Earlier this year, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and the Business Council of Australia suggested Australia was out of step with the rest of the world in not having four-year fixed-terms for the federal Parliament and thus national government.

Leader of the Opposition, Peter Dutton, also joined in at the time in supporting four-year, fixed-term federal parliaments.

Clearly, advocates of fixed-term parliaments seem amazingly unaware that two of the Western world’s largest democracies – the United Kingdom and France, which have just had early national elections for their parliaments – do not have fixed-term arrangements.

The UK’s House of Commons has five-year terms and only moved to fixed-terms in 2011, but this was repealed in 2021. This is done by an Act of Parliament, not by a referendum – and of course, their House of Lords is appointed, not elected, like Canada’s Senate.

In France, the National Assembly has five-year, non-fixed terms with the President being able to call an early election for the Assembly. Assembly members are elected separately from the President, who is directly elected for five years and cannot stand for a third consecutive term.

It is also worth highlighting these two elections in the UK and France have further undermined one of the key arguments for fixed-term parliaments: that fixed-terms remove any electoral advantage an incumbent government might have in being able to call an election at a time of its choosing.

The results tell the story.

In the UK, incumbent Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called an early election and his party and government were routed. Not much advantage there.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron called an early election resulting in the composition of the National Assembly being changed to the detriment of his party and political standing. It has in effect nourished parties of the extreme right and left. Little advantage here, either.

Advocates of fixed-terms, especially from the business community, argue leaving the calling of elections to the government of the day creates an atmosphere of uncertainty that is disruptive to business, investment and the economy.

While the validity of this assertion is open to question, it also ignores that calling snap elections can often be done to tackle some new policy issue, allow a government to test the electorate’s view on a controversial issue, resolve some impasse in parliament or to renew its mandate in a crisis.

This can even be on issue business might well have been frustrated about because of government indecision, parliamentary obstruction, or pressure group advocacy – such as on taxation reform.

Indeed, the UK election that has brought a pragmatic, centrist government to power is probably a relief to all – including British business that has had to put up with one of the most incompetent, inconsistent, and confused administrations since the second world war.

Even in France, where the results are more problematic and the future uncertain, the markets have been relatively calm. Certainly, there are concerns about what sort of government will be formed and the direction it will take, but this is hardly unusual in the French context.

So, all this highlights once again that Australia’s national parliament and government is not so out of sync with other major democratic countries in not having fixed terms.

In Australia, the last referendum to move the Commonwealth Parliament to four-year, fixed-terms was initiated by the Hawke Labor government in 1988. It was opposed by the Howard-led Coalition.

It failed dismally.

Politicians favouring such a proposal should move on and focus on the policy issues they were elected to address.

Dr Scott Prasser is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies and recently published “The case against four-year terms for Commonwealth Parliament”, Australian Parliamentary Review, Autumn 2024.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *