Four-year parliamentary terms

Front of Parliament House at Sunrise

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Opposition Leader Peter Dutton have recently expressed support for changing Australia’s 3-year parliamentary terms to 4 years, renewing public discussion on the merits of a longer electoral cycle. However, voters appear ambivalent on the proposal, with a recent Newspoll showing only 51% support for the idea with 37% against. This Flagpost article contextualises the current arrangements, identifies the arguments for and against longer terms, and summarises the processes for any change.

Why three years?

Among 186 nations with active legislatures, just over half have 5-year terms, and 40% have 4-year terms. Only 6 have 3-year terms (Australia, El Salvador, Mexico, Nauru, New Zealand and the Philippines) while Micronesia and the United States have 2-year terms.

Term lengths are not chosen in a vacuum; countries learn from each other and their own history. Britain had experienced parliaments as long as 20 years (from 1640 to 1660) before settling on 3-year terms in 1694. However, by 1716 this was deemed too short and 7-year terms were introduced. In 1911 this was again amended with the maximum term length lowered to 5 years.

Five-year terms spread to Australia via 19th century colonial governments, but all (barring Western Australia) had reduced the electoral cycle to three years by 1893. New Zealand likewise reduced its parliamentary term to 3 years in 1879. At Australia’s federation conventions, delegates from all states (except Western Australia) endorsed 3-year terms. 

Arguments for and against change

The prevailing view at Federation was that 3 years was the optimal term to create consistency with the existing colonial (now state) parliaments and had the advantage of being exactly half the length of the already-agreed 6-year Senate terms. It was also deemed short enough to foster scrutiny and government accountability—a question other countries with longer parliamentary cycles have since engaged with and debated.

The first point is now moot (as every State and Territory now has 4-year electoral cycles) and conversely the consistency argument would now support a change. Additionally, politicians and commentators have framed the current system as a 3-yearly loop: a year of post-election organisation and planning, a year of policy implementation, and a year of pre-election campaigning. Advocates for a 4-year cycle include former party leaders (Kim Beazley, John Howard and Bob Hawke) and the Business Council of Australia, as this would offer a further year for policy implementation. A further rationale attributes the Prime Ministerial instability of the 2010s to 3-year terms, although recent British events arguably contradict this. Arguments for retaining Australia’s three-year terms are generally more prosaic, in opposing either an extended 8-year senators’ term or requiring midterm half-Senate elections.

Referendum roadblock

Changing the length of the parliament requires support from a majority of Australians in a majority of states. While referendum success is notoriously difficult, proposals to change political processes have proven toughest of all. Even with notional bipartisan support for the current proposal, there is little evidence of widespread public approval, as the Newspoll noted in the introduction highlighted.

Of the various Prime Ministers, Opposition Leaders, and parliamentary committees to call for a referendum on term lengths, only Bob Hawke followed through. The proposal—one of four put at the 1988 referendum—failed to reach majority support in any state and received the second lowest ‘yes’ vote percentage in an Australian referendum.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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