveals that the government is far too active in our economy, not that we should have fewer elections.


Moreover, if economic growth is the goal, there are a number of ways to achieve it without changing the constitution to sacrifice a measure of our democracy. Reducing Australia’s red tape burden, which costs the economy $176 billion a year, and lowering our business tax rate to a globally competitive level would be a good place to start.

Coleman’s third point is superfluous. Consistent frequency of elections across the states and the Commonwealth will do nothing to improve the quality of policy coming from the Federal Parliament. Instead, why not just put forward good policy and campaign against a recalcitrant Senate which refuses to support reform that is in the national interest?

After all, it is not like four-year fixed terms have improved governance at the state level. The previous Victorian government, for example, was hamstrung by its inability to call a new election and instead found itself hostage to a wildly unpopular independent who resigned from the government but refused to leave Parliament.

But it is not just when governments are in trouble that they might consider calling an early election. Fixed terms reduce the incentive for bold governments to seek public ratification of significant reform at the ballot box, reducing the benefit of having a positive policy vision.

Even worse, Coleman says Labor and the Coalition should team up to achieve this constitutional change; this at a time when the two major parties are already barely distinguishable. We have bipartisan support on policies from subsidising renewables, to overseeing an expansion of public debt and Budget deficits, to raising taxes on superannuants.

Coleman is right about one thing, however: reform of our political system is a discussion worth having. But instead of reducing the number of elections, we should increase accountability and responsiveness through reforms like introducing recall elections, holding confirmation hearings for senior bureaucrats, and allowing citizen-initiated referendums. More voting, and more public engagement.

Instead, with all of the problems facing the country, from the ballooning deficit to rising international discord, for some reason Coleman seemingly thinks voters are most concerned about politicians’ job security. The last thing we need is to further protect the political class from the scrutiny, transparency, and accountability that comes with frequent elections.

Given that the public is increasingly voicing its dissatisfaction with the political class, voters may find this proposal not just ill-timed but insulting.

Andrew Bushnell and Daniel Wild are Research Fellows with the Institute of Public Affairs.

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