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August 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

Parliament Term Changes Need Input From Public

August 22, 2006

by George Williams - Canberra Times

Cabinet will consider a plan today to extend the term of the Federal Parliament. The idea has merit, but may be seen as motivated by political self-interest rather than good policy. To counter this, the community should be given a say before being asked to vote to bring about the change to the constitution.

Under the cabinet proposal, Members of the House of Representatives would serve four years, up from a maximum of three. Senators would serve eight years, up from six.

The current cycle of three years, or less if an early election is called, is too short. The first year or even 18 months after an election can be a time for making hard decisions and getting on with the business of government. After that the minds of our politicians quickly turns to their prospects at the next poll.

The system is not geared towards good government, but frequent elections. This affects everything from budgets to which policies are implemented.

Elsewhere in Australia, all of the states and territories bar Queensland now have four-year terms. Other nations have a similar or even longer term for their national parliament.

The short tenure of our Federal Parliament is only part of the problem. We need not just four-year terms, but fixed terms. Currently, the government can call an election at any time before its time is up. It uses this to maximise its chances of re-election, something that provides a great advantage to an incumbent government. On the other hand, this manipulation brings few if any benefits to the Australian people.

We should fix the day of the election so the community and those who will contest the poll know exactly when it will be. There should be scope for an early election only in exceptional circumstances, such as when the government has lost a no-confidence motion in Parliament.

A further problem is that senators would serve eight years. This is too long for any person to be in parliament without facing the people. This is especially a concern given the record of senators ditching their parties to become Independent, or even changing parties. This could even give the person the balance of power. Senators should also serve only four years.

People will talk up the prospects of a referendum to change the constitution to bring about four-year terms. After all, it is likely to have the support of the major parties. However, this is to forget the lessons of our history.

Over the past 105 years, Australians have voted on 44 changes to the constitution. Only eight have passed. There has not been a successful referendum since 1977, with failed referendums in 1984, 1988 and 1999.

One of the proposals put forward in 1988 was for four-year terms. It was a dismal failure, receiving less than 33 per cent of the vote. While the 1988 proposal did not have bi-partisan support, others with this have still failed. This could also be the case for a change that means politicians have longer terms, with senators serving near to a decade, and which still allows for early elections. Australians might well wonder whether the proposal is based in self-interest rather than the general good.

The constitution gives the people the final say, and if that is all they are given they are likely to vote No. Merely allowing Australians to vote at a referendum is not enough to instil a sense of involvement, let alone a sense of ownership of the change. The referendum record shows how change driven by the major parties without adequate community consultation and education is likely to fail.

The way to counter this is to make sure that change is driven not just by politicians but the community. If cabinet wants to proceed, it should establish a community-based process to determine what should go to the people at a referendum. People should be given a real say and not just a veto.

The proposal for four-year terms makes sense, but so far has been generated without meaningful involvement by the people. Now is the time for a process that will engage the community. This might even lead to a better change to our constitution that would include fixed term elections and senators serving four and not eight years.


George Williams is the Anthony Mason professor and director of the Gilbert and Tobin Centre of Public Law at the University of NSW.



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