Friday, December 16, 2011

Recalling the Debate

Labor's defeat at the last election was one of the most comprehensive in NSW's history.

The anger and resentment had built up to such a degree that various people spoke of Labor being all but "wiped out" at the election,

It is at times like that, when a government has clearly been roundly condemned by a population well before an election, that fixed terms really grate.  Of course, had there not been fixed terms, there is no way that a Labor Premier would have called an election, so the fixed term question was moot.

The only way a population can successfully demand an election is through recall. And, Barry O'Farrell was quick, in Labor's final years, to promise to investigate the possibility of NSW constitutional change to allow recall elections.

I've written about that promise here.

Three constitutional experts were gathered and tasked with putting together a report on the feasibility of recall elections in NSW, and their report was publically released earlier this week. It can be found here.

The report is some 150 pages long, and is quite detailed.  That said, it is very readable, and worth spending some time looking through if you are interested.

You'll notice the date.  It is clear that the report was completed some time ago, but was not released to the public until an enquiry by the Herald.  That may give you some clue as to what the Coalition government intends doing with it.

The report spends some time looking at NSW's history as a democracy, and then has a detailed look at the history of recall elections in other jurisdictions.  It also provides a fascinating account of the recent Wisconsin and California recall experience.

It also spends some time looking at the way that MLC's and MLA's can be dismissed from service.

The report's conclusions are the most interesting part of the report, and it is here that I was to focus my attention for the moment.

The first conlusion reached by the panel is there is little point in recall elections for specific MLA's or MLC's.  It is rare that an electorate's dissatisfaction with a local member could be sufficient to justify the recalling on that member excepting in circumstances where ICAC or the parliament's disciplinary bodies could adequately deal with the issue.

Given the nature of our party representation, it is also difficult to envisage how such a move could have any practical effect except in a knife-edge hung parliament.

At the upper house, additionally, there is substantial risk of any such provision being misused by a ruling party to "whittle down" minor party representation.

This is not an unusual position - many of the recall election provisions in other jurisdictions relate to democratic systems with a powerful executive, and the recall is usually for the Governor or President him or herself.

In the Westminster system, where the Premier is simply the member of the lower house who can command the house's confidence, any such provision would not really make a lot of sense.

On the other hand, the panel favoured the introduction of recall elections for the entire Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council. The model proposed is as follows:

- A recall election petition can be commenced through the lodging, by 500 person eligible to vote, of a petition.
- The petition cannot be lodged less than 18 months after the last election.  If a recall election is to be called, all procedural steps must have been taken place no less than 6 months before the next election.
- There is no need for there to be any particular reason for the petition.
- "Signtures" can then be collected online (with telephone and mail options) for a period of 60 days.
- For the petition to be successful, 35% of eligible voters will need to sign it, as well as 5% from every electorate.
- If sufficient signatures are collected then a recall election will be held in conjunction with a new election. In other words, the electors will cast one vote for whether the government should be recalled, another vote for who should be their local representative, and another upper house vote in the usual fasion.  Of course the second and third votes only come into play if the first vote is successful.
- Only those MLC's whose term was due to expire at the next election are forced to re-contest.

On the whole, the proposal seems like a sensible one. For me, the only concern as far as the model goes is the 35% figure.

It is an extraordinarily large number.As of the 2011 election, there were 4 635 810 people on the electoral roll in NSW.  This means that the petition would need 1 622 533 signatures.  By way of comparison, in 2011 a total of over just 1 900 000 chose the LNP as their first preference in the upper house.
Taken from the NSW Electroal Commission Website
Given the scale of the blowout in the last election, that must give anyone planning any such petition concern.  The number is even more daunting when you consider that a significant proportion of that 1 900 000 would have chosen the LNP as a default, because they were told to or because it was the only party the knew.  How many of those people would go to the trouble to sign a petition?

When one considers how difficult it can be to get Australians interested enough in politics to actually do something, I have serious doubts as to whetherthe 35% mark could ever be reached.

In any event, reading the report has only strengthened my view that George Williams' reticence about recall elections is entirely justified

At the end of the report, each of the 3 panel members wrote a few pages explaining why they have come to the view they have.  Mr William's view is that the cons (specifically, the effect on long-term decision making, the insurmountable practical difficulties, the susceptability of recall elections to overtly strategic purposes and the fall-off in public demand) mean that the change should not be made.

The other concern I would add to that is that of a perpetual campaign.  It is good and proper that an opposition hold a government to account by enthusiastically and forcefully seeking to demonstrate the government's failings.

What is undesireable is what he have seen Federally over the last year.  Federal Labor's tenuous hold on power has encouraged the Coalition to not cease campaigning after the last election. If there was the real prospect of a recall election, one shudders to think of way that an opposition could contantly seek to stoke the fires of dissatisfaction.

I think that it is better that a party be able to rule "in peace" for a period of time and implement their agenda without worrying that the rug might get pulled out for under them at 60 days notice.

If anything, I would far prefer that the 4 year term be reduced to 3 years.  That would, in my view, make it far more likely that a "bad" government would be turfed out before things got too bad.

It remains to be seen whether the O'Farrell government will take the steps needed to introduce a referendum on recall elections.  It may well be that his failute to release the report before now suggests that he has no intention of doing so.

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