Federal Politics

COMMENT

Should we have a time limit on MPs' careers?

That anxious rustle you can hear is the sound of the Liberal Party wringing its hands.

Preselections for the NSW branch in the Senate and government-held seats opened on Tuesday and with it a whole can o' worms.

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Choosing who gets preselected is fraught at the best of times.

But as we head towards the next federal election, there are some special cases.

Tony Abbott kisses Mrs Bishop after the party room meeting where Tony Smith was elected to replace her last year.
Tony Abbott kisses Mrs Bishop after the party room meeting where Tony Smith was elected to replace her last year. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

While the impending vote has seen MPs on both sides deciding it is time to bow out, other parliamentary veterans are hanging on for dear life.

Bronwyn Bishop has been a member of federal parliament for almost 30 years.

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She was elected to the Senate in 1987 and then to her blue-ribbon lower-house seat in 1994. Yet, in the wake of the helicopter hoo-ha and her humiliating job loss, she has decided to nominate again.

Philip Ruddock has been an MP in Canberra for more than 40 years.

Philip Ruddock has spent more than 40 years in Parliament and may decide to carry on.
Philip Ruddock has spent more than 40 years in Parliament and may decide to carry on. Photo: Andrew Meares

His ministerial career ended with the Howard government, and while he has since taken on a papa-like role for the party and Parliament, we are talking about someone who first won a seat when Elvis was still alive.

Ruddock has not yet stated whether he will run again, but told the ABC he intended to stay on for as long as he could make a difference.

Another MP to make up his mind is Tony Abbott. While he is a decade or two younger than Bishop and Ruddock, he has still clocked up more than 20 years in a safe, prime location seat. And arguably, his parliamentary career has well and truly peaked.

While these examples threaten to be awkward and messy for a party that would prefer transitions to be graceful and pain-free, they also beg the question - should MPs be able to sit in Parliament indefinitely?

It's not an alien idea.

Many countries (not just the United States) impose limits on the number of terms a president or prime minister can have. And the Philippines restricts the time for regular MPs (to three terms).

In Australia, the concept of time limits exists in other professions, such as the law. High Court judges must retire at 70.

It is disingenuous to suggest there are no free rides in Australian federal politics because MPs face voters every three or six years. If you have the backing of your party and a safe seat, then you have the gig for as long as you like.

Which undermines the whole democracy thing a bit.

But if we had a limit on the time people could serve, then we would take the matter out of the hands of party politics (and who owes who what) and individual egos.

Of course, experience is important and it takes years for people to get their heads around how Parliament and government work. But it doesn't take decades.

Being a parliamentarian in certain seats should not be the akin to gaining tenure.

Indeed, "generational change" is not age discrimination, it's simply giving someone else a go.

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