This was originally published on 27th July, 2017, and republished here on 4th January, 2022.
Fixed-term elections are all the rage these days. With most Australian states having created fixed terms within the last decade, the concept has now made its way to federal level, with Bill Shorten putting it forward as part of the ALP’s platform for the next election. This proposal has received support from both sides of the chamber and from the media, and you should know what that means by now.
It’s a bad idea.
The ABC has published an explainer for fixed-term elections, in which you can find four reasons for and against its introduction. Let’s go through these reasons.
Fixed four-year terms will free governments from being in permanent campaign mode
The logic here is that three-year terms are too short of a time for governments to get anything done, because the moment they’re elected they begin thinking about the next election. There are two problems with this. Firstly, the supposed entrapment of Australian federal politics in a cycle where nothing gets done would be news to the government of, say, the Hawke/Keating era. There have plenty of federal government which have managed to get a great deal of work done while working within a three-year cycle.
Secondly, you only need to look at US politics for a few seconds to notice that four-year cycles don’t stop parties from putting an eye on the next election as early as they like. If parties want to stop being in campaign mode, it’s up to them to choose to do it. Also, it’s worth noting that even if this is true, it doesn’t require fixed terms to happen. The Netherlands currently has terms of up to five years, which the United Kingdom also used to have until the recent introduction of fixed-terms (with a caveat that an absolute majority in the Commons can still allow an early election, as happened this year).
They provide certainty to business
Aside from being a non-reason (as economics is mostly psychological), the only way an Australian election is going to adversely affect businesses for a significant period of time is if the Communist Party re-appears from out of nowhere and wins. This is not going to happen. Whichever major party wins at the next election, the boat will remain definitively unrocked.
They reduce the frequency and cost of elections
The first half of this reason is a bit of a ‘duh, you don’t say’, as it stands to reason that increasing the length of time between elections will reduce the frequency of elections. But cost is certainly a valid reason, for which only one question must be asked in response: does the benefit of more frequent elections justify the long-term cost of having those elections?
They remove the ability of governments to call early elections for political reasons
While this is true, the effect of this is not so long . Despite what many in Canberra (and other international equivalents) believe, voters are actually fairly switched-on, and will notice when an early election appears to have been called because a government thinks it can get an advantage from it. Generally what happens instead is that the supposed advantage never eventuates, and voters punish the government for thinking it could treat them in such a way. This happens even if it isn’t the reason for the early election, as this year’s British general election showed. So what’s the problem with allowing governments to do this? They rarely get the result they want, and even when they do, Australian federal terms are short enough that it doesn’t really matter.
Fixed four-year terms prevent governments from adapting to their situation
The logic is that one of the fundamental parts of the Westminster system — the ability of governments to ask voters for a fresh mandate when necessary — is entirely negated by fixed terms. This is true. The world doesn’t stop moving when a government is elected, nor does it cease while they are going through their term in office. A government may be elected on a slim majority, and needs more votes to get legislation through. A government may be facing a hostile upper house. National or world events may be forcing them to drastically change their policies. These are are all justifiable reasons for a government to ask voters to give them a new mandate, but under fixed-terms none of them can be used, leaving governments scrambling to justify themselves or simply not able to do anything.
They are less democratic because voters have to wait even longer before they can express their approval
This is as much of non-reason as its ‘business stability’ opposite number. Democracy is not inherently morally good, so something being ‘less democratic’ says nothing about whether or not it is a good thing.
They can lead to ineffective governments being in power for longer
This is unquestionably true. A great, recent example happened in Victoria, where the Coalition government led by Dennis Napthine was reliant on the support of Liberal-turned-independent MP Geoff Shaw to have a majority of one vote in the Assembly. Shaw wasn’t particularly happy with his old party and, after quitting in 2013, threatened to support a vote of no-confidence against them, leaving the Napthine government paralysed until the election more than a year later. Because Victoria has fixed terms, the government was unable to do anything other than wait out the period, which inevitably ended in them losing government.
They can lead to longer (and therefore more expensive) election campaigns
This might be true, but, as with the first ‘for’ argument, only if the parties choose to make it so. What is definitely true is that fixed terms would make this more likely, because parties can set-up for an election well in advance, knowing the exact date that they need to be ready to campaign for. Longer, un-fixed terms actually reduce this possibility of this happening, as they create more potential dates for an election.
There is so little weight behind the ‘for’ argument that it makes one suspicious of the real reason that any politicians would be promoting it. The reasons given by Bill Shorten, and others supporting the proposal, veer towards an attempt to address the democratic deficit that has been beguiling western nations for a number of years now. However, the proposal completely falls flat, because it assumes that the system only needs a little fiddling with. Fixed-term elections that already exist both in Australia and the rest of the world demonstrate that that is not true, and as a result, fixed four-year terms at federal level would not be beneficial.
Perhaps, instead, we should ask another question: why would a politician put forward a proposal that would lengthen their term(s) in office, and guarantee that they would fully serve out those terms?