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Interview: George Williams, constitutional law expert -

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EMMA ALBERICI, PRESENTER: As we mentioned there, Malcolm Turnbull has signalled his interest in the idea of fixed four-year terms for the Federal Parliament.

Under the current system, an election must be held within three years of the previous one, but the timing is at the Prime Minister's discretion.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten revisited the idea of longer fixed terms and he has called for the Coalition to work with Labor on the terms of electoral reform that could be put to a referendum.

BILL SHORTEN, OPPOSITION LEADER (Insiders, 24 Jul.): What this country needs is long-term policy making over the cycle of polls and 2.5-year cycles.

Now, I'm saying that I would be prepared - and it's Labor policy to have four-year terms - to say that, before the next election: why couldn't the government of the day - Mr Turnbull or whoever's in charge and myself - agree that, whoever wins the next election, that together we would have an agreed change to the constitution which we would put to the Australian people of four-year terms?

EMMA ALBERICI: But there was a definite lack of enthusiasm from other senior Liberals today, including Treasurer Scott Morrison:

SCOTT MORRISON, TREASURER (RN Breakfast): It's not a top-order issue for the Government. It's not one that the Government has initiated from that perspective.

What we're focused on is delivering the budget. And we had 17 pieces of legislation pass the Parliament since the budget, so the budget is passing the Senate. We've had 126 pieces of legislation pass the Parliament since we were re-elected a year ago.

EMMA ALBERICI: Professor George Williams is dean of Law at the University of New South Wales and an expert on constitutional law.

He also helped Liberal MP David Coleman draft a private member's bill to bring in fixed four-year terms. George Williams spoke to me earlier.

George Williams, thank you for your time.


EMMA ALBERICI: Bill Shorten reckons four-year fixed terms mean governments can be more daring and more determined. Do you agree with him?

GEORGE WILLIAMS: Look, I think what it does is: it gives more space to a government to tackle hard policies that they simply might not be motivated to try with a shorter electoral cycle. It also means they can put things in place, knowing that there's a longer period to convince the community that this is something that works and has benefits.

The problem at the moment is, of course: we have an election and we seem to lurch quite quickly, often, to the next election. And indeed, it's very early in the cycle when the speculation starts about when the date will be, who's going to win.

And we tend to crowd out some of the policy talk and ideas that a longer term might permit.

EMMA ALBERICI: This isn't a new concept. In fact, we went to a referendum on the issue in 1988 and it was comprehensively rejected. Why do you think it might be different this time around?

GEORGE WILLIAMS: Well, that's right. It's actually been on the agenda for decades.

But what happened in 1988 was that the Coalition would not support the idea. In fact, it was flawed from the start. There's no point in going to a referendum unless you have cross-party support.

But what's changed since are a couple of really significant things. The first thing is that this has now been done in all of the states and territories. So the national scheme is last. And we can see how it's worked.

And also in Queensland last year, they supported a referendum there to get this up and it shows, even in a recalcitrant state like Queensland which is really unlikely to support a referendum, this could be a winner.

The other thing is that this might now have legs as a bipartisan issue. It's not just Bill Shorten: it's actually David Coleman, a Coalition backbencher, who kicked the debate off this year. It's also something that other Coalition members have talked about.

So there's at least the seeds here for a different result all of these decades later.

EMMA ALBERICI: Would fixed terms necessarily mean absolutely fixed? Or could there be some mechanism that would still allow a snap election in the event of some exceptional circumstance arising?

GEORGE WILLIAMS: Well, what it does is: it takes out of the hands of the prime minister of the day a chance to call an election when they want, to suit their own political interests, which of course may or may not coincide with the community interest, let alone the desire for certainty and stability.

But you can still call an election under this system where other circumstances permit. It might be where there's some sort of emergency that means that people are running counter to the established constitutional conventions: maybe illegality or wrongdoing at the highest levels.

Or the other one that's common is that, if there's a no-confidence motion in the government and it falls, but no new government can be formed.

In either case, there is a clear justification for going early and in fact, you'd expect that this system would still permit those things to happen.

