No more speculation: Bill Shorten with Paul Keating and Chris Bowen. Photo: Andrew MearesBill Shorten wants federal governments to serve fixed four-year terms, eliminating endless election speculation and curbing prime ministerial power.
The Opposition Leader declared his support for the long-debated change at a private summit with business leaders last week, Fairfax Media has learned.
It’s understood Mr Shorten told the CEO Forum Foreign Investor Dialogue in Canberra it’s his personal view that the electoral reform – which would require Australians to amend the constitution in a referendum – is necessary.
He believes the change would give the Australian public and businesses more certainty, liberating them from the guessing game about election timing.
He also believes it would bolster political stability and help replace short-term political expediency with more long-term policy thinking.
Proponents of change have long argued that fixed four-year terms would give governments more time to find their feet and keep them focused on governing rather than election wargaming.
University of New South Wales constitutional expert George Williams says the change is long overdue.
“I think it’s widely recognised that the current terms can be too short to allow space for serious long-term policy development,” Professor Williams told Fairfax Media.
“The electoral cycle can simply come around too quickly to make space for reforms that can’t be done in the time between winning an election and campaigning for the next.”
Fewer elections would also mean a reduced cost to taxpayers and set dates would also make the Australian Electoral Commission’s job easier.
But veteran psephologist Malcolm Mackerras believes it’s a bad idea and a referendum would be rejected. “I think it’s a silly idea because it has no chance of being carried,” he said. “The arguments in favour of it are very weak and I think it’s a dead issue.”
Under the current system, federal elections must be held within three years of a new parliament’s first sitting. However, prime ministers have the power to call an early election at virtually any time.
Critics say this gives incumbent governments the ability to manipulate election timing for their own political gain.
Labor has long promised to reform the system. Indeed, the party’s official policy platform says it remains committed to constitutional change to bring in “simultaneous fixed, four-year terms for the House of Representatives and the Senate”. The new draft platform, to be debated next month, keeps the pledge intact.
But successive Labor leaders have failed to progress the policy.
In 2007, Kevin Rudd pledged a referendum on the issue, calling the current system an “antique”. He even set aside $27 million in the budget for the poll but later abandoned the idea.
Julia Gillard reignited debate about fixed terms in 2013 when she decided to name an election date eight months in advance but she shied away from pursuing fixed four-year terms.
Mr Shorten’s personal support for the idea could give it fresh momentum in the party and parliament. Like any referendum, it would need the strong support of both major parties to have any chance of success.
At the state level, both Labor and Liberal governments have introduced fixed terms.
Indeed, a change would bring the federal system more into line with most of the states. Presently, all states and territories except for Queensland and Tasmania have fixed terms.
Abroad, most comparable parliaments have four or five-year terms, many of them fixed. The UK recently introduced fixed five-year terms.
In 1988, the Australian public rejected Bob Hawke’s referendum proposal for non-fixed four-year terms. But more recent polling has shown support for reform.
Professor Williams points out it’s now been 38 years since a federal referendum was successful.
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