08 October 2007

Fixed terms

Fixed terms for politicians is not a good idea.

Yes, incumbent politicians use them for their own ends - but this only applies if the incumbent is re-elected. Billy McMahon thought he was being clever by putting off the 1972 election as long as possible, and he was wrong. Malcolm Fraser thought he was clever by going early in 1983, and he was wrong too. Who knows what Howard is up to?

Fixed terms provide no way of resolving political deadlock. If the US was a parliamentary democracy, Dick Cheney would have been rolled by now and the expensive parade of candidates would be more relevant than it is.

Phillip Coorey in the SMH tried investigating this issue as a hook for his weekly politics column. "If four years is good enough for the parish pump outfits that run the states, it should be good enough for the federal government" is as weak an attempt at a piece of reasoning as I've ever seen. Which of those entities are you holding up as a model of good governance, Phillip?
As Mark Vaile said yesterday: "If you bite both ends off a three-year term it shortens the ability of a government to really implement its strategy."

If you bite both ends off a three year term, and you're the Deputy Prime Minister, you've got nobody to blame but yourself. If you've been stuffing about for three years assuming that Beazley is going to gift you another term by default, it's doubtful you'll achieve much in three more weeks.
But the Prime Minister was pressed for time. He announced the [proposal for the Federal Government to regulate water flows in the Murray-Darling basin] without consulting the states or Treasury. A good idea but poorly executed. The proposal has floundered and we and the river system remain worse off because of it.

Exactly what aspect of the Murray-Darling takeover was a good idea, apart from the most dreamy generalised and wishful aspect? Would you like to work in an environment that has been this poorly thought through? Policy-making like this is reason enough to get rid of Howard, and to invalidate any credibility he might have on economic and experience grounds. If you were a journalist, you'd look into that.

Not that this has anything to do with fixed terms, of whatever duration.
Four-year terms will not end election-year panic but will allow a solid three years of proper government beforehand.

Right, "proper government" like we have in NSW that gives us decrepid health and transport systems, where the issuing of a press release and a wooden performance from Sorry Morry makes it all OK. Until tomorrow's news cycle.
Should it have eight-year terms with half-Senate elections each four years, or full-Senate elections every four years?

Either would be suitable, and if the people want checks and balances, they can still vote differently in the Senate.

Gosh, thanks Phillip. Thanks for deciding it's suitable. Thanks for telling us how we can vote, rather than what's going on so that we might be better informed about how to vote.

An election result is a snapshot of the time in which it was held. Phillip believes it would be "suitable" to have 2007 governed like it was in 1999. This isn't a matter of "checks and balances", it's a matter of relevance. A lot can happen in eight years: a Senator elected to support the Vietnam war in 1966 would have still been in office 1973, when the war was pretty much over and not in the way envisaged in 1966. A week is a long time in politics - a one-term Senator would be eligible for a pension.

This sort of thing plays merry hell with good government but it beats the hell out of gridlock.
But the red room should be a secondary concern. It long ago stopped being the house of states' rights and is as every bit party political as the House of Representatives.

So long as it remains possible to amend legislation there, and for something like 1975 to happen again, the voting patterns surrounding the Senate remain important. If you're bored in covering the Senate Phillip, get another job.


  1. Yes Andrew Phil's arguments were weak. The main reason for the article was as a cover for a bit of Howard hugging. The argument is about the correct minimum term which in Australia is a bit short.

  2. I'm just pathetically grateful that Phil doesn't mind if we elect Senators for eight year terms. You'd have to kill someone to get a term like that, but you wouldn't get a pension for life afterward.