Recall madness

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The Sydney Morning Herald has today begun a campaign to have the state constitution changed to allow “recall elections”, where a petition of a large number of state voters would result in the Parliament being dissolved and a fresh election being called, regardless of how long is left in the current Parliament’s term.

They also carry an article from NSW Opposition Leader Barry O’Farrell pushing the proposal and a petition for a referendum at the next election to “reclaim your vote”, something completely bizarre and pointless, since such a referendum would not hasten the end of the current Labor government and O’Farrell has promised a referendum in his first term.

There’s nothing wrong with the idea of including a recall provision in our constitution, but it is a hugely costly and ineffective way of achieving greater accountability from our state governments while the Herald and O’Farrell ignore far easier and more effective ways of holding bad governments to account.

Surely the push for recall elections comes from a sense that state governments are too distant from the people and that we need to restore accountability in government. If you want to achieve that, recall elections only create an illusion of accountability while keeping the power of government locked up in one-party government.

Recall elections are extremely costly and ineffective. As O’Farrell admits in his piece, only two governors in US states have been recalled in the last century. While recall elections can very rarely provide accountability in the case of incredibly unpopular and incompetent governments, most run-of-the-mill governments completely avoid any fear of the public being able to bring them into account. Don’t even get me started on the idea that we would model our system of government on California, one of the most dysfunctional political systems in the developed English-speaking world.

The problems of bad government usually can’t be solved by holding an election. It’s widely agreed that the Labor government was already acting appallingly on many public policy issues before the 2003 and 2007 elections, yet they were reelected in landslides at both elections.

Most of the time the public are disengaged and won’t act politically to deal with day-to-day issues of bad government. The recall process means ‘business as usual’ until the public are willing to rise up en masse and throw out a government.

If you want to have real accountability, there are a few ways you can do that. Firstly, we should surely be talking about reducing parliamentary terms from four years to three, as they were until the 1980s. Barry O’Farrell engages in the idiotic meme blaming NSW’s current woes on the ‘fixed term’ system:

They argued that fixed terms would end community frustration with the calling of early elections and allow government the certainty needed to get on with the job of governing.

But at that time no one foresaw how a NSW Labor machine could, and would, pervert the fixed term system to protect maladministration, political inertia and incompetence.

Of course, if we didn’t have fixed terms in New South Wales, nothing would have changed. We still would have an ageing state government because, as O’Farrell acknowledges later in his piece, they know they would lose and they would not call an election. Isn’t it interesting that O’Farrell doesn’t promote three-year terms? Indeed, his proposal of keeping four-year terms but abolishing fixed terms would increase the power of the Premier when he takes office.

The other solution that would genuinely increase government accountability and would see bad governments like our current government terminated mid-term would be to introduce proportional representation in the Legislative Assembly. By doing so, one-party majorities would only be won in rare landslides, and most Parliaments would not be controlled by a single party. A major party would need to convince minor parties and independents to give their support and possibly govern in coalition in order to rule.

Where a government acts terribly and the cries for an early election grow loudly, or where a party replaces their leader with an unknown or unpopular figure, it is possible for their support parties to withdraw support and either form a different government or force an early election, and they can do it much easier than a mass petition of hundreds of thousands of voters.

The current Labor government would not have won a majority under proportional representation. The balance between the two major parties would be better, and Labor would have had to rely on the Greens and independents in order to govern. I would expect that, if the government was still as bad as it is now, their support parties would have pulled the plug early and forced an election. At the very least, they would prevent the party governing as an elected dictatorship. The best thing about PR-fuelled hung parliaments is that you have democratic accountability of all governments, not just those on the brink of death. It is far more effective and useful than a recall petition.

Indeed, the Canadian province of British Columbia introduced the recall election in 1995, yet this did not help introduce any more accountability into the political system, and in recent years the province has considered the question of proportional representation as a solution to the problem of massive government majorities blocking accountability.

If you want to reduce the power of governments to continue to govern without the support of the public, you don’t need recall elections. You need proportional representation in the lower house and fixed three-year terms.

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21 COMMENTS

  1. This sounds as good as Victorian Premier, John Brumby’s suggestion to have ALP pre-selection run like US primaries. While it sounds like an interesting proposal, it’s entirely out of step with most Australian voters. And like you say it doesn’t actually help improve government accountability or transparency.

    In fact I think it would perpetuate and encourage Governments to be less accountable and transparent for fear of a recall election.

  2. Labor only got 39% of the lower house vote in 2007, but form majority government. The government everyone hates is in fact not one that a majority voted for anyway – bring on PR!

  3. Utter populist garbage by both O’Farrell and, more disappointly, the Herald. Whatever sells papers I guess, but it truly is ridiculous. If I recall correctly, it was the good people of NSW who elected the state Gov in 2007. They can wait until the next election, just as I had to wait again and again to vote out Howard.

