Scrap fixed terms and give the voters a mercy rule
Some twenty years ago the clamour among reformers of our democratic institutions was for fixed parliamentary terms, the argument going that they would provide greater certainty and prevent the expedient manipulation of the political process.
What has happened instead is that fixed terms have become a protection order for mediocrity and incompetence, where dud governments have been shielded from the voters‘ wrath, premierships have been passed on like a baton with no direct and immediate input from voters, and policy cynicism has been entrenched as the political cycle is loaded at the front with harsh decisions and back-ended with decadent cash splurges and reckless pork-barrelling.
NSW is the most compelling case study - a dysfunctional basket case, the state that by rights should be the powerhouse of federation, now resembling some kind of anarcho-syndicalist commune whereby the elected representatives on both sides of the chamber are so incapable of achieving anything that the Speaker recently lost control of the House and had to ring a long bell to shut the joint down, saving a government which, if it were a dog, would have been taken down the back of the yard and shot some time ago.
The past five years of “democracy” in the premier state stands as an insult to the collective intelligence of the now long-suffering voters.
Labor has treated government like its own personal plaything. The Liberals have operated a laughable leadership merry-go-round which has coincided with near-total policy paralysis, and a gob-smacking failure to make any significant inroads by assuming the government is clearly so bad that victory must eventually and inevitably land in the conservatives’ laps.
Worse, what we’ve now seen from the Libs, as chronicled so powerfully by Janet Albrechtsen in The Australian earlier in the week, is that “the other mob” has even been prepared to jettison its core values for perceived short-term political gain. Perhaps it’s like playing tennis against a beginner - the Libs are up against such a poor opponent that they play down to their level. This seems too charitable an assessment. It’s more tempting to conclude that they’ve simply got no idea.
Potted history of NSW in 200 words or less:
Bob Carr avoids judgment of public by chucking it in early and handing reins to Morris Iemma. Morris Iemma wins unwinnable election against Liberal Leader Peter Debnam who spends much of election campaign dressed in a pair of Speedos. Iemma gets shafted by his own party for trying to sell power industry, with Labor head office conspiring with the unions to destroy a premier and reduce the once-ascendant NSW Right to a smouldering ruin.
Nathan Rees assumes leadership. Promises to have a “red-hot” go and inject new blood into Cabinet. Holds press conference two days later saying he’s been handed a list of names by Caucus to assemble his frontbench. Makes Joe Tripodi finance minister. Sacks Matt Brown as police minister upon learning he’s been dancing in his jocks at Parliament.
All this in his first week as Premier.
Rees tries to implement policies which have historically been held as articles of faith by the conservatives. Tries to sell state lotteries. Tries to introduce school league tables. Liberal Leader Barry O’Farrell helps block both measures, just as he did last year when he single-handedly trashed the Liberals‘ brand in NSW by blocking the power sale - a policy which the Liberals have themselves campaigned on in the past, and which would have injected desperately-needed revenue into this financially buggered state.
What we need instead of fixed terms is a mercy rule, not a long bell to save a useless government under siege from an opportunistic opposition, but a bloody great whistle which can be sounded on behalf of voters who simply do not deserve this kind of political vaudeville, to declare every seat vacant - including the green vegans, the gun nuts, and the tongue-speaking Christians who dominate the upper house - and start afresh.
One of the last papers I produced as editor of The Daily Telegraph featured the front page headline Just Sack Yourself Premier and Call an Election. It was seen by Labor as a final act of megalomania where a few of us had sat down over a beer and decided we’d demand the government’s removal, just for a bit of a laugh. What it actually was was an unadorned and accurate reflection of public sentiment at the fact that Nathan Rees’ red-hot go had involved acquiescing to the return to the frontbench of the most despised factional hacks in his party - of the 9000 readers who voted in one online Telegraph poll, 2 per cent of them said Joe Tripodi deserved to be finance minister - and a sense of unbridled public fury at the fact that, due to the fixed term system, we are stuck with these dills for another 18 months.
If this is certainty, it’s the kind of wacky certainty you get in Latin American constitutions, such as Mexico with its six-year terms for presidents who have often been in league with drug runners, dodgy oil cartels and organised crime. At least the Mexicans have a no re-election rule where presidents are prevented from serving twice.
The best recent example in Australia of unfixed terms being open to political abuse was in Western Australia, where former Labor Premier Alan Carpenter bunged on an early election to capitalise on the leadership turmoil engulfing the Libs. And what happened? The public saw Carpenter’s snap poll for the cynical exercise it was, and turfed him out to instal the Liberals’ Colin Barnett.
Voters are smart and have finely-tuned radar and will punish cynicism when they see it. In NSW their hands are tied by a system that has rewarded the self-interested, the incompetent, the opportunistic, and which stands as a clarion call for a revival of the fixed-term debate - very much in the negative.
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