July 25, 2017

Horse 2300 - In Defence Of Non-Fixed Terms

But on Sunday morning, Mr Shorten told the ABC's Insiders program the current system was stifling reform, and federal parliaments should run for a fixed term of four years instead.
"The federal political system seems out of whack in that everything is so short-term. The average life of a federal government is two-and-a-half years — not even three years," Mr Shorten said.
- ABC News, 24th Jul 2017

Federal Opposition Leader and devil may care comedian Bill "I'm not really doing anything" Shorten, has decided that despite our country doing perfectly well for 117 years, and despite there being a constitutional convention in 1897-98 which argued about the subject at length, that Australia absolutely needs fixed four year terms for politicians; for reasons that are hitherto unknown, unexplained and as yet unimagined.
This whole thing smacks of wanting to appear to be doing something, even if it's not actually anything productive. I guess that the news narrative was so immensely boring at the moment that the attitude of "we need to be doing something; this is something; therefore we need to do this" is on full display.

Australia arrived at its constitution through one of the most protracted and argumentative processes of any country. Prior to federation, Australia was a collection of six Crown Colonies which didn't really much like each other and made very little attempt to get along. The idea of federation had been Micki about for two decades before it finally happened and it took so long that Fiji didn't bother to send delegates to the last convention and New Zealand voted against joining.

Australia's Constitution is very much misunderstood by a great many of Australians. Presumably they want to see some sort of bill of rights and they notice that the Australian Constitution doesn't have one attached. The reason for this is that rights at common law are assumed to exist unless hedged in by legislation. The framers of the Australian Constitution saw that the experience of the American Constitution, limited people's vision as to what their rights were and so by not including one, Australians retain a broader vision with regards to their rights.
From this basic assumption, the Constitution of Australia does almost nothing more than define what the parliament is, what it has the power to make laws for, how it operates, what's it is made up of, and how often the terms for the members of parliament are.
In framing the Australian Constitution, a grand series of pitched arguments took place. Particularly people like Henry Parkes, Alfred Deakin, Joseph Cook and​ Edmund Barton, were informed by the way in which Westminster System parliaments worked and how the American Congress worked. They also looked at how those institutions didn't work and what the most likely source of problems were. The Reform Act of 1832 and the work of the chartists, the trade unions, and the suffragette​ movement, meant that Australia would open with a greater degree of representation of the people than either the House Of Commons in the United Kingdom or the Congress in America. This meant that the franchise wasn't the most singular and pressing issue of the day but rather, the term length of politicians and on this front, the United States' experience directed most of the thinking.

The House Of Representatives in the United States has fixed terms of two years. As a consequence, the members of the House are almost in perpetual campaign mode. Although it is indeed a good idea to have politicians answerable to the people on a very short chain, it often means that the House doesn't get very much done. Harry Truman famously called the 80th Congress the "Do Nothing Congress" when immediately after World War 2, the House seemed to dither on every single possible piece of legislation for fear of recriminations from their constituents in the 1946 House election.
The United States Senate, which is a house of review and is supposed to provide equal representation for the states and was such a good idea that it was copied across the border in Canada, has a fixed of six years and in conjunction with the elections for the house, one third of Senators are up for election at a time.
The constitutional conventions in Australia looked at what did and didn't work in the United States and retained the fixed term of six years for Senators but they decided that two years was too short for the house to accomplish anything, and Presidents like James Buchanan who lost the Union and Andrew Johnson proved that four years was too long to wait to get rid of someone when the Senate failed to impeach him. That story might yet be playing out again with the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Australia retained one feature from the British House Of Commons which was considered useful at the time and which Mr Shorten seems to have forgotten. By leaving the sitting term specifically vague, it means that the lengthy wait for an election to roll around is almost entirely eliminated. Governments in Australia such as Queensland and New South Wales seem to enter election mode roughly eight months before the election instead of doing any actual proper governing, which is what a government is supposed to do. It does indeed mean that a sitting government does have the call for the date of an election but if a government is doing a job which pleases the people, then surely calling an election and gambling upon their goodwill is their prerogative.

I think that our Federal democracy in Australia has through 117 years proved to be both stable and reasonably predictable. I think that almost entirely by accident, we've ended up with one of the best systems of government in the world and I for one, don't see any advantage in mucking around with a thing that works so well. I am suspicious of attempts to change the system because the case is almost never made for how it will improve the system. The one thing that needs to be remembered is that the country will outlive the terms of every sitting politician and that changing it for short term benefits, usually ends up doing harm in the long run.

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