EMMA ALBERICI: A longer term doesn't necessarily guarantee good government, but what it might guarantee is a bad opposition. Isn't that true: that the longer they spend in the wilderness, the more likely they descend into chaos?

GEORGE WILLIAMS: Well, it's certainly no panacea. And we do need to take into account that fixing this issue doesn't guarantee good government by any means.

It's no substitute for good policies, good leadership and all of the other things that you need. It's one of those structural things, I think, that just makes it easier and more possible to achieve better outcomes - good government, if you like.

For the opposition, hopefully it will move them out of that frame of having an election and immediately going into electioneering mode for the next election; give them time to develop their policies, the idea they can be an alternate government.

And just perhaps, maybe this will give us some space for the sort of policy debate that there seems to be so little room for these days in the federal political sphere.

EMMA ALBERICI: What happens with the Senate? Because presumably a four-year fixed term in the Lower House necessarily means eight years in the Senate. It seems like an extraordinarily long time?

GEORGE WILLIAMS: Well, it doesn't necessarily mean that. This is one of the tricky choices that needs to be made.

You could have four-year terms for the Senate, so all of the Senate, every election, just as all of the House of Representatives would go every election. But I think there's some problems with that and I think there are a number of people who'd oppose it, particularly amongst some of the more conservative groups.

And that's because the Senate only goes half each time because it's meant to be a house of review. The idea is that the Senate isn't beholden to the election of just one government; that it's across two political cycles.

And so even though eight years is a long period of time, I think it's the better choice in this case and one that's likely to get broader support.

EMMA ALBERICI: If we take it as a given that longer governments are better, as you indicate, why four years and not five, as they have in the UK, for instance?

GEORGE WILLIAMS: Look, it's a good question.

For me, I think five is too long. And if we look at the current system, it's actually not three: it's an average of 2.5 we have, with early elections and the like. I think it's too much to double that to five.

I think that the sweet spot is going from three to four, with fixed terms. And I think here you can look at some of the international experience and also the fact that every state and territory has gone to four.

So if we're talking about a national reform that's got legs that could get up, saying that we want to do nationally what every other jurisdiction in the country has done, that's been supported across political parties, that's a modest increase without going to the UK system: I think it's something that's achievable.

And when we talk about the dire referendum record, the practicalities are vitally important.

EMMA ALBERICI: How would the Government now go about actually seeing this through, if we take it that both sides of politics agree this is something that should be done?

GEORGE WILLIAMS: Well, we've got talk. We've got a debate and that's a start.

But that's pretty common for these constitutional issues and it's rare in this day and age they go much further.

Of course, we haven't had any referendum since 1999: the longest period in our history without even putting a proposal to the people.

I think what's important is that we take this out of the hands of politicians pretty early - who, let's be honest: they have a self-serving interest here to serve a longer period of time - and that what we do is set up an independent process involving experts, community members.

Test the waters, look at the models and see whether this will have the support, not just across the political spectrum but across the breadth of the community. If that turns up that it's there, then it could go through Parliament and we could be looking at a referendum.

EMMA ALBERICI: And before I let you go, I'd like your view on the proposal for a postal plebiscite for same-sex marriage. Tony Abbott has now joined in with his support for the idea.

But given it's non-binding and non-compulsory, is there any point to it in your view?

GEORGE WILLIAMS: Well, it could certainly work if legislation was passed through Parliament to permit it. But of course, Parliament's rejected that legislation.

So what's being suggested is a back-door method, where there's a clause in the Electoral Act that enables the government to pay for services like a plebiscite.

But my view is: it would be dangerous and unwise. I mean, that mechanism is not built for a contested vote of this kind. It's certainly not compulsory voting, which I think is needed to give it legitimacy.

And we also lack a lot of the basic procedures for resolving disputes, determining the validity of votes and the like. And there's a real possibility that, if we went this back-door route, it could blow up in the face of the Government and the Electoral Commission at a very significant public cost.

EMMA ALBERICI: George Williams, I appreciate the time you've taken to speak to us. Thank you.