In a rather poorly-publicised referendum, voters in Queensland go to the polls today to decide whether or not to replace the current system of flexible three-year terms for the Legislative Assembly with fixed four-year terms (although not so as to extend the life of the current parliament). Both the Labor government and the Liberal National Party opposition are supporting a “yes” vote.
My colleague William Bowe previews the referendum and the accompanying local government elections here. Antony Green has a full analysis here, and Graeme Orr made the case for a “no” vote in Thursday’s Crikey.
Fixed terms reduce the government’s ability to manipulate election dates to its own advantage, but they’ve fallen from favor a little since the experience of 2013-14, when the Victorian government lost its parliamentary majority and found its legislative program hostage to an obstreperous independent. Fixed terms prevented it from resolving the situation with an early election.
In any case, bringing in fixed terms doesn’t require a referendum. If that’s all the Queensland government wanted to do, it could do it by ordinary legislation – as, for example, the South Australian government did in 2001. The point of the referendum is to get rid of the three-year limit, which Queensland is the last state to retain.
Three-year terms have a long history, going back at least to England’s Triennial Act of 1641. At that time, the grievance to be addressed was not so much parliaments sitting for too long, but more the king refusing to call parliament at all. The act contained elaborate mechanisms to ensure that a parliament would have to be called every three years, down to authorising the voters to meet and conduct elections themselves if no writs were issued.
This act was repealed and replaced in 1664, after the civil war, and although the three-year limit was retained, the enforcement mechanisms were dropped. That enabled Charles II to dispense with parliament altogether for the last four years of his reign.
Only in 1694 did a new Triennial Act actually limit the duration of parliament and require elections every three years. As a step in the development of responsible government that worked well – too well, in fact, for the liking of the politicians, so in 1717 the Septennial Act extended the limit to seven years.
For the next 60 years, parliaments generally ran for their full seven years or close to it. Then earlier elections became more common; during the nineteenth century, the average term was more like four years. Finally, in 1911 the Parliament Act reduced the statutory maximum to five years, a term that was made fixed in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011.
But five years is still a long time: MPs can forget a lot of election promises in that time, and a bad government can do a great deal of damage. Democratic reformers have usually argued for shorter terms – most famously the Chartists, who demanded annual parliaments as one of the points of their People’s Charter (the only point that has not yet been achieved). And of course many voluntary organisations of all sorts manage perfectly well with annual elections.
Over the space of a generation, however, starting in the 1980s, Australia’s state parliaments moved the other way, extending their terms from three years to four. Queensland tried to do it as well, but a referendum to that effect was narrowly defeated in 1991, with a no vote of 51.2%. (New South Wales was the only other state to require a referendum, which passed with 69.0% in 1981.)
It’s hard to see any evidence that the change has improved the quality of state government in Australia. Advocates of longer terms are fond of claiming that governments need more time to implement policies without the pressure of an impending election (this is a special favorite of the business lobby), but it remains basically an unsupported assertion. The contrary argument, that fear of electoral retribution will deter governments from bad policy, seems at least equally plausible.
Moreover, there is a difference between Queensland and the other states, in that the lack of an upper house makes its government particularly immune to control between elections. A government with a clear majority – and the relative homogeneity of south-east Queensland makes lopsided majorities common – can do pretty much what it likes, and that has led to some unhappy experiences in the past.
Why Queenslanders would want to extend the possible scope of that unhappiness from three years to four is difficult to see.