• "How can a “people’s house” be so unrepresentative of the very people it represents?" (AAP)
Is a two-term limit for all politicians the key to actually having a working government?
By
Sunil Badami

4 Aug 2016 - 11:40 AM  UPDATED 4 Aug 2016 - 11:40 AM

It’s amazing to think that the nation went to an election in one of Australian political history’s longest campaigns way back in May.

Four months later, the Senate is still being counted and the Government is due to challenge Labor’s razor-thin 37 vote majority in the recently declared Queensland seat of Herbert to protect its own barely workable one seat majority.

It makes you wonder, when will we finally have a working Government?

Still, given the dysfunction of the last five Governments we’ve had in the last nine years, you might ask: what can we do to fix a system that’s clearly not working?

Liberal backbencher David Coleman has an idea, calling for fixed four year Federal terms, in line with States like Queensland and NSW. Coleman argues that they’ll offer more certainty to electors, consumers and business before an election; offering more capacity to implement policy, rather than in our currently very short Federal parliamentary term; and increasing transparency, rather than leaving the election date to the sole discretion of the Prime Minister and his cabinet.

What can we do to fix a system that’s clearly not working?

But what about if, as well as implementing fixed terms, like the US, we also imposed term limits of two consecutive terms – not just on Prime Ministers, but all MPs?

There are many talented, dedicated serving MPs, and most of those are ministers, responsible for complicated and important portfolios and implemented many important and long-lasting reforms (as well as a number, some might argue, not very well suited to their ministries at all).

And while many MPs will admit – after declaring their loyalty to their leader, of course – that they nurse higher ambitions, most will languish on the backbenches for most, if not all, of their political careers.

Some, like Russell Broadbent, might be there because they take principled stands at odds with their party’s position on certain issues which they’d have to support and prosecute as ministers.

Some, like Eric Abetz, Kevin Andrews or Wayne Swan, may have enjoyed ministerial responsibilities in the past, but while they may be hanging on for a more sympathetic leader to return them to cabinet, their ministerial careers are basically over.

And what of MPs like Bronwyn Bishop or Wilson Tuckey, who held their seats for decades, and when they were given positions of responsibility, made such hashes of them, were quickly forced to resign?

As Malcolm Turnbull’s current difficulties with vocal, querulous MPs reveal, being on the backbench doesn’t necessarily mean you’re without influence, but what do MPs like Anthony Byrne, Ross Vasta, Maria Vamvakiou, Jason Wood or Steve Georganas expect to happen to their careers or influence after more than a decade on the backbenches?

Why should those untalented enough or incapable of achieving anything substantial hang on when – as many preselections prove – there are so many Australians willing and able to step up and have a go too?

Over 97 per cent of MPs on all sides of politics are from the law, business, or politics itself, having campaigned as student politicians and working as staffers or union delegates before becoming MPs, even though less than half of the rest of us work in those professions.

Before the 2010 election, economist and commentator Jessica Irvine did a survey of the first and then-current Parliaments, revealing that just a smidge over a third of our first Federal MPs were lawyers or politicians, with the rest labourers, journalists, farmers, a clergyman, a doctor, a tinsmith, a carpenter, a butcher, a market gardener, and two hat makers.

Now, over 97 per cent of MPs on all sides of politics are from the law, business, or politics itself, having campaigned as student politicians and working as staffers or union delegates before becoming MPs, even though less than half of the rest of us work in those professions.

How can a “people’s house” be so unrepresentative of the very people it represents? It perhaps explains why, in the echo chamber of Canberra, politicians and the press gallery can be so out of touch with the reality the rest of us face.

And it also perhaps explains why “ordinary” candidates like Jacqui Lambie, Ricky Muir or even serial candidate Pauline Hanson attract such interest and devotion among their constituents and an electorate looking for plain speaking, not sound bites, for authenticity, not political spin and focus groupthink, for real, ordinary people like us.

And although Lamby has had her moments of madness, such as calling for burqa bans, she’s been a much more vocal representative of her constituents and their concerns than grandstanders like Cory Bernardi. Even Muir, mocked before taking his seat for his miniscule vote and poo-throwing antics, proved himself thoughtful and decent on a number of issues.

It would ensure more of us could not only be more involved in the decisions that affect all our lives, but identify more closely with those who do get the chance to represent us.

If there two term limits, it might ensure that more of us might get an opportunity to represent our communities, rather than the closed shop duopoly of “Laboral” politics, in which only those who’ve curried favour or wield influence get to pull the levers of power. It would clear out those only there because of their machinations or connections, and continually refresh politics with new ideas and fresh perspectives.

And it would ensure more of us could not only be more involved in the decisions that affect all our lives, but identify more closely with those who do get the chance to represent us.

But what about capable ministers and leaders like Anthony Albanese, Tanya Plibersek, Julie Bishop or Ken Wyatt? Much less popular independents like Andrew Wilkie or Cathy McGowan?

What would two term limits mean for such talented and experienced people? Well, if it was based on two consecutive terms, it might give them an opportunity to spend some time to spend all that time with their families many resigning pollies say they crave, as well as a spell in the real world with the rest of us, learning what it’s like outside the goldfish bowl of politics.

But surely two-term limits would result in a churn of candidates, and result in a lowering of quality? In comparison to whom? Bernardi? George Christensen? Joe Bullock? Ian Goodenough? Jamie Briggs?

If a week’s a long time in politics, then two four year terms are an eternity.

Especially given the rate we’re getting through Prime Ministers at the moment.

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