Restoring a healthy democracy


All sections of the Labor Party should realise that if Labor wins a majority in the House of Representatives at the election due in 2007, it could still be frustrated by a Coalition majority in the Senate. The terms of all four Democrat senators and two of the four Green senators will expire on 30 June 2008. There are 19 Coalition senators and only 14 Labor senators who were elected in 2004 and who will continue to serve till 30 June 2011. Nobody believes that at the next Senate elections Labor can overcome this disparity by winning 5 more senators than the Coalition. The prospect is that Coalition senators could act against a Labor government in the same way as their predecessors acted in 1974 and 1975.

The Labor policy is for simultaneous fixed four-year terms for both Federal Houses. The policy has been given a boost by the report of the inquiry into the conduct of the 2004 Federal elections. The report was made by the Federal Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which was established under the Hawke Government. The report was tabled on 10 October 2005. The Committee recommended four-year terms in the House of Representatives. The Committee had also recommended four-year terms in its reports after the 1996, 1998 and 2001 Federal elections. The Committee recommended that proposals be put to the Australian public at the time of the Federal election due in 2007. If these proposals are successful, it is intended that they come into effect at the commencement of the parliamentary term following the subsequent Federal elections due in 2010. This would avoid the recent situation where senators elected on 9 October 2004 did not take their places till 9 August 2005 and the re-elected Howard Government had to wait ten months before it could begin to implement its policies.

The Committee pointed out that only the House of Representatives and the Queensland Legislative Assembly retain three-year terms and that the other five State Assemblies have adopted four-year terms – Tasmania in 1972, NSW in 1981, Victoria in 1984, SA in 1985 and WA in 1987. The four-year Assembly terms were made fixed terms in NSW by a referendum in 1995 and in Victoria by legislation in 2003.

It is appalling that neither the Standing Committee nor the Labor Party considers or even mentions the two-party system and the electoral practice in the United States of America, the oldest, richest and strongest federation in the world. In the USA all elections – Federal, State and municipal, executive, legislative and judicial – and State referenda have long been held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Elections for the whole US House of Representatives are held in even-numbered years. US Senators have six-year terms; they are re-elected or replaced at elections in even-numbered years. All governors have four-year terms except in New Hampshire and Vermont, where they have two-year terms; they are re-elected or replaced at elections on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

Here are some examples of the US system. On 8 November 2005 in California there were 8 referenda and 58 county elections and on the East Coast there were elections for the Governor, Lieutenant-Governor and Attorney-General in the Commonwealth of Virginia, a referendum and the election of a Governor in the State of New Jersey and the election of the Mayor of New York City and many other cities in New York State. On 7 November 2006, 36 Governors, all members of the US House of Representatives, and 33 US Senators will be elected. On 6 November 2007, 3 Governors will be elected. On 4 November 2008, the next President, 11 Governors, all members of the US House of Representatives and 33 US Senators will be elected. All State Senates and all the 49 State lower houses – Nebraska has only a Senate – will be elected on one or more of those November dates in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Every contestant knows not only the date of his election but also the statutory date on which he will assume office.

In Australia both sides of politics at Federal elections blame the State Governments for shortcomings in health, education and transport, while at State elections, State Governments blame the Federal Government for the same shortcomings. In the USA each side presents a co-ordinated and co-operative program at simultaneous Federal and State elections. Labor’s Federal Caucus should move to repeal the Federal law that has prevented State elections being held on the day of a Federal election or by-election or referendum since 1918. No referendum is required. An act of Parliament is sufficient.

Next year the Parliaments of NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania will celebrate 150 years of responsible government. Parliamentarians of all parties in all States could make no greater contribution to restoring the health and strength of responsible government, in both its constitutional and colloquial meaning, than to celebrate 2006 by working towards simultaneous Federal and State elections on fixed dates. It would reduce the cost of elections. It would facilitate policy changes supported by the electors. It would transform and re-energise our Federation. It would transform our parliamentary democracy.

This is based on a speech delivered to Federal and State NSW Young Labor Conference, Mercure Hotel, Broadway, Sydney, Sunday 27 November 2005

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