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No to #Votefor4

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(Image via abc.net.au)

In just under a week, Queenslanders will go to the polls to vote in the State’s eighth referendum since federation on whether to establish fixed, four-year, parliamentary terms. History editor Dr Glenn Davies argues against the proposition.

QUEENSLAND CURRENTLY has variable three-year terms, meaning the government of the day is able to set the election date to its advantage.

Both the ALP Government and LNP Opposition are pushing for fixed four-year parliamentary terms to bring Queensland in line with every other state except Tasmania, which has four-year non-fixed terms. A referendum will be held on 19 March 2016, alongside the Queensland local government elections to put this to the people.

Queenslanders have participated in seven State-sponsored referendums since the establishment of the Queensland Parliament. The first was in 1899 and the last in 1992. This State referendum will occur within the context of a limited history of referenda success — the last State referendum to have been resolved in the affirmative took place more than a century ago in 1910.

Only two of the seven questions have been resolved in the affirmative:

  • 2 September 1899 — Federation Referendum (Approved)
  • 13 April 1910 — Religious Instruction in State Schools (Approved) 
  • 5 May 1917 — Abolition of Legislative Council (Failed)  
  • 30 October 1920 — Prohibition (Brewing manufacture) (Failed) 
  • 6 October 1923 — Prohibition (Failed) 
  • 23 March 1991 — Four-Year Parliamentary Terms (Failed) 
  • 22 February 1992 — Daylight Saving (Failed)  

The referendum is being conducted after the ALP Government and LNP Opposition both supported the move to fixed four-year terms through last year's passage of the Constitution (Fixed Term Parliament) Amendment Bill 2015.

When the referendum was proposed in Queensland Parliament in December 2015,

'only the two Katters Australian Party MPs voted against the reform'.

As a result, the Katter Party is in charge of the ‘no’ campaign. It’s a standing truism in Australian politics that a referendum will never be successful without bipartisan support. This is a rare event. You have to wonder what’s going on when both major parties get into a conclave together.

Why vote yes?

  • The fixed-term voting system means that a State election will be held on the last Saturday of October, every four years.
  • This provides reassurance for businesses and citizens on when an election will be held, allowing for more certainty when planning holidays and events.
  • Supporters of the ‘yes’ case believe a four-term period allows the elected government sufficient time to implement policies and strategies.
  • An extended term may help to overcome the "stop-start" pattern of growth that can be disrupted by the distraction of imminent elections.
  • A fixed-term for state government will also eliminate any unfair advantage associated with the calling of elections by the government of the day.

Why vote no?

  • Key arguments against a four-year fixed term state government include concerns about reductions in democracy and voter control.
  • Under the proposed changes, voters will have to wait longer to vote out a bad government.
  • Regular elections provide protection in a State where there is no Upper House or Bill of Rights to review the policies and actions implemented by the government.
  • Those in opposition to the changes to state elections believe that a four-year term will not improve productivity and could even promote government complacency.
  • Proponents of the ‘no’ vote argue that fixed-year terms are designed to give politicians more power and job security.

The question of whether House of Representatives terms should be extended, possibly to four years, is a question of long standing in Australia. There has been a trend to four-year terms in the Australian states and territories, with only Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory retaining three-year terms.

Three-year terms were generally favoured throughout the process of constitution-writing in the 1890s. This presumably reflected the fact that five of the colonies had three-year terms at the time; only Western Australia had four-year terms. The initial draft at the 1897-98 Convention had provided for a four-year term, but this was reduced while the draft was in committee.

In 1988, the Hawke Government referendum for change to a four year term was defeated and in 1991, a Queensland state referendum was also defeated. During the first months of 2002, there was much community discussion, again, on the question of whether House of Representatives terms should be extended, possibly to four years.

Scott Bennett from the Parliamentary Library, Canberra noted that former prime minister Paul Keating claimed that the Australian democratic system is "very robust" because "every three years or less" the voters have a chance to change the parliament, and hence the government. He also noted historian Geoffrey Blainey believed it would be a "harsh penalty" to deprive the Australian people of the right, after three years, to dismiss an incompetent or lacklustre government.

With respect to this case, there appears to have been no robust discussion since the referendum was called in December, because the proposal had the support of Labor, LNP and the two independents.

Queenslanders historically vote ‘no’ to more power for politicians. They voted 'no' to a referendum in 1917 to abolish the Upper House. The government then found a sneaky way to get rid of the Upper House by stacking it with Labor members who voted the House away. They did this in 1922 and is the grounds for arguing the ‘no’ case in the Queensland context.

The case against four year terms is obvious: Queensland has no upper house. There are no checks and balances against the winning party doing whatever it wants.  Brisbane lawyer and Republic campaigner David Muir wrote that,

The Queensland Parliament is the most vulnerable parliament in the entire country because it is the only Parliament in Australia (save for the ACT and NT) with just one House. This means that our Parliament is most subject to control and domination by government. A Queensland Government, like no other, has unfettered power to pass laws without the scrutiny of an Upper House. Bad laws can be passed quickly – all in one day – without any scrutiny at all.

Griffith University’s Dr Tracey Arklay observes:

If the major parties are serious about four year terms they should be willing to commit to ensuring legislation is properly debated and considered by relevant Committees. Therefore safeguards that entrench provisions that allow enough time for adequate review of legislation is required.

That is, the adoption of four year terms would only be acceptable only if it was ensured there was sufficient time allowed for proposed legislation to be debated by parliament as well as sufficient consideration ensured by parliamentary committees. The absence of a house of review will be only exacerbated by an extension of the parliamentary term, if a balancing accountability is not established.

In Queensland we lack a house of review. For those who remember Queensland in the 1970s and 1980s, removing safeguards that ensure parliamentary accountability brings back the spectre of a gerrymandering Queensland government replete with brown paper bags.

State Parliament’s two Katter’s Australian Party MPs Robbie Katter and Shane Knuth are running the case against four-year terms, with support from a number of other minor parties, such as Family First, the Queensland Greens, as well as the Queensland Council for Civil Liberties. The Greens have tweeted:

'If Queensland had four year terms, (Campbell) Newman would still be premier.'

The north Queensland-based MP, Shane Knuth has stated the referendum,

may have had a better chance of passing if it was limited to fixing the current three-year cycle.”

I’m on record as saying I love election day. On election day, I usually help run the P&C sausage sizzle in the mornings and hand out how-to-vote cards in the afternoon. It’s a great chance to see the ebb and flow of your local community — and catch up with people you haven’t seen in ages. Election day is a community event; a common, civic enterprise. The introduction of a four-year state parliamentary term would be reducing fund-raising opportunities for P&C’s. Now we don’t want that, surely.

There is an assumption at the bottom of all this that elections are a bad thing. In the 19th century, there was actually a move for annual elections. We need to make governments more responsible to the people, not less. A ‘yes’ vote will dilute democracy by lessening the opportunity of Queenslanders to have their say at the ballot box.

So, what do you say to #Votefor4?

I say No to #Votefor4.

The Australasian Study of Parliament Group – Queensland Chapter (ASPG-Q) is hosting a special discussion panel event on Monday, 14 March 2016 at 6:00pm in the Legislative Council Chamber at Parliament House. To register to attend please visit the event website here

History editor Dr Glenn Davies is the Australian Republic Movement's Queensland branch convenor. You can follow Glenn on Twitter @DrGlennDavies. Find out more about the Australian Republican Movement HERE.

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