On 19 March, Queenslanders will vote whether the state government should run for four years rather than the current three. Queensland Council of Civil Liberties president Michael Cope puts the case for staying with a three year term.
ON 25 OCTOBER 1921, then Labor Premier of Queensland “Red” Ted Theodore spoke on the Second Reading of the Bill for the abolition of the Legislative Council. On page 1773 of Hansard he is recorded as saying,
‘So long as we have a free and unfettered franchise and Parliaments that do not extend beyond a three-year period, there can be in that system no danger to the interests of the people.’
That statement by Theodore was an argument that in the absence of an Upper House in Queensland, the three-year term of Parliament was both a necessary and sufficient restraint on government in this State. Subsequent history says that Mr Theodore ought not to have been so confident it was a sufficient restraint. It remains a necessary constraint.
Despite this, on Saturday 19 March the Queensland elite will ask Queenslanders to approve a proposal to increase the term of Parliament.
The QCCL is not opposed to four-year terms in principle. We oppose the proposal until the democracy deficit in this State is eliminated.
Unlike successful unicameral legislatures such as the Swedish Riksdag we have no Human Rights Act, no proportional representation, a weak committee system and a history of authoritarianism.
Once government is elected in this State with a majority it can do pretty much what it likes. One of the few restrictions on government in this State is the vote.
The "yes" case touts the committee system as a substitute for an Upper House. Interestingly, Theodore in the speech I referred to previously also promised that the committee system would be improved so it would function like the Upper House. We are still waiting for that to happen.
Certainly the committee system is functioning far better now than it ever have has. However if the Newman period is anything to go by — when it comes to controversial issues they inevitably follow the government line. Committee systems like that in the Senate and the Swedish Riksdag are effective because the electoral systems mean the governments do not control them.
Sleight of hand
The "yes" case uses a sleight of hand because the arguments it emphasises are for fixed terms.
It says uncertainty caused by speculation about the date of an election will be reduced and there will be no elections in the wet season and school holidays. You could get this by fixing three-year terms to which QCCL does not object.
The section of the Constitution that requires a vote to bring in four-year terms (found here does not prevent the Parliament fixing three year terms. If the government and opposition were serious about eliminating uncertainty they would immediately commit to passing legislation fixing three-year terms if the referendum fails.
A weak case
What about the rest of the "yes" case?
There is no economic case. The evidence that elections adversely impact on economic growth and unemployment is at best equivocal.
We will save a few million dollars but the amount saved will be a pittance in the context of the budget. When people have and will die for the right to vote do we value the vote so little that we will water it down for a few pennies?
One of the more disturbing aspects of the "yes" case is its underlying anti-democratic strain. It is urged on us that governments need more time to get things down. If a government wants more time to introduce changes it simply wins another election — then it gets six years. Behind this argument is a desire by politicians to avoid democratic accountability.
Finally, it is said longer terms will reduce the pressure of the continuous campaign and the need to react to the daily media cycle. This is unlikely as those pressures come from the new media technology.
The example of local government is irrelevant as it does not have the same power as the State government.
The "yes" case is weak. But more importantly voting "yes" will weaken our already weak democracy.
We have elections because we don't trust those who hold power. As Lord Acton said all power tends to corrupt. We shouldn't give our rulers more time in office without first putting them under more control.
Find out more about the QCCL here. Follow Michael Cope on Twitter @michaelcope64.
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