This article appeared in The Age on 9 May 2016 (subscription may be required).
With the election called yesterday, Australians will be at the ballot box less than three years since the last election. Elections should be a triumph of democracy but they now represent a failure of our political process that can be remedied by fixed four-year terms of Parliament.
On average, the last 15 Federal Parliaments have run for terms of two and a half years. That is barely enough time to bed down an efficient Cabinet and roll out an agenda – let alone consult, legislate and implement important reforms.
Australia desperately needs long-term public policy and a willingness to reform. Governments that last for an average of two and a half years all but guarantee short-termism in the current environment of political faintheartedness. And the Federal Parliament is now the only jurisdiction left in Australia with antiquated three-year variable terms.
The now-regular switching of party leaders mid-term and follow-up elections to firm up a Prime Minister's support have only increased the trend toward shorter terms, exacerbating frustration and uncertainty amongst the electorate.
"Australia desperately needs long-term public policy and a willingness to reform."
We need a better system that gives our governments and those who run them the ability to make long-term decisions in the best interests of our nation. Any electorate, especially in a compulsory voting system, deserves governments that can run full-term for a sensible period and shoulder true responsibility for their performance – good or bad.
Ask any chair, director or CEO if they can develop, consult and implement major reform in less than three years.
The recent failures of our short and variable Parliaments are obvious. Policies are discarded too quickly, either before they are implemented or too soon after implementation for their impact to be properly assessed. Think of the recent shambolic tax debate.
Over the last 30 years, all the states and territories have moved to four-year terms, and most have also adopted a fixed term. Queensland was the last jurisdiction to join following a successful referendum in March.
Fixed election cycles are common around the world. Indeed the home of the Westminster system, the United Kingdom, recently moved from variable to fixed five-year terms. France and Indonesia also have five-year terms, while the US and German governments serve four-year terms. It is almost impossible to find a national government in an advanced western nation that has terms as short as Australia.
So why then does our Commonwealth Parliament still maintain three-year variable terms that are so easily manipulated for political gain?
It is an untenable situation and the Australian Institute of Company Directors has called for urgent action with a referendum in 2017 to implement fixed four-year terms.
This call was included in our recent report Governance of the Nation – A Blueprint for Growth, which highlighted a number of reforms that would support long-term political decision making and restore confidence in electoral and democratic structures.
"It's almost impossible to find a national government in an advanced western nation that has terms as short as Australia."
One of those reforms, new Senate voting processes to prevent preference gaming by minority parties, is now a reality. If Australia also moved to a fixed four-year term for Federal Parliament, then our elected politicians could have the confidence to take bold decisions without fearing the consequences of a public backlash or party room spill.
It is true that a move to fixed four-year terms for the House of Representatives would raise issues for the Senate, as election alignment requires a reduction (to four years) or extension (to eight years) of Senate terms.
And others suggest that, as it requires a referendum, it will be as difficult to get passed, just as it was in 1988. But our discussions in Canberra suggest easy bipartisan support, and the recent referendum in Queensland demonstrates the electorate's willingness to respond positively.
With a two month election campaign, we encourage an outbreak of long-termism and call on the Liberal Party, ALP, Nationals and Greens to commit to a referendum in 2017 for fixed four-year terms in the House of Representatives and eight year terms in the Senate.
Fixed four-year terms of parliament won't guarantee better government for Australians but it will provide the structure for it.