Federal Politics

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In parliamentary politics, size matters

IN THE weeks since the end of federal parliamentary sittings, there has been a lot of media and public discussion about the poor behaviour of our politicians in the chamber this year. Everyone seems sick of the distractions and personal denigration that have characterised this Parliament, generally lamenting the focus on marginal matters to the detriment of the bigger issues that confront the nation.

I have a somewhat different take on the so-called parliamentary malaise because - amid a torrent of media reports about petty sniping, personal politics and no action - the Gillard government has managed to push through some important legislation.

As well, the public and media alike tend to concentrate on the one-hour bear-pit of daily question time and ignore the bulk of a government and opposition politician's work which goes on in cabinet and shadow cabinet, in committee, and in the many joint parliamentary committees that do good work behind the scenes.

Certainly, we need changes to make parliamentary proceedings more civil and productive, but the principal reform in my view is that we need to revisit the issue of longer terms in office for government.

Why? Because extended terms offer the prospect of longer-term vision and planning to tackle the nation's problems, without the three-year electoral cycles that encourage the use of short-term political tactics to exploit transient vulnerabilities.

So, as we approach a new year with an election due in less than 12 months, it's timely to consider whether our parliamentary terms adversely affect government performance by contributing to short-termism and what seems like endless politics at the expense of more stable and effective governing - taking the long-term view, often involving hard and politically unpopular decisions, frequently about critical infrastructure.


Think about this: of the world's top 12 nation-states by gross domestic product per annum, Australia (which ranks 12th) has the shortest terms in office for national executive government. In fact, we are the only country in the top 12 with a national government serving only three years.

In order of GDP standing, the United States has four years, while China's leaders have five years (with a ''process'' for reliable extension of another five, effectively making it 10 years, as we've seen in the recent leadership transition). Then follow Japan and Germany with four-year terms; France has five years; Brazil, four; Britain, five; Italy, five; Russia, six; India, five; and Canada, four. That's the top 12, but here's the kicker: there isn't another country in the world's top 25 by GDP that has less than four-year government terms. Not one.

Of course, there's no special magic about longer terms of four or five years, and that change alone would not be a panacea for all the failings in our political system; after all, Greece has five-year government terms and that hasn't, of itself, allowed it to avoid economic calamity.

But, having worked for governments and oppositions at the state and federal level under three-year terms, I say there is no question that the shorter cycle encourages short-term thinking on both sides of the government/opposition divide. There's simply more politics and less governing.

Bear in mind that, under three-year terms, the effective governing term is about two years - with political jockeying and campaigning becoming even more intense in the last year. If we moved to four or five-year terms, we would stand a better prospect of governments taking a longer-term focus on the key issues affecting the nation. Well-run companies in the private sector typically adopt a five-year time horizon in strategic planning and business development; there's no reason why our national government shouldn't do the same.

Obviously, moving to longer parliamentary terms would require a referendum and amendment to sections 13 and 28 of the constitution, and the success rate of referendums in this country has been abysmal - only eight referendum proposals of 44 have been passed since the first in 1906. As well, the specific proposal of longer parliamentary terms has not proved popular in the Australian community in the past. In 1988, a referendum question was put (in conjunction with a national election) to extend Commonwealth parliamentary terms to four years, and it was resoundingly defeated, carrying none of the states and receiving the second-lowest affirmative vote (32.9 per cent) in a referendum since federation.

That might explain why none of the major parties is rushing to embrace this proposal.

But a lot has happened since that referendum defeat almost 25 years ago. Since 1988 states around the country have moved to four-year terms and now Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania have four-year terms. Only Queensland has three-year terms.

Clearly, successfully passing such a reform is a hard ask, and it would require a level of bipartisanship between the major parties that has not been evident recently. But perhaps agreeing to a referendum to move to a longer term in government would - whoever wins - be an important acknowledgment that we're all in this together and we need to make the national parliament work better, for all of us.

Mike Richards is a former chief of staff to state and federal Labor leaders.