Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
 Download Current HansardDownload Current Hansard   

Previous Fragment    Next Fragment
Thursday, 19 March 1987
Page: 942

Senator MACKLIN(10.04) —by leave-I move:

That the Bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to incorporate the second reading speech in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows-

This Bill will give effect to proposed changes to the Constitution endorsed by the Australian Constitutional Convention at its Adelaide meeting in 1983. In particular, the Bill provides for the present three-year term for the House of Representatives to be increased to four years.

There is general agreement within the community that the present electoral arrangements have resulted in Australia having far too frequent elections. The average term of Parliaments post-war has been two years five months and in the 21-year period from 1953 to 1984 there were no fewer than 13 separate national elections. There has been increasing public unease about the lack of sufficient continuity and stability in Government, with a resultant atmosphere of uncertainty and controversy and strong pressure on governments to adopt short term expedient policies to ensure electoral success.

Of course, as the Business Council of Australia recently observed, the frequency of elections is not only simply a nuisance or an irritation, it also has major ramifications for sound government decision-making, for budgetary policies and, therefore, for the economic climate in which business operates. Indeed, Mr Eric Mayer, the Chairman of the Business Council's Government Expenditure Committee, argued that frequent elections have an adverse effect on government planning and decision-making and this, in turn, adversely affects private sector planning and business confidence.

There is ample evidence to sustain this view. For instance, if the present Parliament runs for its full term, it will be the first time since 1980 that a Federal Government has delivered three Budgets during its term of office. It will be only the second time since 1972 that a government has brought down three Budgets in its three-year term of office.

In the face of evidence such as this, it is difficult not to conclude that under our present three-year parliamentary term system, governments of all colours have had enormous difficulty reconciling careful and deliberate economic policies with the electoral imperatives of political survival. Undoubtedly, this helps explain why the four-year parliamentary term proposal has received such impressive support from all political parties, from a variety of institutions and political commentators and, increasingly, strong support from the business sector and the public at large.

The Reid Committee of Review into Commonwealth Administration in 1982 expressed support for a four-year term for reasons of `better management and a more sensible lifestyle'. The 1983 Constitutional Convention in Adelaide endorsed a motion that the terms of Parliament be extended to four years-with senators' terms equal to twice the term of the House of Representatives. A Bill to that effect was passed by Parliament, but was never submitted to referendum. More recently, the Constitutional Commission has formed the provisional view that it should accept the proposals of the Adelaide meeting of the Australian Constitutional Convention.

Of course, this considerable support for constitutional reform counts for nought if the people are never provided with an opportunity to enshrine the four-year parliamentary term in the Constitution. Clearly, the task for those in favour of electoral reform is to ensure that the question of four-year terms is put to the people as soon as possible.

A frequent reason advanced by governments for not pursuing constitutional reform is that the task of reform is too difficult. The Australian Democrats do not dispute that constitutional reform has proved difficult in Australia. But this difficulty in turn also highlights the need for governments to be continually sensitive to opportunities for constitutional reform.

As noted earlier, there is at the moment considerable public unease with the frequency of elections and the difficulties which governments experience in implementing consistent and responsible economic policies under the present electoral arrangements.

This dissatisfaction is reflected in the results of qualitative research recently conducted by the Roy Morgan Research Centre for the Business Council of Australia. A survey conducted during the month of August 1986 showed that a referendum to extend the term of the House of Representatives from three to four years would have succeeded. Fifty-six per cent of electors said they would have voted Yes, including a majority in five of the six States.

These results indicate a growing appreciation within the electorate that a three-year maximum term is too short. It is also probably indicative that electors in States whose parliaments have already been extended to four years are comfortable with the reform and are happy for the Federal Parliament to follow suit.

If Australians are given an opportunity to extend the Federal Parliamentary term then this country will, according to a study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, join 25 other democratic countries with four-year terms. There are, incidentally, 24 democratic countries-including Canada and Great Britain-with five-year terms.

The four-year proposal will not alter the existing discretion of the Prime Minister to call an early election. Nevertheless, the change will provide greater continuity and stability in the electoral cycle, since the average span of Parliament may be expected to increase substantially. Given the strong bipartisan support of Federal members of Parliament for this proposal and the support of at least four State governments, there is no reason why Australians should not be given an early opportunity to vote on this proposal in the interests of better government in Australia.

I commend the Bill to the Senate.

Debate (on motion by Senator Robertson) adjourned.