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.