1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2003  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 24/01/2003   
   Page tools: Print Print Page

Should the House of Representatives have a four-year terms?

This article was contributed by Scott Bennett of the Information and Research Services section of the Parliamentary Library, Canberra. The article is an abridged version of Parliamentary Library Research Paper No.4, 2000-01, ‘Four-year Terms for the House of Representatives?’. From 1965 to 1998 Mr Bennett lectured in Political Science at the University of NSW, the Royal Military College and the Australian National University. He has published extensively in the area of Australian politics and political history.

During the first months of 2002 there was much community discussion on the question of whether House of Representatives terms should be extended, possibly to four years. This is a question of long standing in Australia.

Background to the four-year term issue

Australian lower house terms

There has been a trend to four-year terms in the Australian states and territories, with only Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory retaining three-year terms.

What is the 'best' term for a national lower house?

Is there some optimum length for the term of a national lower house? What is the situation in other nations? According to a study published by the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 1993, the overwhelming number of national lower houses have terms of four or five years. Relatively few have a three-year term, and the United States of America House of Representatives is the only lower house with a two-year term. Table S2.1 gives the figures, and where possible includes examples of liberal democracies in each category.

Length (years)no.Examples

21United States of America
313Including Australia, New Zealand, Sweden
455Including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Japan
576Including Canada, France, Ireland, Italy, United Kingdom
63Morocco, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka

Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union, 'Electoral Systems. A World-Wide Comparative Study', Geneva, 1993.

What is the best length for a parliamentary term? Despite figures showing that four- or five-year terms are most preferred, the answer is far from clear cut, and a lack of research data does not help in the search for an answer.1 The best guidance that the Inter-Parliamentary Union can give poses the problem to be solved:

In theory, elections to a Parliament should not be so infrequent that they fail to reflect the opinions of the electorate, nor be so frequent that they are likely to produce excessive discontinuities in the process of government.2

The question is, therefore, how Australia can balance a preference for stable government with the countervailing need to maintain democratic practices.

Over the years

Three-year terms were generally favoured throughout the process of constitution-writing in the 1890s. This presumably reflected the fact that five of the colonies had three-year terms at the time; only Western Australia had four-year terms. The initial draft at the 1897-98 Convention had provided for a four-year term, but this was reduced while the draft was in committee. By comparison with other issues, however, this was not a matter which stirred much debate among the constitution founders.

The Commonwealth Constitution (s. 28) therefore stated that:

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.

Despite the near-unanimity of the Constitution writers, over the years there have been many calls to increase the House of Representatives term. Although some have called for five-year terms, most have expressed a preference for terms of a maximum of four years:
  • The Royal Commission into the Constitution (1927-29) recommended that the life of Parliament be increased to 'at least four years'.3
  • In 1982 the Reid Committee of Review into Commonwealth Administration expressed a hope that the Parliament 'might see fit to adopt improved arrangements for conducting its business - even to the point of proposing constitutional reform to allow for four-year parliaments'.4
  • At the Adelaide session of the Australian Constitutional Convention (1983) a recommendation for a four-year term was made.5
  • A recommendation for four-year terms was made by the Constitutional Commission in 1988.6
  • Prime Minister John Howard (Liberal Party) spoke on the question during the 1998 Commonwealth election, stating that he thought it 'a good idea to have a longer period of time to deal with medium and longer term issues'. He also stated his belief that 'there is a lot of support in the Australian community' for such an alteration to parliamentary terms.7
  • In April 2000 Senator Andrew Murray (Australian Democrats) introduced a bill for four-year terms, claiming that the longer term 'has received support from all political parties, from a variety of institutions and political commentators and increasingly, strong support from the business sector and the public at large'.8
  • In June 2000 the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters received a number of submissions favouring a four-year term. The Committee reiterated its 1997 support, 'so as to facilitate better long-term planning by government and ensure consistency with state jurisdictions and cost savings'.9
  • In early 2002 the Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne's Age newspapers both called for four-year terms.10
  • In April 2002 the Liberal Party declared its support for the longer term.11

In 1988, Roy Morgan Research Centre survey found 56% of Australians supportive of four-year terms; 38% were said to be opposed.12 It is likely that such views are at least as strongly held today.

Two amendment attempts

In 1983 the Commonwealth Parliament passed the necessary legislation for five constitutional referenda that were to be held on 25 February 1984. Despite most senators and members being in favour of the second of the five - to extend the maximum life of the House of Representatives to four years - the Hawke Government eventually deferred the five referenda indefinitely.13 Two of the proposals were later put to referendum at the same time as the 1984 Commonwealth election, but the others, including the four-year term proposal, were never put to the people.

In September 1988, voters were presented with a constitutional amendment which proposed replacing the current term with a maximum term of four years. Frustratingly for advocates of the longer term, however, the Hawke Government confused the issue by including in the proposed change a reduction of Senate terms to four years as well as a provision for simultaneous elections, the latter of which had been defeated on three previous occasions. Voters could not pick which of the three aspects to support or reject, for they were required to vote YES or NO for the entire package. Voter opposition to changes to the Senate term, as well as to simultaneous elections, meant that eventually fewer than one-third of the electorate supported the change.14

Length of parliaments since 1901

Because the House of Representatives term is for maximum terms only, and because of the convention that prime ministers can call elections virtually whenever they choose, the 39 completed parliaments have had terms of greatly varying length (table S2.2). The 1910 election was held three years and 122 days after the 1906 election, while the break between the 1946 and 1949 elections was three years and 73 days. At the other end of the scale, eight elections have been held less than two years after the previous election, though four of these (1914, 1951, 1974, 1975) were double dissolution elections which cannot be called within six months of the expiry of the House, and are therefore far more likely to be announced early in a parliament than are 'normal' elections. The remaining four parliaments (ending in 1929, 1955, 1963, 1984) averaged 18 months, with the shortest period being the 10 months and 25 days between the 1928 and 1929 elections. Because of various constitutional provisions there is no constitutional barrier to an election being held more than three years after the previous election. There have, in fact, been ten such occasions, most recently in 2002. The fact that more than one-quarter of all elections have been held after an interval greater than three years, suggests that if successive prime ministers were of a mind to do so, the elapsed time between elections could always be three years or slightly longer.


Elapsed timeDate of election

Over 3 years1910, 1913, 1922, 1928, 1937, 1946, 1949, 1954, 1972, 2002
2 years 9 months - 3 years1906, 1925, 1940, 1943, 1958, 1961, 1966, 1969, 1980, 1993, 1996
2 years 6 months - 2 years 9 months1903, 1917, 1919, 1934, 1987(a), 1990, 1998
2 years 3 months - 2 years 6 months1983(a)
2 years - 2 years 3 months1931
1 year 6 months - 2 years1955, 1963, 1975(a), 1977, 1984
1 year - 1 year 6 months1914(a), 1951(a), 1974(a)
Under 1 year1929

(a) Double dissolution elections.
Source: Australian Electoral Commission, 'Electoral Pocket Book', Canberra, 1999, pp. 66-71.

Since 1901 the average elapsed time between elections has been 30.7 months, though if the six double dissolution elections are not counted, this figure climbs to 32.5 months. If we look at specific periods, we note that there has been a marked reduction in term length during the past 30 years. The average for all elections drops to 28.5 months, though the holding of four double dissolution elections no doubt distorts the figures. Even with these four elections removed from the figures, the average parliament has lasted only 31 months (see table S2.3).


All elections
Double dissolution elections excluded

No double dissolutions in this period

Source: Australian Electoral Commission, 'Electoral Pocket Book', Canberra, 1999, pp. 66-71.

These figures suggest that parliamentary terms have been shortening over the long haul. There is, however, no reason why this should be so. Since the 1972 election Australia had a period (1974-87) during which House terms averaged only 25.8 months, yet the average length for elections between 1990 and 2001 was 34.5 months. As noted later in the article, a key factor in the whole issue of House of Representatives terms is the political reality that prime ministers will always be seeking to call elections at times of maximum benefit to their party or coalition.

Despite this, even if all parliaments were to run full term, the question still remains: is a 'three-year' term too short for a modern national lower house?

The case for four-year maximum terms

Over the years a number of the points once made in favour of four-year maximum terms have fallen into disuse, as can be seen in the report of the 1927-29 Royal Commission into the Constitution. At that time the commissioners believed that the three-year period was inadequate for Australia in view of:
  • the great size of the country
  • the large area of some electorates
  • the large number of important problems with which Parliament had to deal
  • the impact of a short time between electoral contests
  • the necessity of the Prime Minister attending Imperial Conferences from time to time.15

Only the deleterious effect of a short period between elections remains an important argument.

Modern critics of the status quo tend to focus on at least seven specific benefits they claim will flow from an extension of House of Representatives terms to four years. It must be noted, however, that most of these are essentially unprovable.

It is also important to note that recent suggestions have referred to four-year maximum terms for the House of Representatives. If this change were to be made, there would be no expectation that each term would always last four years. As table S3.2 suggests, most terms would be less. If prime ministers followed previous practice, however, then the House usually would not be dissolved earlier than six months prior to its term expiring. The net impact therefore would be that the usual length of a House term would have been extended by a year - and any term that did run for the full term would, obviously, be a bonus. In order to guarantee a full four-year term, fixed terms would be necessary (for fixed terms, see below).


A long-standing claim holds that longer terms would encourage governments to introduce policies that were long-term rather than merely politically expedient. There is a widespread view that increasing the term for the House would enable governments to enjoy the luxury of being able to take 'more responsible, long-term views' than is possible when the next election is quite likely to be less than two years away. The commonly-heard view of the typical three-year term is that governments:

… tend to spend their first year settling in; begin taking tough and far-sighted decisions in the second year; and then effectively shut up shop in the third year because it is getting too close to the next election.16

This aspect of the governmental system can cause frustration within the bureaucracy. As the Queensland Constitutional Review Commission put it in 2000:
It has been said that under a three-year term, the first budget is devoted to paying off the promises made at the previous election and the third budget in anticipating the promises to be made at the forthcoming election. Consequently, only one budget out of three, the second, it likely to address important, long term policies without the contamination of short-term political considerations.17

Quite clearly, there is 'little time to engage simply in good government'.18

Associated with this, it is argued that four-year terms would give governments longer to weather any adverse responses to the implementation of policies seen as necessary though unpopular. It is said that this would be especially valuable in the area of economic management.

Business confidence

It is claimed that longer terms would enhance business confidence. The private sector has long complained that national elections disrupt their long-term planning, with deleterious effects upon the national economy. It has been noted, for instance, that retail sales drop in the period before a Commonwealth election. Calls for longer terms in New Zealand have also tended to come from business organisations.19

The Business Council of Australia has been a keen advocate of a longer term. Former president of the Council, Sir Roderick Carnegie, has stated:

The uncertainties created by frequent elections and consequent shifts in Government policy in turn have an adverse effect on business confidence and business investment. Very few other democratic nations suffer this disadvantage as most have maximum parliamentary terms that are significantly longer than that of Australia.20

According to Ron Brunton of the Institute of Public Affairs, business support for such a change also has a political dimension. He believes that government stability is less important for business than 'the desire for a longer period of return on all the time and resources they spend in cultivating the party in power'.21

Cost of elections

The longer the period between elections, the greater the saving for the taxpayers forced to foot the election bill.22 With national elections now costing about $100m, a great deal would be saved by having fewer national elections.

Voter dislike

It is often said that Australians dislike the frequency with which they are required to vote, something that is believed to be linked to a distaste for the tough nature of our party and electoral politics. Fewer Commonwealth elections would reduce this to some extent. A former Professor of Politics at La Trobe University, Joan Rydon, has stated that any reduction in the number of elections should be seen as part of a process of 'reducing the adversary nature of our party politics'.23

Bringing the House of Representatives into line

A change to four-year terms would bring the House of Representatives term into line with most state and territory lower house terms. In both Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory there has been recent discussion about the possibility of changing from three- to four-year terms. If this occurs, the House of Representatives would be the only Australian lower house retaining the shorter term.

The local member

Former MHR, Jim Snow (Australian Labor Party), has claimed that at the electorate level the current system does little for the representative function that is so important a part of the MP's duties. He believes that three-year terms may make local members adept at campaigning, but they do not encourage them to work in a sustained way on long-term problems: 'Members are tempted to become show ponies rather than watch dogs'.24

Political debate

Might longer periods between elections raise the standard of political debate? It has been wondered if such a period might 'create more opportunity for genuinely bipartisan discussion of a wider range of issues [than is normally the case]'.25

What to do with Senate terms?

Any discussion of longer House of Representatives terms raises the important question of how such terms would be coordinated with the terms of the members of the Senate. Simultaneous elections are not a constitutional requirement, but they save money, and only six of 40 House elections have been held alone - the last was 30 years ago. The Australian experience has therefore been that the three-year/six-year model makes it relatively easy to hold both elections on the same day. However, if the House of Representatives maximum term became four years, with no alteration of Senate terms, simultaneous elections would be much rarer.

Although there has been much agreement about the need to lengthen the lower house term, there is far less consensus about what should be done with the term for the upper house. The proposal which seems to have most popular support would increase the House term by a year and the Senate term by two years, with the coordination of election dates for the houses being optional, as has always been the case. The major doubt about this change is whether extending senators' terms to eight years would be accepted by voters. Might it be seen as 'cynical and self-serving by a somewhat jaded electorate'?26 Is an eight-year term just too long? While praising the idea of four-year House terms, the Melbourne Age has described eight years between elections as 'a strange concept of democracy'.27 Professor James Crawford has noted that:

An eight-year term for Senators is a very long one, which stretches any notion that parliamentary office is the result of a more-or-less current mandate from the electorate.28

Former senator Reg Withers (Liberal Party) asserted that if senators gained a longer term it would 'almost be as good as being a tenured academic or a tenured public servant'.29 Major parties might also reject the idea of some minor party senators holding a seat for such a length of time. This has been an issue in New South Wales since the 1999 election following the election of some Legislative Council members with very small shares of the vote.30

Despite such views, this change would see the maintenance of a system very much like the current arrangements, and might, therefore, be the easiest to sell to an electorate traditionally sceptical of constitutional change. There have been many politicians who have supported it. Former deputy prime minister, Tim Fischer (National Party), for example, has expressed his support and, incidentally, the support of his party as well.31 Peter McGauran (National Party) has acknowledged the difficulty of selling eight-year Senate terms to a sceptical public, but sees it as a question of overall benefit to the Parliament and, hence, the nation. For him, the advantages of the four-year House term outweigh the disadvantages of longer Senate terms.32 Another MP has noted that to introduce four-year terms for the House probably leaves one with little option other than to double the Senate's term.33

It is perhaps relevant to note that eight-year upper house terms were introduced in four states during the period 1972 and 1987. It is sometimes stated that extending senators' terms in this way would weaken party discipline, but there is no evidence from the states that this would be so. Senators seeking re-election would still need party preselection, and an undisciplined performance would not be the way to guarantee continued party support.

The Australian Labor Party has taken the view that it would be preferable to make this change if there were also the introduction of simultaneous elections, as well as a reduction in the power the Senate holds to destroy a government that controls the House of Representatives.34 The journalist Paul Kelly is another who has argued against such a change while ever Senate powers remain intact: 'Any proposal to marry the Senate's existing powers with even less frequent Senate elections is the worst [proposal] imaginable'.35

The question of Senate terms is therefore uncertain, and it may prove to be the area in which it is most difficult to get wide enough support to make any alteration in the term of the national lower house.

