Issue 1, 2006 | G. Whitlam

Elections every four years – The answer to November 1975

Last year I was invited by the Western Australia Labor Lawyers to send a note of greeting to a dinner held in Perth on 11 November 2005 to mark the 30th anniversary of the successful conspiracy by Governor-General Kerr, Chief Justice Barwick and Opposition Leader Fraser to remove the Labor Government which had been reelected 18 months previously. This article is based on the material that I included in that note.

I specify some steps that can be taken to reinforce Labor’s Federal Caucus and to prevent a repetition of November 1975. The Caucus is in a precarious position. The present House of Representatives first met on 16 November 2004 and can therefore continue for three years from that day. The terms of all four Democrat senators and two of the four Green senators will expire on 30 June 2008. If the Labor Party wins a majority at the House of Representatives elections due in 2007, the Senate will still have 19 Coalition senators and only 14 Labor senators who were elected in 2004 and who will still serve till 30 June 2011. The Coalition senators would be able to act against a Labor Government in the same way as their predecessors acted in 1974 and 1975.

The Labor policy is for fixed four-year terms for both Federal Houses. Our Federal Caucus can win dividends from the report of the inquiry into the conduct of the 2004 Federal Elections. The report was made by the Federal Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters. It was tabled on 10 October 2005. The Committee recommended four-year terms in the House of Representatives, as it had recommended in its reports into the 1996, 1998 and 2001 Federal Elections. The Committee recommended that proposals be put to the Australian public at the time of the next Federal Elections. If these proposals are successful, it is intended that they come into effect at the commencement of the parliamentary term following the subsequent Federal Elections.

The Committee pointed out that only the Queensland Legislative Assembly and the House of Representatives retain three-year terms and that the other State Assemblies have adopted four-year terms, Tasmania in 1972, NSW in 1981, Victoria in 1984, SA in 1985 and WA in 1987. The four-year Assembly terms were made fixed terms in NSW in 1995 and in Victoria in 2003. The WA Legislative Council has a fixed four-year term from the time members take their seats on 22 May following the date for their election, for which the date is not fixed. Although the Bracks Labor Government introduced fixed four-year terms for the Victorian Legislative Council, the Carr and Rann Labor Governments introduced fixed eight-year terms for the NSW and South Australian Legislative Councils.

Both the Government and the Opposition as the alternative government would benefit from having fixed four-year terms for the House of Representatives and the Senate. In Australia, as in Britain, the Prime Minister can choose the election date for the lower house to suit the interests of his party. As the Committee stated

7.73 Most importantly, fixed terms are often supported because it is
argued that they minimise the opportunity for political manoeuvring.

The senators who were elected or reelected on 9 October 2004 did not take their places till 9 August 2005. The Howard Government had to wait ten months before it could introduce the bills to implement its policies. Every citizen who respects the principle of responsible government wants to prevent the repetition of a situation where a senator had been elected for six years as the representative of a political party and had left and opposed that party after an election three years later. The situation would be aggravated if senators were elected for eight years.

Malcolm Fraser was able to frustrate my second Government because the NSW and Queensland Coalition Governments had appointed non-Labor replacements for two former Labor senators. He realised that his Government could be frustrated if Labor State Governments were to appoint Labor replacements for former Coalition senators. In May 1977 the Fraser Government and the Labor Opposition supported the successful Senate Casual Vacancies referendum to ensure that a casual vacancy in the Senate would be filled by a person of the same political party as the senator chosen by the people and for the balance of that senator’s term.

Although the Opposition in 1975 never rejected my Government’s Appropriation Bills, Malcolm Fraser persuaded half or more of the Coalition senators to stall them. The power of upper houses to reject or stall money bills is no longer part of the Westminster system; the House of Lords lost that power in 1911. In 1933 the Stevens Coalition Government in NSW passed a law which prevented the Legislative Council from delaying annual appropriation bills for more than a month; that act was approved at a referendum in 1934. The Howard Government should sponsor and the Opposition should support a referendum to prevent the Senate ever rejecting or again stalling Appropriation Bills.

It is appalling that neither the Standing Committee nor the Labor Party considers or even mentions the two-party system and the electoral practice in the United States of America, the oldest, richest and strongest federation in the world. In the USA all elections – Federal, State and municipal, executive, legislative and judicial – have long been held on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Elections for the whole US House of Representatives are held in November in even-numbered years. US Senators have six-year terms; they are reelected or replaced at elections on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even-numbered years. All governors have four-year terms except in New Hampshire and Vermont, where they have two-year terms; they are reelected or replaced at elections on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

There were extensive reports in Australia on the contest between Michael Bloomberg and Freddy Ferrer, the Republican and Democratic candidates for Mayor of New York on 8 November 2005. It was difficult to find any reports of the two contests for Governors and the host of municipal contests on that day. On 7 November 2006 36 Governors, all members of the US House of Representatives and 33 US Senators will be elected. On 6 November 2007 3 Governors will be elected. On 4 November 2008 the next President, 11 Governors, all members of the US House of Representatives and 33 US Senators will be elected. All State Senates and all the 49 State lower houses – Nebraska has only a Senate – will be elected on one or more of those November dates in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008. Every contestant knows not only the date of his election but also the statutory date on which he will assume office.

In Australia both sides of politics at Federal elections blame the State Governments for shortcomings in health, education and transport and at State elections they blame the Federal Government for those shortcomings. In USA each side presents a co-ordinated and co-operative program at simultaneous Federal and State elections. Labor’s Federal Caucus should move to repeal the Federal law which since 1918 has prevented State elections being held on the day of a Federal election or by-election or referendum. No referendum is required. An act of Parliament is sufficient.

This year the Parliaments of NSW, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania will celebrate 150 years of responsible government. Parliamentarians of all parties could make no greater contribution to restoring the health and strength of responsible government, in both its constitutional and common usage, than to celebrate 2006 by working towards simultaneous Federal and State elections on fixed dates. It would reduce the cost of elections. It would facilitate policy changes which the electors support. It would transform our parliamentary democracy. It would transform and re-energise our Federation. Not least, it would make impossible a repetition of 11 November 1975.