Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Total Recall

*There are no pictures in this post - just a whole lot of text.  Blogger has decided that today I am not allowed to post pictures, most likely to punish me for some perceived slight.  I apologise if it makes the post hard going*

Recall elections are back on the agenda in NSW.

The issue was first highlighted by the then Coalition Opposition in 2009, in what was no doubt an attempt to capitalise on the anger the NSW public felt about the Labor government.

Shortly after Kristina Keneally ascended to the Premier's seat, having disposed of Nathan Rees, Barry O'Farrell wrote the following on the NSW Liberal website:

Earlier this year I announced that a NSW Liberals & Nationals Government would examine the option of 'recall' elections for NSW… It increases accountability, offer a safeguard against political abuse by government and can help restore confidence back into the political system… The idea of being forced to an election by the community would provide Government - even this NSW Labor Government - with the incentive to perform throughout the entire four-year term and not just in the months leading up to an election.

He also promised, if elected, to put together a panel of "experts" to advise on how a recall election might work in NSW.

That panel was announced on Monday (20 June 2011).  Barry O'Farrell answered a dixer on Monday, selling the changers as being a "safety valve to rid voters of corrupt, incompetent governments".

Broadly speaking, a recall election is an election to decide whether a government or an elected official should be recalled.  Most jurisdictions that have recall elections require that a petition be presented with a particular number of signatures.

If this is accomplished, a special election is then held where a majority can "recall'" the government or official.  In some cases, a new election is run in conjunction with the recall election, where voters first vote whether to recall, and then also vote who the successor should be.

The call for recall elections gained further traction in late 2009 after the Herald launched a campaign to have a referendum alongside the 2011 election to introduce recall elections in conjunction with the 2011 election.

Naturally O'Farrell backed the petition, and whilst Kristina Keneally "supported a debate", the campaign never really got anywhere.

The issue has been brought back to the forefront with the Coalition announcement this week that a panel has been appointed to discuss the possibility of a change.  

According to this posting on the Liberal website, the panel will be chaired by David Jackson QC, and will include Professor George Williams and Dr Elaine Thompson.

It is worth noting, to the Coalition's credit, that not only has Professor Williams written previously that he is "sceptical about its merits" of recall election, but he has also unsuccessfully stood for Labor preselection for the federal ACT seat of Fraser.

There can be no suggestion that O'Farrell is stacking the deck in his favour.

Of course, another reading might be that he is hoping that the panel suggests that recall elections are not such a good idea after all, meaning he can shelve the idea.

It is right that very careful attention be given to the question of recall elections. The issue is not a simple one.

There is a major difference between the American states and jurisdictions that have recall elections and NSW.  Most of those jurisdictions have something quite different from the Westminster system that operates in NSW.

In the US, the President/Governor is not a member of the lower house.  As was clearly demonstrated at the Federal level last year, in Australia the Prime Minister/Premier is a member of the lower house, chosen by a majority of the members of that house.

In the US, the President/Governor is elected in what essentially amounts to an election held in parallel with the lower house.

In a federal election, a US voter therefore would usually vote for a local lower house representative, a statewide senate representative and a Presidential candidate.

The result is that the President may have a "hostile" lower house - where the opposition party commands a majority in the lower house. As of the 2010 mid-term elections, the US President is Democrat Barack Obama, the lower house was a Republican Majority (242 seats to 193) and the Upper House was a Democrat Majority (53 seats to 47).

It's messy, but for the most part it's effective.

Coming back to recall elections - as best I am able to tell, most if not all of the US jurisdictions that allow recall elections (and it should be noted that this does not include the federal jurisdiction) allow only for the recall of the head of the executive (for example, the Governor or Mayor) - not of the entire legislature.

This would clearly make no sense in NSW - we would need to be able to recall the government as a whole. According to Wikipedia, several Swiss cantons provide for the recall of the legislature, but I'm not aware of any other jurisdiction that have a similar provision.

In O'Farrell's response to the dixer on Monday, he said that the recall provisions he has in mind "could, and would, trigger an early general State election" suggesting that he has a full government recall in mind.

Of course these details are precisely what the panel will be tasked with investigating, and it will be interesting to see what their conclusions are, and especially whether it will be an election for both houses, and what effect this will have on the fixed terms system we have in place.

In NSW we have had 4 year fixed terms for governments since a referendum in 1995.  This change was made, at least in part, due to the frequency of elections in the years preceding.

This change made sense.  It does not seem equitable that a government can call an election at the time that suits them best - the timing of an election should not rest in the hands of one party.

The benefit of a fixed term is that the ruling party has time to implement an agenda.  A long-standing criticism of governance in NSW has been the short-term vision - few things that do not have a payoff within the election cycle were getting done.

Often there are changes a newly elected party wants to make that they know will take some time to "bed in". Further, a government deserves the opportunity to get stuff done for a while without the ever-present threat of an election hanging over its head.

If a party knows that if they make any change that is politically sensitive then they may be subject to a recall, it seems likely that we will see even more middle of the road, hum-drum, focus group pleasing policy, and none of the decisive, aggressive decision making that we really need in NSW.

This is why the suggestion by George Williams that a minimum term of incumbency be required before a recall makes sense.  He suggests three years, although what he doesn't address is the other side of that argument - if an election is due within a year anyway, would there be much point in the expense of a recall?

The number of electors required to sign a petition would also need to be carefully considered.  Many other electorates mandate a percentage of people who voted in the last election, although any NSW change would have to consider compulsory voting in NSW and the resulting increase in people who vote but would have zero interest in any petition to recall a government.

Finally, consideration would need to be given to whether the legislation should specify the circumstances in which a recall is appropriate.  There are several jurisdictions in the US that specify circumstances in which a recall would be allowable.

These issues are not insurmountable, but nonetheless my view is that recall elections would not benefit NSW as whole.

I am concerned about the prospect of a recall paralysing a government - nothing risky, nothing that might upset too many people, nothing showing real vision for the state.

Now, more than ever, we need bold, forward looking leaders.  Leaders willing to look beyond a 4 year election cycle and look at what is good for NSW in the long term.

They need the freedom to introduce things that may not be immediately popular if they believe that the electorate will see the benefit over time.

Without that freedom, we risk a legislature even more focussed on holding onto power at all costs, to the detriment of everyone.

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