Friday, March 13, 2009

Let The People Decide

It should come as no surprise that Barry O’Farrell has hatched a plan to allow voters to dump an unpopular government before the expiry of its allotted term. The Leader of the New South Wales Opposition has expressed his frustration many times that the present government is locked into its fixed four year term regardless of how many bad decisions it might make. More importantly he is not the only one. Many constituents share the same frustration over being powerless to remove a government which cannot deliver on its own promises to build railways, run hospitals and repair schools. Just how many people feel this way is difficult to tell, but if Mr. O’Farrell’s proposal were to be adopted we would soon find out.

The purpose of fixed four year terms is to provide stability of government and a framework for long term strategic planning with the distraction of a shorter election cycle. That’s all very well so long as there is a government which is functioning smoothly, meeting its obligations and delivering on its promises. But what happens when a government ceases to function smoothly, fails to meet its obligations and appears incapable or delivering anything? It’s an important question because many people believe that such a scenario has already arrived.

At present there is no mechanism to remove a sitting government before the end of its term without that government effectively sacking itself. Barry O’Farrell has explained to me that there is no constitutional reserve power held by the State Governor to dismiss a government as Governor General John Kerr did with the Federal Government in 1975. More importantly, he doesn’t see it as appropriate that there should be either. He believes the office of Governor should remain non-political. Instead, his plan is to amend the constitution of the state to give that power to the people.

The mechanism to trigger what is known as a “recall election” exists in many states in the United States of America, and was most famously used when Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor of California. Mr. O’Farrell proposes that a similar mechanism should be created here allowing ordinary citizens to bring about an election should sufficient signatures of enrolled voters be collected in a specified period of time. If the required threshold was high enough, and other safeguards to prevent manipulation were imposed, this method would at least provide a measure of last recourse to make it possible to act against a dysfunctional government without resorting to outright rebellion.

It’s a matter worthy of debate because if the mechanism was available it would be possible to truly test the mood of the people. Instead of whinging about the government, people could actually do something about it. In such circumstances I wonder how many actually would. Either way, it is in the best interests of healthy democracy to have some form of mechanism available to dispose of a rancid government without staging a revolution. Barry O’Farrell’s proposal is one way to achieve that, and is a system which has been demonstrated to work effectively elsewhere.

Of course, there is a certain irony to the fact that Barry plans to introduce the necessary referendum after his first four year term of office.

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