Five-year maximum terms?

If an argument in favour of lengthening the House of Representatives term is that this would give government and business longer to plan and introduce policies, should the maximum term be increased from three to five years? The lower houses in Ireland, France, Canada and the United Kingdom all have terms of this length. Table S3.1 shows that more nations have five-year parliaments than any other term. Five-year terms have not been unknown in Australia. In the 19th century five of the colonies had five-year terms at some stage. Legislation passed in Tasmania in 1936 introduced such a term for the House of Assembly, and this remained in place until 1969. In 1937 South Australia also introduced five-year terms, though it reverted to the three-year term two years later, following public criticism.

Some Australians have argued for a five-year term for the national lower house. As early as 1925, William Higgs MHR (Nationalist) noted that the average length of a parliament was two and one half years, and spoke of the difficulties this caused for members. The time spent on electioneering made the performance of parliamentary duties, particularly in such a large country, extremely difficult. Higgs called for an increase in House terms to five years and Senate terms to ten years, asserting that:

Trade, commerce, and industry would profit by the change, and members of Parliament would be able to give more time to the study of Commonwealth problems.36

In 1955 a member of the House of Representatives, WM Bourke (Australian Labor Partys-Anti-Communist) also made a call for a five-year term.37

Elaine Thompson of the University of New South Wales believes a move from three- to five-year terms would be too great a change for the electorate to accept, primarily because of concerns about a perceived reduction in the democratic elements of the political system. At the same time, she acknowledges that five-year terms might be expected to give greater stability and improved government 'efficiency'.38 It is noteworthy that there have been 20 elections in Australia in the past 50 years, compared with only 13 in the United Kingdom and 16 in Canada.

As Higgs appreciated, five-year House terms also open up the particularly awkward question of what to do with Senate terms. Should they be ten years, with half retiring every five years? Five-year terms in parallel with House terms? Equal to two House terms? Any of these would probably be seen as too long, creating a Senate that was said to be 'out of touch' with the electorate. If the present fixed Senate term of six years was retained, this would result in the holding of many more elections, something that would fly in the face of the aim of reducing the number of elections.

On balance, it is unlikely that many members of parliament would support an increase from three- to five-year terms. Even in the United Kingdom there has been a significant amount of sentiment expressed that the House of Commons term of a maximum five years is too long.39

Should the three-year maximum term be retained?40

In a dissenting note to the 1929 Royal Commission on the Constitution, three members refused to accept the need for any increase in the House of Representatives term. They claimed that the three-year term was 'quite long enough', and noted that it was 'in the control of members' to alter their fixation with preparing themselves for the next Commonwealth election. Their concern was with democracy:

The greater the control of Parliament by the electors the better for the people, and the lengthening of the term of Parliament tends to weaken this control.41

Former prime minister Keating (Australia Labor Party) has also referred to the question of democracy, claiming that the Australian democratic system is 'very robust' because 'every three years or less' the voters have a chance to change the parliament, and hence the government.42 The historian Geoffrey Blainey believes it would be a 'harsh penalty' to deprive the Australian people of the right after three years to dismiss an incompetent or lacklustre government.43 Similarly, Senator Brian Harradine (Independent) has said that 'it is important that the people are given the chance regularly to audit what the government is doing by voting it in or out of office'. Harradine would seek to create a climate in which parliaments are allowed to run their full three-year term.44 Keating has also described senators as 'substantially unrepresentative of both the polity and the wider community', due to each state having an equal number of senators. He believes that to lengthen the Senate term would take it further from political relevance, particularly later in an eight-year term.45

Others have observed that the solution to the 'problem' of shortened parliamentary terms lies with the prime ministers who have often reduced the term of Parliament by calling early elections. The Clerk of the Senate, Harry Evans, has said that if prime ministers could restrain themselves, at a stroke we would have longer, and therefore, more stable parliaments. Nearly 20 years ago, three political scientists felt able to assert that it had 'never' been the case that Australians were bothered by elections every three years. The problem, they claimed, lay with prime ministers who did not allow the Parliament to last the full term: 'It is the constant possibility of premature parliamentary elections that is so destructive of good government'.46

One difficulty with moving from the three-year term is the lack of evidence that such a change would actually bring the benefits that are claimed. Surprisingly, there appears to have been no research undertaken on the consequences of the change to four-year terms that occurred in four of the Australian states in the 1970s and 1980s. There is also a lack of international evidence in regard to this aspect of legislative behaviour, no doubt because political scientists have regarded it as a settled question in most countries. Even were research to be done, however, the findings could only be speculative. Claims are made about the deleterious impact of three-year terms upon the Australian economy, but as far as can be ascertained there is no methodologically sound study that establishes, without doubt, that economic performance has been materially affected by a legislative term. Australian business interests have not made any effort to substantiate their claims with hard evidence.

A second problem relates to the contention that the existing term has a deleterious impact upon legislative performance. Critics point to the rush to legislate before the end of a parliament, but seem not to consider the possibility that the shorter term acts as a strong motivating instrument to get planning under way and legislation passed promptly. In addition, extending the House term to four years would not necessarily see the improved pursuit of medium- and long-term planning strategies. In many cases lengthy periods may be required after the passage of legislation before policies are seen to be producing results. The required lead time may be far longer than four years and the difference between three- and four-year terms may therefore be quite marginal.

