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Fixed terms, unintended consequences

By Kerry Corke - posted Friday, 4 September 2009

John Della Bosca has had a fall and now The Sydney Morning Herald has made a call: Nathan Rees should visit the Governor and just go to the polls.

Many hanker for an early election. However, the presence of a fixed four-year terms acts as a barrier.

The concept was introduced into New South Wales following an agreement between Nick Greiner and the independent members of Legislative Assembly following the 1991 election that produced a hung parliament. The rationale is explained by Clover Moore, one of the independents who negotiated the agreement, where she says on her website:


My work to reform Parliament led to the current four year fixed terms of State Government, reducing the number of elections and the political manipulation of their timing.

The then government acknowledged the idea was one of a number of:

… changes to the framework of Government in New South Wales to respect a strong Parliament and to ensure the accountability of Executive Government to the Parliament are necessary.

The fixed term concept is now washing through the other Australian jurisdictions. It strikes me the idea works from a wrong premise.

It presumes Australian Parliaments are strong. They are in fact quite weak. Party discipline is so strong that independent action by MPs is almost unheard of. What the Executive wants, the Executive gets.

For all intents and purposes, under NSW law a successful no confidence motion is necessary to bring about an election. Short of a schism in the ALP, if the NSW Government really decided to bring an election some government members would have to tactically abstain from the vote. This could be called the “Bundestag solution”. Germany has the same sort of fixed term provisions as NSW.


In 2005, members of the German government abstained from voting in a confidence motion so that an election could be called following increased dissatisfaction with, and instability within, a coalition of the Social Democrats and the Greens. However, query whether that would look fair dinkum to either the electorate or (for that matter) the Governor. After all, the intention of fixed four-year terms is to reduce the number of elections and the political manipulation of their timing.

And so, it would appear the NSW Government will be with us until 2011.

Fixed four-year terms for a parliament weakened by rigid party discipline is poor public policy. I do not believe in fixed terms. There are some occasions where the capacity to call an election is desirable. For instance there could an issue that is so big that it is proper to call an election to decide on whether the policy is a good idea - a “back me or sack me” election.

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About the Author

Kerry Corke is principal of K.M. Corke and Associates, a Canberra based public law consultancy.

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