Four-year terms are yet another petty distraction from the real issues

Here's one of the immutable laws of Australian political journalism.

Elections are meat and drink of this political class, only trumped by a leadership challenge in which blood is spilt in bucketloads.

  Opposition Leader Bill Shorten: pushing for four-year terms might be opportunist, but that doesn't mean it is a bad idea. Photo: AAP

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten: pushing for four-year terms might be opportunist, but that doesn't mean it is a bad idea. Photo: AAP

Thus, we should not be surprised that some of the stronger voices raised against proposed four-year fixed terms for the Australian lower house come from the media.

Reaching for an analogy, less frequent elections for members of the fourth estate would be akin to a housing market gone flat for real estate agents.

  Australia is in a tiny minority of countries with lower houses of Parliament that run fewer than four years (13 out of 148). 

Australia is in a tiny minority of countries with lower houses of Parliament that run fewer than four years (13 out of 148). 

Just because Bill Shorten has elected to push for four-year terms doesn't mean it's a bad idea, or ill-timed, even if the Opposition Leader is being opportunistic.

The same might be said about his attempts to revive debate about a republic, or skewer a hapless Turnbull government on the same-sex marriage issue.

I have no doubt that every second of the day, Shorten calibrates how best to wedge an opponent whose personal political preferences are at odds with his disaffected conservative ranks.

Before laying out the case for four-year fixed terms, it might be worth noting that Australians are fed up with endless debate about peripheral issues.

Having traversed 7000 kilometres from Victoria's southern extremities to far north Queensland talking to dozens of our fellow citizens for a book project, I can tell you the mood is sulphurous.

In all these conversations the issues that predominate have to do with jobs, healthcare (lack of doctors in remote areas), cost of travel (airlines operating from regional centres ripping off travellers), poor state of the roads, quality of water, the lack of it, and more broadly, failure to invest in the country's infrastructure.

No one has talked to me unprompted about marriage equality, or a republic, or any one of a multitude of identity politics issues.

These sentiments are borne out by polling conducted by JWS Research and available in its True Issues Quarterly. Its latest survey shows that hospitals and healthcare was the top issue (79 per cent) followed by education and training (58 per cent) and economy and finances (56 per cent).

Same-sex marriage was nominated as an area of concern by just 6 per cent of those polled.

If you want to understand why populism is on the rise in the guise of Hansonism and other such disaffected tendencies, these sorts of finding provide an explanation.

I lost count of people on my travels who said of Pauline Hanson: "She is saying what we think."

This brings us back to the issue of four-year fixed terms for the House of Representatives.

No one I have spoken to has nominated the frequency of elections as a particular concern, unless prompted. However, people are certainly fed up with the intrusion of politics into their lives.

A clear plurality of those interviewed shared the belief that elected leaders should "lead". In other words, leaders should not be afraid of tough decisions.

Under our febrile electoral system in which Australian parliaments run on average just more than two years, newly elected governments face enormous challenges putting in place policies, defending those policies, and securing re-election.

Election frequency mitigates difficult political decision-making.

No sooner have elections been held than campaigning for the next election gets under way in the knowledge that time is limited.

This is called a perpetual election cycle.

Reasonable arguments can be mounted that it is good for politicians to be kept on their toes by more frequent elections, but the counter – and for me more compelling – argument is that good public policy and a more stable, less fractious political environment would be better served by four-year terms.

Back in 2000, the Australian Parliamentary Library produced a useful paper – Four-year Terms for the House of Representatives – whose background research and conclusions remain contemporary.

It noted Australia was in a tiny minority of countries with lower houses of Parliament that ran fewer than four years (13 out of 148), and that in the frequency of elections it was virtually alone.

Unfortunately, on two separate occasions the Hawke government fudged the issue; first in 1984, when it failed to bring forward a maximum four-year term referendum, and then in 1988 when it confused things by including a reduction of Senate terms to four years in a proposed change along with provision for simultaneous elections, which had been defeated on three separate occasions.

Naysayers are no doubt correct that in a political environment in which confidence in politicians is at rock bottom, no referendum stands much chance of success. But this is not a reason to avoid discussion.

My preference is four-year fixed terms for the House of Representatives, allied with four-year Senates elected contemporaneously with the lower house.

This is a far from perfect solution, but it would have the virtue of reducing a Senate rabble's ability to stymie government legislation on which it had secured a mandate. That's called democracy, whether members of my business like it or not.