Federal election dates: PM or people's call

For decades there has been a dilemma about moving to four-year fixed terms in our Federal Parliament. But because the terms of Parliament are stipulated in the Constitution changing them would require a vote of the people at a referendum.

Would you vote yes in a referendum for four-year fixed terms for Members of the House of Representatives?

Maybe you’d say yes to this?

What if that also meant that the term for Senators was shortened to become the same as MP’s? Or what if Senators sat for eight-years instead of six?

Would you still agree? And which would be your first choice?

We’ve had failed referendums on this

The last one was in 1988, when we had a referendum to change the Constitution to make the terms of both the House of Representatives and the Senate to four year maximum terms. Meaning they were still flexible, but both Senators and MP’s would be elected for the same period at a time of choosing by the PM and for a period of up to four years.

The one before that was in 1984, when we had a referendum to alter the Constitution so that Senate terms were no longer fixed and that Senate and House elections occur on the same day.

In 1977 we held the simultaneous elections referendum to change the constitution so that elections for the House and the Senate occur simultaneously. And in 1974 we also held a simultaneous elections referendum for both Houses of Parliament.

So why did all these referendums fail?

We all understand that some members of the Government can be contemptuous of the Senate. They’ve been described as unrepresentative swill and ferals when legislation is thwarted. And so when a Government is proposing shorter Senate terms the Australian people might see it as a power grab. What better way to have more control over the Senate than to ensure you can clean it out every three or four years?

Why else might these referendums fail? Perhaps because somewhere between a third and half of Australians don’t even know we have a Constitution. How can we expect people to make an informed choice at a referendum if they don’t understand the underlying framework of our democracy, the Constitution?  And we know the people are crying out for neutral, bipartisan materials as to the arguments for proposed change.

CEFA’s core goal is to ensure that all Australians are informed and understand our Constitution. We have a referendum coming up on Constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians and we all need a basic understanding of the Constitution before we make our choice.

This week let’s look at what the Constitution says about Parliamentary terms.

Senate terms

Section 7 The Senate
The Senate shall be composed of senators for each State, directly chosen by the people of the State….equal representation of the several Original States shall be maintained….senators shall be chosen for a term of six years….

So Senators are to be chosen by the people, each state must have an equal number of Senators and their terms are for six years. Section 13 of the Constitution outlines the rotation of Senators, when elections must be held and the month that a Senate term begins.

Section 13 Rotation of senators
….after the Senate first meets, and….following a dissolution….the Senate shall divide the senators….for each State into two classes….the first class shall become vacant at the expiration of three years, and….the second class at the expiration of the six years….The election to fill vacant places shall be made within one year before the places are to become vacant….the term of service of a senator shall be taken to begin on the first day of July following the day of his election….after any dissolution of the Senate….it shall be taken to begin on the first day of July preceding the day of his election.

After a normal Senate election, the new Senators take up their terms on the following 1 July. But after a double dissolution election like we have just had the terms are backdated. The State senators elected on the 2 July election have split themselves into two groups. One group will sit for almost six years, while the other group will be up for election in just under three years. The terms for the Senate current Senate is backdated to 1 July 2016.

The election for the Senate must be within one year of the Senate expiring. Logistically it means that the next Senate election will have to be held somewhere between August 2018 and May 2019. At this time the State senators that have been given three years terms will be up for election and the Senators elected at the next election will begin their terms on 1 July 2019.

The two internal territories each have two Senators who only hold their terms for the period of the House of Representatives. This is because Section 122 of the Constitution stipulates that the Parliament can allow Territories to be represented in either House on terms which it thinks fit.

The House of Representatives terms

Section 28 Duration of House of Representatives
Every House of Representatives shall continue for three years from the first meeting of the House, and no longer, but may be sooner dissolved by the Governor‑General.

The first meeting of the House was 30 August 2016. So the House of Representatives expires in August 2019. This is later than when the Senate term expires, so you see how Senate and House terms can get out of whack.

It is the Prime Minister who decides when we will have an election for the House of Representatives. He then informs the Governor-General, who dissolves the House. Quite often the terms are shorter than three years. For instance, it is extremely likely that the current Parliament will be shorter because the Senate election must be held somewhere between two and two and a half years’ time. It is unlikely the Government would hold a half Senate election and then some months later hold a House of Representatives election.

How often are the terms of the House shorter than three years?

Since 1990 the average term has been about 32 months, meaning that we have been going to elections about four months early. Currently the Prime Minister can call an election when it is politically convenient.

In the past when we have written about this subject some of the our commenters have lamented that four-year terms could mean we might be stuck with a bad Government for longer.

But there are advantages to longer terms. These include:

  • Reduced costs – each election costs over $200 million. If we can get the terms up from 32 to 48 months we could save a lot of money.
  • It might encourage governments to make better long term decisions. Currently Governments have one year to announce things, one year to implement them and then one year to campaign for the next election. If Government policy action takes a long time to show results or for people to get used to, Governments might be reluctant to implement them.
  • Advocates of fixed terms also state that it would help increase business confidence. Uncertainty around election times reduces business investment and consumer confidence.  

Some of these points were brought up recently with Liberal MP David Coleman publishing a piece in the Sydney Morning Herald calling for four-year fixed terms. He begins with:

Politicians come and go. From our different perspectives, we argue for the things we believe in, for as long as we are on the stage. 

But it's incumbent on us to not only work within our democratic system, but also to think about the design of the system itself. How could it function better? How can we leave the system stronger than we found it? The health of the system is at least as important as the decisions made within it.

If we were to devise a system today from scratch, we would not say: "let's have an election roughly every two-and-a-half years, at an unknown date, to be determined at the sole discretion of the Prime Minister of the day."

That's how our system currently works. We should change it.

David Coleman also points out a few problems which includes changing the terms of the Senate. He advocates eight year Senate terms. He also argues that if something should go wrong in Parliament and a successful no-confidence motion is passed that the Governor-General should be able to dissolve the Parliament early. He makes no mention of how to resolve a disagreement between the Houses and whether the Parliament might still be able to be dissolved early for a double dissolution. Since the Government almost never has a majority in the Senate, would we want a Parliament that has no way of resolving deadlocks.

The other key problem that Mr Coleman points out is that we will need a referendum to make these changes. We need a majority of people overall in Australia and a majority in at least four states to vote yes. He thinks we should vote on this at the next election.

The States are ahead of the Federal Parliament

Queensland held a referendum on four-year fixed terms that passed earlier this year. This vote was held in conjunction with local Government elections to save costs. The Northern Territory, Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, the ACT and Western Australia have all implemented four-year fixed terms, some only in recent years. Tasmania also has four-year terms with some flexibility to shorten the term.

Do you think it’s time for the Federal Government to move to four-year fixed terms in the House of Representatives? And what length of term should the Senate have?


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