by Graeme Orr
On March 19 Queenslanders will vote on whether state parliament should run for four years, rather than the current three. Reducing the frequency of elections is a bad idea, especially for Queensland.
There are six reasons to vote ‘No’ in this referendum:
- It undermines democracy;
- Besides the ballot, Queensland has no real checks and balances to keep government honest;
- It is risky, given our history of long term and sometimes arrogant administrations;
- It gives politicians more job security with no guarantee of better government;
- We can have set, three year election dates without a referendum; and
- The process behind this referendum has been woeful.
UNDERMINING ELECTORAL DEMOCRACY
Fewer elections mean you lose some of your voting power. If you vote ‘Yes’, you will be diluting the power of the ballot box to hold the government, and MPs generally, to account.
This referendum will lock in this dilution of voting rights for future generations. A teenager today who lives to 85 will have 5 fewer chances to keep their State leaders honest.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, brave souls fought and even died to win the right to vote for all. It is a birthright of every citizen. Why weaken it?
NO CHECKS AND BALANCES
The Australian parliament, like Queensland’s, has three-year terms. Sure, the other States have 4-year terms, but Queensland is radically unlike other States. Other than elections, we have no real checks on the power of executive government – the Premier and Cabinet.
We have no upper house to review government bills or actions. A Labor government abolished the un-elected upper house in 1922. It at least had the wisdom to lock in three-year terms, to ensure a regular ability to chastise or recall under-performing governments or MPs.
Queensland elections are winner-takes-all. Voices like the Greens have no chance to be elected. Major party MPs rarely show independence from their party leaders, so governments routinely dominate Parliament despite receiving well under half the vote.
Unlike the US, UK, Canada, NZ or even Victoria and the ACT, we have no Bill of Rights. So the courts cannot review bad laws. We have a ‘committee system’ in parliament, but at any time a governmental majority can weaken or repeal that.
Most politicians are well-meaning. But we need systems to ensure power is not misused. If this referendum passes, Queensland’s constitutional system will be identical to the Northern Territory’s. See how well that has fared. Queensland politics lacks checks and balances. Until we reform those problems, the ballot is the best protection we have.
LESSONS OF RECENT TIMES
The Bligh-Beattie government, like the Bjelke-Petersen government, reigned too long. In 2012 Queenslanders swept it from office because it had misled voters about asset sales. What is gained when a stale government serves a year too long?
Who can forget the Newman LNP Government? In 2015 Queenslanders swept it from office because it arrogantly overreached. Another year of that government would have been problematic indeed.
In 1991, Queenslanders voted against four-year terms. Who is pushing for four-year terms today? The ALP and some unions, and the LNP and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Why are they pushing it? Clearly, reducing the frequency of elections gives politicians more job security.
The universal franchise was won to ensure that each person had a say in government and policy. Democracy is not meant to be an autocracy, efficient for those with power.
Longer terms will not mean politicians stop squabbling for media attention. They will mean politicians hear our voices less often. In our silence, powerful lobby groups will have greater say.
Governments that present a clear agenda at elections, and listen to public service advice, can do a lot in three years. Whitlam, Keating, Howard … all made significant reforms in three-year terms.
WE CAN HAVE FIXED TERMS WITHOUT A REFERENDUM
Fixing a set date for elections is a fair idea. But it is distinct from the question of how long we wait between elections. Queensland Parliament can set fixed election dates without a referendum. The UK managed it in 2011.
This referendum rolls two questions into one. One that makes some sense – fixed election dates. One which makes little sense – diluting your right to vote. The official ‘Yes’ case includes trivial irrelevancies, such as that fixing October elections will avoid elections at the height of the football or wet seasons.
And as events in the last week show, if you fix an election date in constitutional concrete, what happens in a rare hung parliament when the government loses its majority? Would the Palaszczuk government limp on for four years, unable to pass laws but with no-one game to vote ‘no-confidence’ in it?
A WOEFUL PROCESS
This referendum was brought on with minimal public education. I know lawyers and academics who were unaware it had even been called.
Local governments did not want the referendum muddying the important issues facing each council area. Yet the referendum is piggy-backing on council polling day. Over a million Brisbane electors will turn up at the polls, many with little information about the referendum. They will be swamped with ALP and LNP how-to-vote cards telling them to ‘Vote Yes’.
The ‘Yes’ case includes the cynical argument that ‘fewer elections save money’. When you do the maths you realise it will save an average of $1.2m per year. A tiny saving for selling out democracy.
Normally, I would support constitutional change. Our system is far from perfect. But this referendum is regressive.
Graeme Orr is professor of law at the University of Queensland and author of The Law of Politics (2010) and Ritual and Rhythm in Electoral Systems (2015) and co-author of The Law of Deliberative Democracy (2016).