In summary, although there is a lot of sentiment in favour of the four-year term, most of it is based on speculation rather than hard evidence. Some, at the least, might prefer to stick with what is known rather than take the punt on longer terms.

Modifying Westminster - four-year fixed terms?

Some argue that the power to choose the election date gives a substantial advantage to the Prime Minister, allowing 'arbitrary, partisan and capricious early elections'.47 It is clear that while the House has provision for a maximum term, politics is going to remain in the equation, whether the term is three or four years. It has been argued that a four-year maximum term is:

The worst of all possible worlds. It gives an extra year to a government without accountability to the people and yet the opportunity for a prime minister to call an early election at will still remains.48

Accordingly, it can be argued that the only way to eradicate this problem is to introduce fixed terms. Even in the United Kingdom there have been occasional proposals to introduce fixed term parliaments to remove this prime ministerial prerogative.49 In her study of the length of lower house terms, Thompson saw merit in three-year fixed terms, primarily on the grounds of their retaining 'more accountability', with governments being 'sensitive to the need for re-election throughout their term, rather than just at the end'.50

There has, though, been more interest in four-year fixed terms. Former South Australian attorney-general Chris Sumner (Australian Labor Party) is one who sees an important step forward in the removal of the partisan advantage enjoyed by incumbents in their choice of election date.51 Evans has pointed out that a change to fixed terms would also help provide a solution if the Supply problems of 1975 were to be repeated. The insertion into the Constitution of a fixed House term, that could only be shortened by a motion constitutionally identified as a motion of no confidence, would withdraw the usefulness of blocking or rejecting Supply as a parliamentary tactic.52

The Australian Labor Party developed an interest in fixed terms in the late 1970s, and the New South Wales Labor Opposition supported the change to fixed terms in the 1995 referendum held in that state.53 Former national leader, Gough Whitlam, still calls for fixed four-year terms for every Australian parliament, Commonwealth and state.54 Whitlam has warned that the rising costs of campaigning leaves the process open to corruption: 'The cost of campaigns is the greatest source of political corruption confronting the Western democracies'. He wonders if creating fixed terms of parliaments would lessen the possible danger.55

One Labor proposal for fixed terms was in fact passed by the Senate in November 1982. This particular model involved simultaneous House and half-Senate elections on the third Saturday in November every third year. The only exceptions to this would be (a) when a government was defeated in the House on a formal vote of no confidence, and (b) when a double dissolution was called following a deadlock between the houses. If an extraordinary election were forced by either (a) or (b), the incoming government would be able only to see out the term of its predecessor to the normal date for a general election.56 Geoffrey Lindell, Professor of Law at Melbourne University, has described what he sees as the advantages of such a system:57
  • While not taking away any of the Senate's powers over money bills, it would make their use irrelevant, for blocking of such legislation by the Senate could not force an early election.
  • There would be a reduction in the opportunities for the use of 'vice-regal discretion' as occurred in 1975.
  • A prime minister would not be able to manipulate election dates for reasons that are 'purely arbitrary, partisan or capricious'.58

By contrast, some Coalition politicians, such as former prime minister Malcolm Fraser and Peter Durack (both Liberal Party), have been determined opponents of fixed terms, seeing them as 'inappropriate, ineffective and dangerous'. In particular, they believe that fixed terms do not sit well with the Westminster system of government where 'it is axiomatic that a government be able to appeal to the electorate at any time' when it is felt to be necessary.59

It is this point about the modification of the Westminster model that is of great concern to some critics. Former chief justice Dixon has pointed out that in our system of government, we 'insist on the dependence of Cabinet upon Parliament'. Furthermore, our governmental arrangements provide that 'if a difficulty arises between the executive government and Parliament, it shall be resolved by an appeal to the people'.60 This is not possible under fixed term arrangements, except when the constitutional change is written so as to allow for earlier elections if a substantive no-confidence motion is passed.61 Former law lecturer, and later Labor minister for justice, Michael Tate, is another who has expressed doubts, focusing on the conventions of responsible government. He has particularly wondered what such a change would do to the office of the Prime Minister. At present a Prime Minister can go to the people if circumstances warrant it, and Tate believes this power ought not be thrown away lightly. For example, if a Prime Minister is being frustrated by the Opposition, 'he ought to be able to go to the people and renew his mandate' - it is what Professor Don Aitkin has described as the 'flexibility' that exists in the Westminster model.62

David Clune of the New South Wales Parliamentary Library has noted other consequences. He maintains that if fixed terms are introduced then the Vice-Regal reserve powers have to be excluded, or else their existence must be acknowledged in the relevant legislation and constitutional amendment. The New South Wales Parliament took the latter option when fixed terms were introduced in that state, arousing strong opposition. Clune also notes that under a fixed term 'a government could be fixed to an election in inauspicious or unfortunate circumstances that militate unfairly against its chances of re-election'.63

Not all on the Coalition side of politics are opposed to fixed terms. In New South Wales the change to fixed terms seems to have been accepted by the Liberal and National Parties, with no pressures to repeal the legislation. Former Liberal senator David Hamer has suggested that the idea of a fixed three-year term - with the unchanged fixed Senate term of six years - would be a way of avoiding the criticism that would be heard if the Senate term were increased to eight years.64

