Fixed Terms Made A Farce Of Victorian Politics

It’s true that on Saturday the Coalition government became the first one-term Victorian government in more than half a century.

But it’s also true that the Coalition was the first government to form under the new constitutional arrangements – the four-year fixed-term system.

The fixed term nurtured Ted Baillieu’s instinctive lethargy. It created an environment in which it was plausible to roll a premier two years into their first term. And it led to the constitutional crisis that prevented Denis Napthine from regaining any sense of movement.

The Victorian election has already been raked over for its federal implications. Denis Napthine tried to run an ‘ideology-free’ government. As my Institute of Public Affairs colleague James Paterson writes in The Age today, “the risk-averse, moderate, cautious approach to politics favoured by state Liberals is no guarantee of re-election”.

Institutions matter. All this happened under the shadow of the new fixed term.

In 2003, the Labor government under Steve Bracks introduced fixed terms as part of a broader suite of constitutional changes. The idea was to facilitate long-term thinking and allow governments to get on with governing.

The flip side is that long fixed terms reduce any sense of urgency.

Nobody expected Baillieu to win in 2010. When the Coalition got into office, there was no agenda ready to go, and no eagerness from the premier to push ahead. The ‘star chamber’ vetting process for ministerial staff meant that it was months before offices were even working at full capacity.

One line was the Coalition had “hit the ground walking”.

Of course, fixed terms aren’t unique to Victoria. They’ve done nothing to limit the popularity of the New South Wales Coalition Government.

But government is a marathon. It needs pacing. Faced with a new and unfamiliar electoral cycle, the Victorian Coalition got the pacing badly wrong.

The fixed term also played a role in the March 2013 leadership change from Ted Baillieu to Denis Napthine.

That spill was remarkable because it came so shortly after the spill of Kevin Rudd, which was being seen by almost all participants as an unmitigated disaster.

With that unhappy precedent, the spill in Victoria was only plausible because of the newly extenuated parliamentary terms.

Julia Gillard became prime minister on the cusp of an election. By contrast, Napthine had years to run as premier. A four-year term gives ample time to reset and rebuild a government.

Yet ultimately the Victorian Liberals made the same mistake as did Labor federally – a sudden change in government leader without explanation.

Which brings us to Geoff Shaw, the former Liberal member for Frankston. 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. (Incidentally, that tiny margin was the defence Baillieu supporters offered for the early-term go-slow strategy.)

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.

The only way for an election to be held early was if Labor introduced a motion of no confidence in the government. (Antony Green outlines the procedure here.) At one stage Shaw was willing to support such a vote, giving it the majority needed.

Daniel Andrews didn’t want an early election. The worse the Parliament looked, the better it was for Labor when the election was held at its regularly scheduled time.

Instead, we were treated to an obscene and undemocratic debate about whether Parliament should expel or just suspend Shaw, a legitimately elected representative.

It looked terrible.

Every budding reformer has their own pet change they’d like to make to Australia’s political system. Perhaps they’d like elections to be run differently, or restructure the levels of government, or ‘get money out of politics’, or change the preferential voting system, or fiddle with upper houses.

Fixed terms were one of those reforms. Only a few months after it was introduced in Victoria, Steve Bracks was urging the Commonwealth to follow his state’s lead.

But it would be hard to see that fixed terms had delivered the sort of long-term thinking that its supporters prophesised.

Rather, it left Victoria with a sluggish government, encouraged a leadership spill, and turned a tight parliament into a farcical parliament.

There’s another sense in which the Coalition loss on the weekend isn’t that strange. The journalist Paul Austin pointed out in 2007 that a premier who lasted two terms would now expect to be in power for eight years (assuming they were not rolled in the meantime). While most Victorian governments have lasted longer than a single term, few lasted as long as eight years. Jeff Kennett only managed seven.

The fixed term isn’t the reason Denis Napthine lost. But it’s impossible to understand why they lost without understanding how it shaped the Coalition’s time in power.