“I do not believe it is proper for the prime minister of the day, to simply on the basis of personal whim, to decide what an election date is … It is just wrong. It is entirely appropriate to have fixed four year terms into the future and that's why we would be seeking a mandate for that at a subsequent referendum.”
Is this Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s first broken promise? He made this statement on 20 November, four days out from the 2007 election. As the then opposition leader he recognised the need for fixed term elections. His comment suggests that he agreed it was wrong for the party of government to gain an advantage by their leader having the power to decide on the election date.
Now the Prime Minister is leaving the nation guessing when he will call the election. With the backing of the Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese the new Labor leadership team moved quickly after the removal of Julia Gillard to sow confusion about the election date.
The Australian federal parliament is already out of step with the trend in many overseas democracies and what is happening with state and territory governments. Most European countries have fixed terms, and Britain recently followed this trend with the 2015 election already set for 7 May. Of the states and territories, only Tasmania and Queensland have not moved to ensure the public always know when the next election will be.
The benefit of a fixed term parliament is that the prime minister is not able to set the election date to suit his or her political agenda. Federal election date speculation currently starts pretty much a year before the maximum three year period. This is a huge distraction from the business of government — and it's something fixed terms would make redundant.
The refusal of Rudd and Albanese to announce an election date and move to fixed terms is inconsistent with their promotion of internal Labor Party democracy. The quick move by the new leadership team to grab the advantage of selecting the election date gives weight to those who speculate that Rudd’s enthusiasm for party democracy is more about managing fallout from the NSW corruption hearings than any advance for grassroots participation.
Advocating for fixed terms and removing the advantage of the election date announcement from the prime minister has been promoted by former Labor leaders. Simon Crean and Mark Latham called for fixed term elections when they were opposition leaders. Two months after he became PMin May 1983, Bob Hawke advocated for a referendum on the introduction of fixed terms of three years for the House of Representatives and six years for the Senate, with the possibility of a subsequent referendum on a change to four and eight years.
The referendum question eventually put — and lost — on 1 December 1984 was that senators should no longer have fixed terms and that elections for both houses should always be held on the same day.
Former prime minister Gough Whitlam has been one of the strongest advocates providing strong arguments of the benefits of fixed terms to the democratic process. In the introduction to the third edition of his book The Truth of the Matter he states:
“The permanent electioneering associated with the multiplicity of election dates comes at an unacceptable cost: the lack of respect for parliaments and politicians, the buck-passing of responsibility for finances and functions between the parliaments and the risk of political corruption in the political parties.”
The recent turbulent months in Australian politics highlight the need for fixed terms. Certainty about the election date allows the government of the day to organise their electoral program and the public to know when the election will be held.
Rudd should stay true to his 2007 election commitment and set out his plan to move to a fixed term parliament if he is serious about democratic reform. The election date should not be manipulated and decided on by one person because it suits their political agenda.
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