An interesting point made by the English academic, David Butler, that is usually not referred to in the Australian context, relates to the issue of the cost of elections. Butler has noted that flexible election dates - as in Australia - tend to produce shorter, and therefore cheaper, campaigns. Uncertainty over the date of an election means that there is usually little to be gained by an Opposition beginning to campaign well before the Prime Minister's announcement.65 The Labor 'mini-campaign' of 1971 remains the only example in Australian electoral history. By contrast, a well-known feature of United States of America national elections - all of which are fixed term - is just how long the campaigning can take. This is not only because of fixed terms, but is certainly exacerbated by that aspect of the system.

Writing nearly 20 years ago, Uhr claimed that while few Commonwealth MPs opposed four-year terms, 'there is a considerable number of opponents to the notion of a fixed parliamentary term'.66 The position is probably still as Uhr described it, despite the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters receiving a number of submissions in favour of fixed terms in recent years.

A mixed system?

In an effort to find a path through the thicket, some support has been heard for a mixed constitutional arrangement, which would combine elements of both maximum and fixed-term arrangements. The model usually referred to would give the House of Representatives a maximum term of four years, with the House not dissolvable during the first three years after an election. This restriction on early dissolution would be subject to some exceptions.67 This is the constitutional arrangement introduced in Victoria in 1984 and South Australia in 1985, and it has been recommended for introduction in Queensland by both the Queensland Constitutional Review Commission and the Parliament's Legal, Constitutional and Administrative Review Committee.68

In Victoria the Legislative Assembly cannot be dissolved during the first three years unless:
  • the Assembly passes a resolution expressing a lack of confidence in the government
  • the Legislative Council fails to pass, or rejects, an appropriation (supply) bill for ordinary annual services within one month of its being sent from the Legislative Assembly
  • a deadlock between the two houses develops over a bill deemed by the Legislative Assembly to be a 'Bill of special importance'.

Legislative Council terms are equivalent to two terms of the Assembly, with half of the Council resigning at each election.69

In South Australia the Legislative Assembly cannot be dissolved during the first three years unless:
  • a motion of no confidence in the government is passed in the House of Assembly
  • a motion of confidence in the government is rejected by the House of Assembly
  • a bill 'declared by resolution of the House of Assembly' to be of special importance is passed by the House, but rejected by the Legislative Council
  • the governor is acting in pursuance with the double dissolution provisions of the Constitution Act 1934 (SA).

As with Victoria, Legislative Council terms are equivalent to two terms of the Assembly, with half of the Council resigning at each election.70

It can be suggested that this constitutional arrangement brings together several major benefits. Longer terms would presumably have the effect of bringing more stability and predictability to the political system, but a Prime Minister would still have the flexibility of choosing the election day, albeit only in the fourth and final year of each parliament. The period of uncertainty and indecision that inevitably affects governments prior to an election could be restricted to just the last quarter of a parliamentary term.71 The Melbourne Age has suggested that this model is a 'useful' guide to reform in Canberra, combining, as it does 'the benefits of certainty and consistency of tenure without denying political parties their craving for flexibility'.72

Senator Richard Alston (Liberal Party) has described this model as having 'considerable appeal', for he sees it as protecting the staggered electoral arrangement for the Senate which he describes as a safeguard for Senate independence.73

A note on implementation

Despite there being much support for four-year terms, it is by no means certain that voters would support the question in a constitutional referendum. Although a referendum for four-year terms passed comfortably in New South Wales in 1981, four-year term referenda were defeated nationally in 1988 and in Queensland in 1991. It seems that if an amendment on any topic is to be accepted by the voters, it needs to appear as non-controversial as possible. There certainly needs to be no division between the major parties.74

In regard to any proposal to increase House of Representatives terms, two obvious objections would be that:
  • parliamentarians were merely seeking to give themselves longer parliamentary terms
  • the government of the day hoped to benefit from the change.

On the first, there would seem to be little that could be done to lessen any possible impact this might have in a society that is said to be endemically suspicious of politicians.

In regard to the second objection it would probably be prudent to have the amendment worded so that the change could not be waved away simply as a change being made solely to benefit the government of the day. Perhaps the first extended term should not begin for the following House of Representatives, but for the next after that?

In conclusion

What are the main aspects of the debate on extended terms for the House of Representatives?

Commonwealth elections
  • Some Australian opinion-leaders believe the number of Commonwealth elections needs to be reduced, on the grounds of cost and governmental and economic stability.

House of Representatives terms
  • Most of those calling for longer House of Representatives terms over the years have agreed on the need for four-year maximum terms.
  • There seems to be little support for five-year terms.
  • The main opposition to an extended term is likely to be based on democratic grounds.
  • There is a great deal of uncertainty about fixed parliamentary terms, largely on the basis of the possible undermining of the Westminster aspects of our political system, though the recent change to fixed terms in New South Wales gives an opportunity to assess this.
  • Some observers have wondered about the merits of the Victorian and South Australian models which combine maximum term and fixed term elements.

