August 4

Bold prediction

Prime Minister Julia Gillard will not be asking Australian voters if they would like to see fixed four-year terms of office for the Federal Parliament, reported the Canberra Times on 27 July 2010.

“This is despite her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, promising in 2007 that he would hold a referendum on the issue with this year's election,” the report continued. Ms Gillard said that she had no plans for any constitutional changes or referendums about the term of the Parliament and how the term of the Parliament related to the term of the Senate. "It has three-year terms. We're fighting an election obviously about the next three years", she said.

"I have no intention to put a referendum to the Australian people to change those arrangements.”

Malcolm Mackerras, the nation’s leading psephologist, has declared his approval of this in an opinion piece on the ABC’s website.

…a referendum would be doomed…

Not only is there no point in putting such a referendum, it would be doomed. The difficulty is not in four year terms as such but with the palpable falsity of the argument that longer terms improve the quality of government.The bicameral system is meant to combine the short term view with the longer term view so that one acts as a check on the other.

One house was to be democratic, the other aristocratic. The hereditary aristocrats were expected to act in the long term interest, the commons to act for today. The Americans accepted this, and gave the indirectly appointed Senate longer terms. In fact the Americans tried to combine the principles of democracy in the House (but only for white men), aristocracy in the Senate and monarchy in the presidency.

…powerful Senate…

 

In Australia the Senate was given longer terms, with casual vacancies filled by State parliaments and election writs being issued by the State Governors. To maintain its influence especially in a joint sitting, the Constitution requires that the number of members of the House of Representatives "shall be, as nearly as practicable, twice the number of the senators."

That is why the number of Senators has to be increased by law to cause the number of members of the House of Representatives to increase. This is the so called “nexus” provision, which the people have sensibly refused to change.

The politicians have tried to change these so as to increase government control over the Senate, and also to increase the size of the House, but the people have rejected all proposals except for the Fraser government amendment with respect to casual vacancies. These have to be filled from the same party, but the amendment is almost unreadable, and could not be applied as intended on the very first vacancy which came up after its adoption.

…absolute fixed terms….

Absolute fixed terms would not be consistent with the Westminster system, so there are usually exceptions to accommodate these. A proposal for fixed terms federally would probably involve an attempt to weaken the Senate, for example masking it easier for a Prime Minister to obtain a double dissolution, and should be viewed with suspicion.

Professor Mackerras also makes a bold prediction.

“Being in no doubt about the result of this election I now proclaim a new Malcolm Mackerras law of electoral history,” he says. “It reads: ‘Winter elections are always called by Labor Prime Ministers who are always rewarded by the vote of the people on polling day.’"

Courageous words indeed.

 


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