Queensland’s four-year fix: longer terms for stable government?

By David Donaldson

Wednesday September 16, 2015

Queensland will look into increasing parliamentary terms from three years to four, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced on Tuesday, potentially offering greater stability for both public servants and the business community and bringing the state into line with the rest of the country.

The state parliament’s finance and administration committee will hold an inquiry into the prospect of changing to four-year fixed parliamentary terms. Expected to report findings by November 9, it will consider:

  • A comparison with other jurisdictions;
  • The advantages and disadvantages of four-year terms;
  • Determining when and how a referendum question might be put to the Queensland people.

“The length of parliamentary terms in Queensland has long been a subject of debate,” Palaszczuk (pictured) stated in parliament on Tuesday. “It is something our business community require certainty about. Indeed, it is something that all Queenslanders require certainty about.”

Speaker Peter Wellington, who has been pushing for a change, recently wrote to both Palaszczuk and Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg seeking support for the change.

Changing to a four-year system would leave only the federal government with three-year terms. Tasmania is the only other state where the date is not fixed, though it has a four-year maximum.

Australia and New Zealand are fairly unusual in dissolving their parliaments every three years. Although New Zealand has three-year terms, Prime Minister John Key is supportive of extending that to four years. The United Kingdom introduced a five-year fixed term electoral schedule in 2011 as part of the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition agreement produced after the 2010 election, while Canada has four-year unfixed terms.

Fixed terms ‘orderly approach’ to elections

Anne Tiernan
Anne Tiernan

Professor Anne Tiernan of the Centre for Governance and Public Policy at Griffith University welcomes the move. Tiernan, who co-authored with Jennifer Menzies Caretaker Conventions in Australasia, says fixed electoral cycles help bring certainty to governance for both the public sector and business.

“You can have some shenanigans when people know that an election is coming and nobody knows the date,” she told The Mandarin. There can be uncertainty around what’s appropriate behaviour for the public service when it’s unclear when the caretaker period will start.

Some even get the “go slows” when there’s a lot of speculation about an early election.

Tiernan and Menzies’ book states that the implementation of four-year fixed terms “has resulted in an orderly approach to the organisation of government business in the run-up to an election”. Major contracts can be finalised and appointments made “without danger of falling through because of the unexpected calling of an election”, they argue:

“Parliamentary business can be completed and legislation presented for assent without the threat of bills lapsing as the Parliament is dissolved. At present, only the Queensland and Commonwealth parliaments still adhere to three year non-fixed terms. It can be said that both jurisdictions suffer from the heightened uncertainty that this brings and both have experienced controversies about the application of the caretaker conventions in recent years.”

The introduction of four-year fixed terms across most of Australia “has taken the heat out of many of the controversies which had attended their sudden application as an election was called”, say Tiernan and Menzies:

“Bureaucracies are better prepared to enter the uncertainty of an election period and can be confident the mechanisms are in place to carry them through to the establishment of the next government. This development has led to a more mature approach to managing the continuity of government business during an election period.”

Of course, extended terms are not a cure-all — some saw the final stages of the New South Wales Labor government, in place until 2011 despite its widespread unpopularity, as having temporarily dented enthusiasm for fixed terms. The prospect of another year of the Campbell Newman government would undoubtedly have been unwelcome for many. Moreover, extending terms at the Commonwealth level without altering the Senate half-election system would potentially result in eight-year-long Senate positions, which could just be a little too long for some.

Nonetheless, Tiernan is positive about the initiative. “I think it’s encouraging that there’s an intelligent discussion happening in Queensland about this. It is hard at state level to do much in three years,” she said.

“Generally I think longer is better because in most governments you’ve got a transition period, it takes a while to get things going, then before not long there’s the run-up to an election. You have to ask what are the safeguards on a bad government, but generally speaking I think it’s a good idea.”

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