Senate terms
  • Although some see it as less than ideal, many supporters of four-year House of Representatives terms support an increase in Senate terms to eight years, either fixed or maximum.
  • However, critics from within both the Coalition and the Labor Party are doubtful about longer Senate terms on democratic grounds. Some in the Labor Party would support such a change only if there was a parallel reduction in Senate powers.
  • Reduction of Senate terms would be controversial, largely because of a desire to retain staggered elections.
  • There is probably no support for a four-year/six-year House and Senate term pattern.


1. Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives of New Zealand 1986-87, vol. IX, p. 160.

2. Inter-Parliamentary Union, Parliaments of the World: A Comparative Reference Compendium, Gower, Aldershot, 2nd ed., 1986, vol. I, p. 18.

3. Report of the Royal Commission on the Constitution, Parliamentary Papers, 1929-30-31, vol. II, part 1, p. 268, p. 41.

4. Review of Commonwealth Administration, Report January 1983, Canberra, AGPS, 1983, pp. 24-5.

5. Minutes of Proceedings, Official Record of Debates and Biographical Notes on Delegates and Representatives attending the Australian Constitutional Convention held in the House of Assembly Chamber Parliament House, Adelaide, 26-29 April 1983, Adelaide, Government Printer, 1983, p. 322.

6. Final Report of the Constitutional Commission 1988, vol. 1, Canberra, AGPS, 1988, p. 195.

7. Sydney Morning Herald, 1 October 1998.

8. Senate, Debates, 4 April 2000, p. 13282, http://www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/em/elect98/report.htm, 5.128, p. 151.

9. Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, The 1998 Federal Election, June 2000.

10. 'Time for Federal four-year terms', Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April 2002; 'Four-year terms? Let's do it', Age, 14 April 2002.

11. Gerard McManus, 'Four-year terms win support', Sunday Herald Sun, 14 April 2002.

12. Constitutional Commission, 'Term of Parliament: three years or four?', Background Paper No. 2A, 1987, p. 8.

13. Fred Gruen & Michelle Grattan, Managing Government. Labor's Achievements & Failures, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, p. 224.

14. Campbell Sharman, 'The Referendum Results and Their Context', in Brian Galligan & JR Nethercote (eds), The Constitutional Commission and the 1988 Referendums, Canberra, Centre for Research on Federal Financial Relations and Royal Australian Institute of Public Administration (ACT Division), 1989, pp. 106-107.

15. Report of the Royal Commission on the Constitution, Parliamentary Papers, 1929-30-31, vol. II, part 1, p. 268, p. 41.

16. Business Council of Australia, Towards a Longer Term for Federal Parliament, Melbourne, (1987), p. 10.

17. Queensland Constitutional Review Commission, Report on the Possible Reform of and Changes to The Acts and Laws that relate to the Queensland Constitution, February 2000, pp. 39-40.

18. John McMillan, Haddon Storey & Gareth Evans, Australia's Constitution. Time for change?, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1983, p. 261.

19. 'A Four Year Term for Federal Parliament', Business Council Bulletin, No. 30, January 1987, p. 11; Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives of New Zealand 1986-87, vol. IX, p. 156.

20. Business Council of Australia, op. cit., p. 1.

21. Ron Brunton, 'Longer terms denigrates voters', Courier-Mail, 26 February 2000.

22. For the Australian Electoral Commission's guess at what would have been saved if four-year fixed terms had been in place since 1984, see Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, The 1998 Federal Election, June 2000, http://www.aph.gov.au/house/committee/em/elect98/report.htm, 5.127, p. 151.

23. Quoted, Business Council of Australia, op. cit., p. 7.

24. J Snow (ALP), House of Representatives, Debates, 17 November 1983, p. 2851; see also quote by unnamed New South Wales MP, in Tony Smith, 'According to script: the media and the 1999 New South Wales State Election', Legislative Studies, vol. 14, no. 2, Autumn 2000, p. 35.

25. Australian Constitutional Convention 1982, Standing Committee 'D', Fourth Report to Executive Committee, vol. 1, 27 August 1982, p. 60.

26. Kathryn Cole, 'Senate Terms', Law and Government Group, Parliamentary Research Service, Parliamentary Library, Parliament of Australia, 8 November 1990, p. 2.

27. Age, 8 March 1983.

28. James Crawford, 'Comment on Professor Cooray's Paper', in James Crawford & Stephen Odgers (eds), Change the Constitution?, University of Sydney, Committee for Post-Graduate Studies in the Department of Law, Sydney, 1988, p. 99.

29. R Withers, Senate, Debates, 13 October 1983, p. 1549.

30. David Clune, New South Wales Parliamentary Library, to author, 20 July 2000.

31. Canberra Times, 1 September 1998.

32. P McGauran (LP), House of Representatives, Debates, 17 November 1983, p. 2860; see also A Griffiths (ALP), House of Representatives, Debates, 17 November 1983, pp. 2862-3, A Lewis (LP), Senate, Debates, 13 October 1983, p. 1552.

33. J Spender (LP), House of Representatives, Debates, 20 October 1983, p. 2039.

34. M Young (ALP), House of Representatives, Debates, 18 March 1982, p. 1138; see also Australian Labor Party Platform, Resolutions and Rules as approved by the 37th National Conference, Hobart 1986, p. 36; Kim Beazley's Plan for the Nation, n.d., p. 130.