    That the SMH said that ‘It’s time the people of NSW were heard’ is pretty stupid given that they were heard and they re-elected the Government and rejceted Debnam and his merry band of right-wing nutters. Let the people decide, not the papers.

  4. Easy solution – get rid of the Legislative Assembly.

    I don’t know why you’re against 4 year terms whilst wanting PR brought in. If the government is bad, as you say they’ll face an early election when coalition parties drop their support. If they’re good, they’ll go the whole 4 years. Nothing wrong with that, if you ask me.

  5. How about Japan-style multi-member electorates? It would create a far more representative assembly, I feel, if super-electorates were created which represented regions like the health services do. It would also more likely represent the voting desires of the public. Let me know what you think Ben?

  6. The major problem we have here is that NSW has fixed terms.

    The Wesminster system was never designed to accomadate fixed terms.
    Get rid of fixed terms and let the MLC’s do their job.

  7. How is the problem fixed terms? Do you think that they would call the election with non-fixed terms?

    I don’t really understand the MLC ‘job’ part either. The role of the LC is not to dismiss Governments, and even if a no-confidence motion passed it would be blocked in the lower house.

    Instability is bad for states, period – google PNG parliament for a good example. To be able to have Governments dismissed in a single-house parliament, not least of all one elected by PR (at least the NSW system of PR), would have the Government forever at the mercy of a handful of minor parties; imagine having a Government at the mercy of, say, Fred Nile – and it would be even harder for the Libs if they win next election.

    Note, Herald, the ‘people’ have ‘had a say’ and they chose to elect this Government for 4 years. If they choose to elect a reactionary Liberal Government in March 2011, that is their choice and that is what is great about democracy, but to campaign against the very election of a Government just reeks of cheap journalism.

  8. “How about Japan-style multi-member electorates? It would create a far more representative assembly, I feel, if super-electorates were created which represented regions like the health services do. It would also more likely represent the voting desires of the public. Let me know what you think Ben?”

    I’m not familiar with the Japanese system, but I think that the Tassie system is a good one (5 multi-member lower house, single-member upper house), and I seem to recall Ben has written that somewhere here too.

  9. The simple solution is just to go back to three year terms. Wran’s our man? …not on this one!
    If a more radical solution is wanted, rather than waste energy changing the electoral system it would be better to review the whole role of state governments.

  10. If they are reaching into the grab-bag of US fixes they may as well argue for fixed terms. Neither recall or fixed terms make sense in a Westminster system built on strong parties.

    3 or 4 year terms are hardly the issue.

    Giving minor parties control of both houses is not a solution; call for unicameral MMP if you want to go down that route.

    Just live with it: the benefits of fixed terms outweigh the odd situation, as here, where in 07 electors chose, very clearly, the known, obviously shopworn devil over the obvious duds.

    Look at Britain: Brown is down for the count yet had the perverse privilege of running early and guaranteeing an extra several years – of extra-dudness.

  11. Thanks for the great article. Should this be introduced, I believe the so-called “recall” election will be abused by various media organisations to orchestrate public opinion against a particular Government they may be unhappy with over its particular policy. I think there may be a case to take to the people a proposal to reduce the term from four to three years but other than that, leave the electoral cycle as it is.

  12. Agree with Rich. Where would the threshold be? Apparently ‘thousands’ of people have signed the Herald letter. The same number could easily be raised by shooters (circa Port Arthur) and any other number of fringe interest groups. Cut 4 to 3 years if you want, but fixed terms are good for democracy in my opinion. Honestly though I expect this will just fade away in about a year anyway.

  13. And the Liberals are milking the Herald’s campaign for all it’s worth. On Friday arvo I got an email from Barry O’Farrell urging me to sign the petition.

  14. And congratulations on being elected DLP National President Tony?

    Thanks Hamish

    National Secretary actually. My mate David McCabe (SA) is the National President.

    Getting back to fixed terms. You have just witnessed a Government that is totally incapable of governing NSW. If there was no fixed terms and the Legislative Council was doing it’s job, it could have forced the lower house to an election.

    Fixed terms are a real problem.

  15. No Tony, the Legislative Council in NSW has no such powers. It was stripped of its powers to block supply back in the 1930s. The constitution allows for money bills to be presented to the Governor for assent even if the LC has failed to pass them.

  16. Nick C Says:
    No Tony, the Legislative Council in NSW has no such powers. It was stripped of its powers to block supply back in the 1930s. The constitution allows for money bills to be presented to the Governor for assent even if the LC has failed to pass them

    The State governments have a lot to answer for. If its like Queensland there is little left of the westminister system that served this country so well.

    A toothless upper house with fixed terms. You cant get any worse than that.

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