Are fixed term electoral periods best for democracy?

The discussion about electoral terms in Australia comes up every now and then. But did you know that electoral terms for both the House of Representatives and the Senate are stipulated in the Constitution?

The terms of the Members for the House of Representatives are outlined in Section 28:

Every House of Representatives shall continue for three years from the first meeting of the House, and no longer, but may be sooner dissolved by the Governor‑General. 

The first meeting of the House for the 44th Parliament (the current one) was 12 November 2013 and will dissolve three years after this date. Writs are issued and then an election must be held within 68 days, but on a Saturday. This means that the latest possible date for the next House of Representatives election is 14 January 2017.

Senate terms are outlined in Section 7 and are fixed:

The senators shall be chosen for a term of six years, and the names of the senators chosen for each State shall be certified by the Governor to the Governor‑General. 

The terms for the Senators that were elected in 2010 will expire on 30 June 2016. The earliest date that an election can be held for the Senate is 6 August 2016 and is outlined in Section 13:

As soon as may be after the Senate first meets, and after each first meeting of the Senate following a dissolution thereof, the Senate shall divide the senators chosen for each State into two classes, as nearly equal in number as practicable; and the places of the senators of the first class shall become vacant at the expiration of the three years, and the places of those of the second class at the expiration of the six years, from the beginning of their term of service; and afterwards the places of senators shall become vacant at the expiration of six years from the beginning of their term of service. 

The election to fill vacant places shall be made within one year before the places are to become vacant. 

For the purposes of this section the term of service of a senator shall be taken to begin on the first day of July following the day of his election, except in the cases of the first election and of the election next after any dissolution of the Senate, when it shall be taken to begin on the first day of July preceding the day of his election. 

This means that in order to hold a simultaneous election of the Senate and the House of Representatives the next election must be held between 6 August 2016 and 14 January 2017. If an earlier election is called it would be a House of Representatives only election, or perhaps a double-dissolution election that would dissolve both houses calling an election of all 76 Senators and 150 MP’s.

What are the electoral terms of the Australian States and Territories?

In the recent past four of the six States plus both Inland Territories have moved to fixed terms electoral periods.

Victoria has fixed terms and elections are held on the last Saturday in November every four years. They moved to this system for the 2006 election after making a number of electoral reforms in 2003.

The last Victorian Parliament, which was a hung Parliament, essentially ground to a halt at the end of the electoral period as hostility between the Speaker Ken Smith and expelled Liberal Member Geoff Shaw grew. Democracy may have been best served if the Victorian Government were able to hold an early election. Chris Berg from the IPA writes:

Napthine's attempt to reset the government was hostage to the parliamentary soap opera played out between Shaw and another angry rogue Liberal, the former speaker Ken Smith.

The specific ins and outs of this debacle are known only to the participants.

Shaw and Smith created a serious constitutional problem. The Coalition only had a parliamentary majority of one, including Shaw….

….With the Parliament in such a precarious way, Napthine should have called an election. That's the Westminster way. But under the fixed term he couldn't.

Without the option of an early election the Parliament limped along and finally when the election was held on 29 November 2014 the governing Liberal National Coalition lost. But we should question whether the constituents in Victoria would have been better served if an early election had been called.

In New South Wales the Legislative Assembly has fixed terms with elections being held on the fourth Saturday of March every four years. A half Legislative Council election is held at the same time, with Members holding their seats for eight years. The last election was held on 28 March 2015.

A referendum was held to change the NSW Constitution in 1995 to allow for four year fixed terms and gained 75% support from the voters of NSW. In 2008 when there was public discussion about whether the fixed four year terms were working in NSW Antony Green wrote:

The only thing the fixed four-year term does is prevent the government from taking advantage of some short-term blip in the polls to rush to an early election in the hope of doing slightly better.

The unicameral Queensland parliament does not have fixed term electoral periods. Queenslanders rejected the fixed-term option at a referendum in 1991. The Parliament has a maximum three year term from the date of the return of the writs and an election can be called at any time.

The sitting Government can use this flexibility to their advantage as the last government reportedly did. The Newman Government held an early election on 31 January 2015 reportedly with the hope that citizens would still be in a festive mood, or even away. As we know, even this was not enough to prevent a change of Government.

The Northern Territory adopted fixed four year terms in 2009 by changing legislation and elections are now held on the fourth Saturday of August every four years. The next election is due on 27 August 2016.

The ACT also have four year fixed terms and elections are held on the third Saturday of October every four years. The next election is due on 15 October 2016.

By enacting the Electoral and Constitution Amendment Bill 2011, Western Australia moved to fixed terms in 2011 and elections are now held on the second Saturday in March every four years. The next election is due on 11 March 2017. At the time of the change, Electoral Affairs Minister Norman Moore said:

Governments will be unable to manipulate the date of an election, whether to avoid scrutiny or to ambush the opposition.

South Australia has fixed terms and elections are held on the third Saturday in March every four years. An election is also held for the 11 retiring members Legislative Council at the same time. The next election is due on 17 March 2018

Tasmania still has no fixed end to their Legislative Assembly, but there is a maximum period of four years. However, the members of the Legislative Council hold their seats for a set period of six years and elections for the Legislative Council are held every year in May. Only two or three divisions are voted upon each year and rotated around, meaning that each elector must vote for their division of the Legislative Council once every six years.

Advantages of fixed terms

Writing for Crikey political academic Scott Prasser says:

Having fixed terms is supposed to take the “politics” out of elections — to remove the perceived advantages of an incumbent government that can choose an election when most beneficial to its interests, to coincide with some national event, royal visit, scandal enveloping the opposition, or in some cases to call an early election about a scandal it knows is going to break or before the latest budget figures or economic forecasts are to be released.

As well as removing the partisan advantage for the incumbent Government, fixed terms also give certainty to the private sector, the community and other political parties, while improving access to the electoral role for new voters.


Fixed term parliaments can lead to very long election campaigns. For example, in the USA where they hold fixed term elections, the campaign for the next President has started already while the election will not be held until 8 November 2016.

Fixed terms also provide less opportunity to solve political crises, such as those that occurred in the last Victorian Parliament.

Referendum required

With most of the States and Territories now governing in fixed term electoral periods the people of Australia might be approve of moving the federal House of Representatives to fixed terms. But because the Constitution would have to be altered if we chose to move to fixed electoral terms, a referendum would be required.

In 1988 Australians went to the poll for a series of referendum questions one of which was:

A Proposed Law: To alter the Constitution to provide for 4 year maximum terms for members of both Houses of the Commonwealth Parliament.

Do you approve this proposed alteration?

This question failed dismally, with no State gaining a majority Yes and the overall Yes vote for the country coming in at 32.91%. Because of the double-barrelled question we may not know if the electorate didn’t want longer terms for the House of Representatives or whether they were unhappy about shortening the terms in the Senate.

The future

Since federation we have held federal elections on average every 30 months. And for the last year of an electoral term the media and public hold out, speculating about when the election will be called.

The last federal Government (in the Gillard phase) called an election eight months early, but even this left the people to ponder whether this was a strategic political move, rather than a heads-up to the electorate.

We should ask, would set electoral periods help democracy in Australia? Would Government be improved by the certainty of a period of time to enact their policies? And would the people be better-off if election speculation was taken out of the picture?

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