35. Australian, 8 April 1987.

36. Report of the Royal Commission on the Finances of Western Australia, as Affected by Federation, Parliamentary Papers, 1925, vol. II, part 2, pp. cxxv-cxxvi.

37. W Bourke (ALP-Anti-Communist), House of Representatives, Debates, 4 October 1955, p. 1216.

38. Elaine Thompson, 'Tenure of Parliament', in Fixed-Term Parliaments, Australasian Study of Parliament Group, Third Annual Workshop, 29-30 August 1981, Canberra, p. 104.

39. Robert Blackburn, The Meeting of Parliament, Dartmouth, Aldershot, 1990, pp. 25-7.

40. For arguments used in regard to a single house parliament, see Legislative Assembly of Queensland, Legal, Constitutional and Administrative Review Committee, Review of the Queensland Constitutional Review Commission's recommendation for four year parliamentary terms, Report No. 27, July 2000, pp. 18-24.

41. MB Duffy & DL McNamara (TR Ashworth concurring), Report of the Royal Commission on the Constitution, Parliamentary Papers, 1929-30-31, vol. II, part 1, p. 304.

42. 'A Powerful Choice', ABC TV Facilities Marketing and Corporate Production video, 1994.

43. Australian, 28 May 1988.

44. B Harradine (Ind), Senate, Debates, 13 October 1983, p. 1561.

45. Michelle Grattan, 'Eight-year terms? The Senate is already full of unrepresentative time-servers, scoffs Keating', Sydney Morning Herald, 11 April 2002.

46. Harry Evans, Constitutionalism and Party Government in Australia, Australasian Study of Parliament Group Occasional Paper No. 1, August 1988, p. 64; Elaine Thompson, Donald Horne & Sol Encel, Legislative Studies Newsletter, no. 1, April 1980, p. 9.

47. Dean Jaensch, Getting Our Houses in Order. Australia's Parliament: how it works and the need for reform, Penguin, Ringwood, 1986, p. 172.

48. Thompson, Horne & Encel, op. cit., p. 9.

49. Kenneth Bradshaw & David Pring, Parliament & Congress, Quartet Books, London, 1973, pp. 81-2. See, for example, former Conservative Minister, Sir Ian Gilmour, Times (London), 22 April 1970.

50. Thompson, op. cit., pp. 105, 110-11.

51. A summary of Sumner's argument is reproduced in Parliament of New South Wales, The Joint Select Committee on Fixed Term Parliaments, Report on the Constitution (Fixed Term Parliaments) Special Provisions Bill 1991, December 1991, pp. 8-9.

52. Evans, op. cit.

53. See MR Egan (ALP), New South Wales, Legislative Council, Debates, 21 May 1993, p. 2555. Labor's support was tepid, however, and although the party recommended a YES vote, it did not actively campaign for it.

54. Financial Review, 10 April 2000.

55. Sydney Morning Herald, 24 January 2000.

56. Bob Hawke & Gareth Evans, Labor and Quality of Government, FPLP Task Force on Government Administration, 9 February 1983, p. 26.

57. Geoffrey Lindell, 'Fixed-term parliaments: the proposed demise of the early federal election', Australian Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 1, Autumn 1981, pp. 16-17.

58. McMillan, Storey & Evans, op. cit., p. 264.

59. ibid, pp. 265-6.

60. Sir Owen Dixon, Jesting Pilate And Other Papers and Addresses, Law Book Company, Melbourne, 1965, p. 107.

61. For a list of arguments against fixed terms, see Philip Ruddock, 'Australia: Fixed-term Parliaments debate', Parliamentarian, vol. 63, no. 4, October 1982, pp. 314-15.

62. M Tate, Senate, Debates, 12 October 1983, p. 1503; Professor Don Aitkin, Canberra Times, 6 July 1987.

63. Clune, op. cit.

64. D Hamer, Senate, Debates, 12 October 1983, p. 1507.

65. David Butler, 'Elections', Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Science, Blackwell, Oxford, 1991, p. 190.

66. John Uhr, 'Parliamentary Reform in Canberra', Australian Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 3, Spring 1982, p. 222; Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, The 1998 Federal Election, June 2000, 5.127, pp. 150-1.

67. The Constitutional Commission supported this scheme. See Final Report of the Constitutional Commission, 1988, vol. 1, pp. 195-210.

68. Queensland Constitutional Review Commission, Report on the Possible Reform of and Changes to The Acts and Laws that relate to the Queensland Constitution, February 2000, recommendation 5.2; Legislative Assembly of Queensland, op. cit., pp. 48-9.

69. Constitution (Duration of Parliament) Act 1984, ss. 4, 5, 7.

70. Constitution Act Amendment Act 1985, ss. 3, 4; see also Constitution Act 1934, s. 41.

71. Queensland Parliament, Legal, Constitutional and Administrative Review Committee, 'Four Year Parliamentary Terms', Background Paper, April 2000, p. 2.

72. Sunday Age, 9 June 1998.

73. Richard Alston, 'The No Case', in Brian Galligan & JR Nethercote (eds), The Constitutional Commission and the 1988 Referendums, Canberra, CRFFR and RAIPA, 1989, p. 88.

74. Ruddock, op. cit., p. 316.