Fixed state terms limit Federal options

23 September 2017


March has evolved as close to an annual election month in Australian politics.  In three of every four years, at least one state election is fixed for that month, though there can be more if some state’s Premier sees fit to send voters to the polls.

But this wasn’t always the case.  Four of six Australian states have fixed parliamentary terms, so we know when voters will go to the polls in those states.  It used to be that they could go to the polls at a time of their Premier’s choosing.  This remains the case in both Queensland and Tasmania, but the other states began fixing their parliamentary terms about two decades ago.

New South Wales went to fixed parliamentary terms during the 1990s.  Since then, fixed terms have come to South Australia and Victoria and Western Australia.  Also with fixed terms now are the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.  In each of these states and territories, parliamentary terms last four years.

As far as the month of March is concerned, it happens that only in leap years – when the prior month of February has twenty-nine days instead of twenty-eight – is there no fixed election date during March.  This was the case last year, which was a leap year.

In March this year, Western Australia went to the polls.  That state had last gone to the polls in March 2013, and will next go to the polls in March 2021.  Next year, March will be the election month in South Australia, which last went to the polls in March 2014, while March 2019 will be the election month in New South Wales, four years after its last poll in March 2015.

The other state with fixed terms, Victoria, next goes to the polls in November next year, with its last election having taken place in November 2014.  As for the two territories, their voters both went to the polls last year, and will next go to the polls in 2020.

At the moment, three states are due to hold elections in the next six months or so.  They are Queensland and South Australia and Tasmania.

While we know that South Australia will go to the polls in March next year, the Premiers of Queensland and Tasmania can call their state’s elections when they see fit.  It’s likely that Queenslanders will go to the polls first, as their state’s parliamentary terms last only three years and they last went to the polls in January 2015.  But there’s been speculation that they might go to the polls before the end of this year.  Tasmanians might well go to the polls in March next year, as their state’s parliamentary terms last four years, and indeed since 2006 they’ve gone to the polls on the same day as South Australians.

On a personal note, I pray that the Tasmanian Premier, Will Hodgman, somehow sees fit to send his state’s voters to the polls on a different date from when South Australians go to the polls – as an election tragic, it’s really annoying when two different states go to the polls on the same day, because you can’t be in two states at once!

In a sense, the many fixed state terms might have some sort of bearing on the next Federal election.  Although it’s not unprecedented for general election campaigns to take place at both state and national level at the same time, it doesn’t happen much.  And perhaps political leaders prefer to avoid such clashes.  The preference to avoid these clashes might therefore limit Federal options in terms of election dates.

The next Federal election is due before July 2019.  But the election date itself isn’t fixed, so when it comes is the Prime Minister’s call.  However, my feeling at this point is that the election will happen either between August and October next year, or around April and May in 2019.  These periods are outside any state election campaign periods, so there won’t be too much of a national-state clash, if there is one.

Although the popularity of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the Coalition has been low since the last election, I’m not sure what effect this has on the election date.  I think that, even if the Coalition continues to lag in the polls, Turnbull won’t lose his job before the election.  He’s clearly not the popular figure that he’d long been before, but there’s no clear alternative to him waiting in the wings.

In that respect, I can’t believe that some people keep talking about bringing back Tony Abbott, whom Turnbull defeated in a leadership challenge around this time two years ago.  Abbott might’ve led the Coalition to an election win in 2013, but he was never popular, winning largely due to the unpopularity of the Labor Party, and as Prime Minister he annoyed and scared the voters immensely.

Although Turnbull narrowly won the last election, in 2016, I suspect that if Abbott had still been leading after September 2015, Labor would’ve won.  Voters won’t tolerate an Abbott return under any circumstances.

The next Federal election might well happen around this time next year, if not six or seven months after that time.  The potential clash of state campaigns makes those options for a Federal poll look more realistic.



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