A decade ago we could be forgiven for thinking such leadership challenges were ‘one-offs’, but we are now at a point where voters 30 and under have never voted in a federal election that saw the elected leader serve their full term.
What is often lost is the impact extends past the Prime Minister to the Cabinet. Revolving ministers are assigned complex portfolios, and their time in the portfolio comes to an abrupt end before they have had time to grapple with its long-term challenges and opportunities.
The last decade of leadership instability and the short-term policymaking that accompanies it needs a circuit breaker. However, Parliament has to date proved unable to debate and implement the reforms that would help improve our national governance.
If we are intent on improving the state of Australian democracy, we must provide our elected representatives with the tools they need to succeed. Fixed-four year terms are not a panacea, but they are an important start. Our governments and our political leaders need a system that supports long-term decision-making. On average the last 15 federal parliaments served terms of only 2.5 years. Through a commercial or NFP lens, directors and executives know longer timeframes are needed to develop, consult on and implement major reforms. Fixed four-year terms would encourage political leaders, and those that aspire to lead, to lift their gaze further along the horizon – beyond the constant campaign that anticipates the possibility of an early election.
This is hardly a radical reform. France and the UK, home of the Westminster system we have largely adopted, have five-year fixed terms. Canada and Germany have four-year fixed terms. Even in Australia, our Federal Parliament is the last one standing with three-year terms.
Critics of fixed terms say that four years is a long time for a bad government. It is – and so is three years. Bad governments will occur both under the current system, and with four year fixed terms. At least a benefit of longer fixed terms is that oppositions have the time to develop policy alternatives and the public has time to test them.
The current system creates uncertainty for business, the community and all sides of politics. It helps to feed an obsession with the immediate 24/7 news cycle. We need to allow more time for governing and focus less time on campaigning. More time focused on issues like infrastructure, energy policy, our ageing population and tax reform, and less on internal machinations.
The public deserves to have confidence that our political class and policy debates are focused on the issues that successive reports and polls find are crucial to our future productivity and prosperity. At the moment, they do not have that confidence. That is fuelling falling trust and growing frustration in the electorate. The Australian Election Study Series shows that when asked whether people in government can be trusted, results have fallen from a high of 51 per cent in 1969 when the series started to 26 per cent in 2018. When asked if people in government look after themselves, results have risen from 49 per cent to 74 per cent over the same period.
The 2018 Edelman Trust Survey mirrored these results, with only 14 per cent of people agreeing that Australia’s system of government ‘works fine as it is’. Research also shows the pessimism is most pronounced in our young people – who are unlikely to have seen leaders serve a full term – with only 40 per cent of Australian millennials responding that it is essential to live in a democracy compared to well above 70 per cent for older Australians.
Only anarchists are taking comfort from the current imbroglio in politics. There is no simple fix to reinvigorate long-term policy thinking or to restore public trust in our systems of national governance. But a referendum on fixed, four-year terms would at least put the power in the people’s hands to make it clear that they want their leaders to serve their full term, focused on good policy and governing in the nation’s interest.
Angus Armour is the Managing Director & CEO of the Australian Institute of Company Directors.