The NSW Liberal government is leading the way on authentic electoral reform.
UNLESS something extraordinary happens, those who voted at the last federal election in the belief there would be no CO2 tax under a Gillard-led government are just going to have to grin and bear it.
Unless something unexpected happens, those who backed controversial Labor Dobell MP Craig Thomson, but have since re-calibrated his worthiness to represent them, are going to have to grin and bear him for another two years.
The basic, or cast-iron, tenets of Australian-style political representative practice deny voters the power to remove governments or individual politicians during their constitutionally prescribed terms.
Only death, debilitating illness, bankruptcy or resignation can terminate an MP’s tenure – and losing the numbers in parliament utterly dooms governments.
This may seem reasonable, but only because it’s always been so. But should it remain that way?
Should voters be encumbered with governments or MPs for full terms no matter what? What if parties dishonour solemn undertakings after elections, should they be immune from democratic retribution, meaning they face voters at the polls earlier than scheduled?
Yes, I’m referring to Ms Gillard’s unambiguous campaign commitment: “There will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”, which she wilfully dishonoured upon teaming-up with Bob Brown’s Greens, who attract just one voter in 10.
I’m also alluding to those who backed Mr Thomson, who appears set to sit out criticisms of his alleged misuse of a corporate credit card while national secretary of the Health Services Union.
Also in mind is NSW member for the seat of Lyne, Rob Oakeshott, who presented himself as an independent with non-Labor leanings. At the election, Mr Oakeshott attracted 40 per cent of Lyne’s primary vote to the National candidate’s 29 per cent and Labor’s 18 per cent.
Little wonder the latest poll in Lyne showed his backing had slumped from 47 to just over 14 per cent.
He’s hardly doing what most Lyne voters sent him to Canberra expecting him to do.
But no matter what, in each of these cases voters cannot constitutionally reverse their earlier decisions.
Also in mind are the half dozen or so NSW Labor ministerial resignations over 2009 and 2010 with voters forced to wait until March 2011 to oust that government.
Trick question: can voters be empowered to reverse earlier electoral outcomes ahead of scheduled elections?
If yes, how can this be done?
How, in other words, can representative democracy be enhanced?
Interestingly, work is presently being undertaken on this rarely asked question.
NSW Liberal Premier Barry O’Farrell announced in June the convening of a panel of constitutional experts to advise on adoption of what’s known across North American as recall elections.
The panel, chaired by David Jackson QC, will advise how to meet a coalition election commitment on such elections.
“A recall provision would give power back to the people,” Mr O’Farrell said.
“The NSW government supports fixed, four-year parliamentary terms, but it became clear in the last parliament that a safety valve allowing a fresh election was needed to rid the state of a corrupt, incompetent government that was not acting in the public’s best interests.”
The panel includes two Sydney academics: Elaine Thompson, a lecturer in public policy and Australian and US politics at the University of New South Wales; and George Williams, professor and
foundation director, Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law, at UNSW.
The panel has been asked to report to the government by September 30 on the feasibility of establishing recall procedures that could trigger early general state elections.
“Eighteen US states including California have a recall mechanism, as well as the Canadian province of British Columbia,” Mr O’Farrell said.
The panel has been asked to consider the viability of introducing such a recall provision in NSW and the relevant requirements for elections to be forced by voters.
“It will examine issues like the reasons required to trigger a recall election, the percentage of voters required to petition for a fresh election and whether or not time limits should apply before a government could be forced back to the polls,” Mr O’Farrell added.
“Generally my government supports fixed four-year parliamentary terms because they enable governments to make the type of tough decisions we are making now and deliver some certainty to the political process.
“But we have to look at creating a safety valve where a deeply unpopular and/or corrupt government has clearly lost public support and is damaging NSW’s performance or prospects.
“At present, the circumstances permitting an early election are very narrow – involving a vote of no confidence in the government or the failure to pass supply.”
The panel’s terms of reference require it to also examine potential risks and benefits of a recall procedure and, if recall procedures are adopted, the relevant procedures that would be involved.
To establish a recall procedure, NSW’s Constitution Act 1902 needs to be amended by referendum.
In December 2009, Mr O’Farrell committed a future coalition government to move towards putting voters back in charge of governance.
Six months earlier he’d suggested ‘recall elections’ were one way to do this.
“Recall elections are democratic, increase accountability, offer a safeguard against abuse and can help restore confidence in, and promote active involvement with, the political process,” Mr O’Farrell said.
“The spectre of being forced to an early election by the public could provide the stimulus needed for government – even a NSW Labor one – to put in a full four-year effort as well as a safeguard against political abuses.
“The last time recall mechanism firmly was used in the United States was when Californian voters recalled Democratic governor Gray Davis, in 2003, because he’d bungled the state’s electricity market.”
Republican-nominated Arnold Schwarzenegger won that recall contest.
Recall elections involve electors ‘petitioning’ to remove elected officials from office by presenting a certain number of voters’ signatures collected within a set time frame.
“Depending on the jurisdiction, the number of petitioners can range from 10 to 40 per cent of people who voted in the previous election, and must be collected within a period that can range between 60 and 180 days,” Mr O’Farrell said.
“In California in 2003, the signatures of 12 per cent of voters were to be collected within 160 days.
“In British Columbia, 40 per cent of voters are required to sign within 60 days.
“Those who argue against recall elections claim they undermine representative government, are expensive, are open to abuse and insult hardworking MPs.
“Yet, despite recall provisions existing in the United States for about a century, only two governors have been recalled.
“If the argument about expense were pursued there wouldn’t be any elections.”
Like Ms Gillard and Mr Thomson, NSW Labor wouldn’t go to the polls ahead of the scheduled election date.
Keep your fingers crossed the Jackson panel gives the all clear for NSW to blaze the trail with recall provisions.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for WA’s staid conservatives, led by unadventurous Colin Barnett, or Ms Gillard and Messrs Thomson and Oakeshott to back this democratic procedure.
What a shame they refuse to even consider voter empowerment.
Well done, so far, Mr O’Farrell. Let’s hope a referendum on recalling governments and politicians is promptly called.
There’s no reason why anyone should be guaranteed a full term. Voters should be empowered to act against dishonourable elected officials.