Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Time to consider whether elections really should be polls apart

The latest rally in Canberra was not the first to call for an early election to get rid of a government.

Only recently, the people of New South Wales were pretty keen to rid themselves of the Keneally government. In the early '90s, Jeff Kennett, then opposition leader in Victoria, employed novel tactics to force the hapless Kirner government from office. At one stage, he threatened Kirner's ministers that if they did not call an early election then, if he was elected, he would make sure they would not get their pensions. Jeff never cut politicians pensions but his tactic to call for an early election served his political purposes as it did for Mr O'Farrell in NSW.

But Mr O'Farrell went further. He promised that if elected, he would investigate how NSW could address this issue in the future. O'Farrell wants to see if there is a process by which the public could initiate a recall so that an election could be held earlier than currently provided. NSW has fixed four year parliaments and governments can only be removed in exceptional and very limited circumstances.

On June 20, 2011, new Premier Barry O'Farrell announced the establishment of a panel "to investigate the potential for a recall procedure to allow state elections based on a petition by voters (Recall Election)". The Premier should be commended for his democratic instincts and because this issue is relevant not just for other states but the Federal Parliament as well.

The idea of giving the public a stronger voice in the political process has a healthy record in Australia. Our referenda process for constitutional change is one of the outstanding features of Australia's constitution and is a form of direct democracy. Proposals for direct democracy are not uncommon. Citizens initiated referenda (CIR), would provide for citizens, by petition, to force a public vote on a legislative proposal. For example, a bill to stop the carbon tax or a bill to mandate less taxes. CIR is used in many countries, most famously in the United States. The UK in the last year has been discussing a Tory proposition for the election of police commissioners. The concept of recall is also popular in the US and allows for an elected public official to be removed from office. This process opened the way for Arnold Schwarzenegger to become governor of California.

The O'Farrell concept is different again. I am not aware of any parallel system being used in a Westminster system to oust parliamentarians or a government. It will be interesting to see what the panel can devise. They will need to be innovative. For a proposal to challenge an elected government, for example with a fresh mandate and clear majority, a high number, at least 10 per cent or more, of signatures on a petition would be essential. I also wonder if a challenge should even be allowed against a government that was simply implementing a difficult policy for which it had a mandate.

The quick panel is due to report on September 30. This is too short. It should be extended. The panel should first publish a discussion and options paper and give the public more time to make informed submissions.

The other obvious approach is to reconsider parliamentary terms by adding this topic to the terms of reference.

In Australia's federal system, the only example of an early election being forced upon an elected government occurred in 1975 when the Whitlam government was unable to secure supply through the senate thus setting in train a decision by the Governor-General ordering an election to resolve the conflict between the Houses of Parliament. This process is not the answer to those seeking early elections.

Most Australian states now have fixed four-year terms. The fact that terms are fixed is not really relevant. Even if terms were not fixed, an unpopular government would not go early anyway. So perhaps for NSW the better way to secure an election earlier than the four years is to revert to shorter terms. When four-year terms became popular the standard claims were that they would encourage better economic planning and longer terms would encourage better policy making. Does anyone seriously think this has happened? Hardly!

Typical of many claims made, in The Australian on December 11, 2008 Colin Barnett claimed: "Three years is too short; a government is barely under way and it's starting to think about the next election". What irony! Only last week Barnett announced reform of trading hours after the next Western Australian election thereby demonstrating how a longer term can actually delay reform.

Cutting the cost of elections was usually the strongest argument for longer terms but surely the extra year of Labor must have cost NSW a lot more than the relatively small cost of an election.

When the public realises that Mr O'Farrell's panel might advance an idea that could also force an early election for the Gillard Government then he might be surprised to find a rally outside his office clamouring for more time to make a submission.

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