Thank God for elections. But do we need so many?

2016 – Year of Australia’s 45th Federal general election

Australia’s last federal election, the 44th since federation, was held on 7 September 2013. Under Australia’s constitution, three year parliamentary terms for the House of Representatives, are dated from the opening of the parliament, which was on the 12 November 2013, with the 45th election becoming due on the 11th November 2016.

Section 28 of the Australian Constitution states that House of Representatives elections (currently 150 seats) must be held at least every three years. The Prime Minister decides the date for an election, at any time during the three-year term, and is thus able to take into account timings with perceived political advantages.

The framers of the Constitution imposed a curious election dichotomy between the two parliamentary houses. Unlike the variable term House of Representatives elections, the 76 Senators (twelve from each of the six states, and 2 from each of the two territories) are elected for fixed six years terms. Ordinarily the Senate terms are staggered between House of Representative elections, in synchronous half senate elections.Senate terms commence on the next 1st July, regardless of the timing of the election.

This year The Prime Minister, The Right Honourble Malcolm Turnbull had intended to allow the House of Representatives to run close to the full term, but kept his options open on calling a double dissolution of both houses of parliament if the present cross-bench of 18 members again reject the passage of key legislation before the budget related cut-off date. If a double dissolution is triggered, the election date would then be July 2.


2016 – 115th anniversary of Australia’s First Federal General Election.

Australia’s historic first federal parliamentary general election was held on March 29 in some states, and on March 30 1901, in others. Elections are not usually events to be celebrated, but this one, 115 years ago as Australia’s first, certainly is.

It created for 3.773, 801 Australians, a parliament of 75 House of Representative seats (six seats were uncontested), and 36 Senate seats, which could resolve issues of national significance without reference to British law. It was the culmination of more than a decade of constitutional  study starting with a draft constitution presented by Tasmanian Andrew Clark at a convention in 1891, revised and promoted by former NSW Attorney General Edmund Barton, and  five times Premier of NSW  Sir Henry Parkes, at subsequent conventions.

Finally,  the proposed legislation was approved by popular vote at referendums in each of the six uniting states.

The legal framework for Australia’s constitutional monarchy was passed as the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution  Act (UK) on 5 July 1900. An ailing Queen Victoria assented to the legislation four days later on 9 July 1900.

Australia’s monarch passed away January 22, 1901, but not before appointing  a Scottish aristocrat, John Adrian Louis Hope, the 7th Earle of Hopetoun, and a former Governor of Victoria, as her representative to the Commonwealth of Australia. He became our first Governor-General and appointed a caretaker government that took ceremonial office at the Federation celebrations 1 January 1901 at Sydney’s Centennial Park. The genial and popular Edmund Barton became Australia’s first Prime Minister, a role he retained after the elections.

The Formal Opening of Australia’s first Parliament at Melbourne’s Royal Exhibition Building, 7 May 1901, was performed by H.R.H Duke of Cornwall and York, who later became King George V.


 2016 – Is it time for review of Australia’s constitutional provisions?

In the 115 years since Federation, Australia has matured, and transitioned into a significant nation of the world with a population now in excess of 24 million. We no longer think of ourselves as parochial colonists, or as white Australians of British origin, surrounded by hordes of would-be Asian invaders.

We have become a harmonious multicultural second home for displaced refugees, and for many of our Asian neighbours, welcoming them, and contributing to their welfare. We have embraced diversity, becoming a stronger, more tolerant people as a result, in spite of risks to our own security.

Our British ties may have weakened over the years, but we have fought with Commonwealth Allies in two World Wards, and in other conflicts. We value our British heritage, and there is not yet a groundswell for us to become a republic.

In the past century our vast dry continent has seemed to shrink. We are just a cheap phone call away from interstate friends, relatives, and business contacts. With video links, we no longer need to negotiate face to face. We can also work, and transact business from the convenience of our homes, exchanging documents within seconds. Surely such changes could be more employed  to reduce the costs of our political system and prevent duplication!

As Dean Jaensch has pointed out, do we really now need houses of review in the State parliaments?  Then too, might not some state functions now be conveniently centralized to avoid over-lap?  We now have 9 parliaments, 9 governments, and 15 houses of Parliament with 842 State and Federal politicians. If budget cuts are to be made, should our now dated political system not be reviewed.

Our venerable Constitution however stands in the way of any reforms. Political consensus for change may never be possible. But there is one economy which would be in the interest of both politicians of whatever persuasion, and good government. That is a lengthening in the parliamentary terms of office, preferrably with fixed terms for both houses.


2016 – A year of electioneering we don’t really need.

If you enjoy political argy-bargy, 2016 should continue to titillate. Australia’s forthcoming election promises to be exceptionally engrossing as the electorate digests the prospect of a possible double dissolution election triggered by legislation to restore the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC).

But for me, electioneering, half truths and promises, dirty tricks and denigration of opponents, is distasteful. Elections should be as brief and infrequent as possible. Just long enough to acquaint voters with the issues at stake, and provide a forum for genuine debate.

In fact the Constitution does impose limits on the duration of campaigns from Dissolution to Election. It must be within 33 and 68 days. Alternatively from Dissolution to Opening of the next Parliament must be within 140 days. The tendency in the smart Prime Minister-ship of John Howard however, was for politicking in subtle and not so discreet ways, throughout each election year.

Over the 115 years of federal elections, the average term of office for the House of Representatives has been a mere 2 years 7 months.

In the first year of office governments are pre-occupied by their need to implement election promises, and to take the hard funding decisions likely to hurt some sections of the electorate. The last year of office the focus shifts to what must be done to secure re-election, including the formulation of fresh and appealing policies and promises. There is little time to govern for the country’s best good, without fear or favour?

Short parliamentary terms foster leadership speculation and uncertainty.  Under the Australian Constitution, party leadership is determined internally by the party, without a public vote. Party members become nervous at the prospect of falling polls as election time approaches. The essential qualification to be elected and remain party leader is their perceived ability to win at the polls. Nothing else matters.

Once in government, parties are likely to retain office over more than one parliamentary term. Indeed since 1930 there have only been 9 changes in government. It is quite likely therefore that longer terms of office would not reduce the frequency of administration change.


 Federation gave six independent colonies a united say in National Affairs. We are grateful for this, but must we have so many elections?  Why not 4 or 5 year fixed terms of office?


Internet links,_1901


About Kenneth Robson

I studied at Adelaide Boys' High School, and the University of Adelaide, Medical School. graduating in 1961. My field of specialisation was Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. Prior to establishing my practice in Adelaide, I spent 5 years working in India, and Papua-New Guinea, in the field of reconstructive surgery for leprosy. In retirement I joined the Australian Technical Analyst Association and passed the two examinations for a Diploma inTechnical Analysis, and the designation Certified Financial Technician (CFTe) by the International Federation of Technical Analysts.
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