Friday, December 11, 2009

Power To The People

The push to introduce recall elections in New South Wales is gaining momentum, in part propelled by the Sydney Morning Herald running a petition, but mostly because people are increasingly fed up with the frustration of being lumbered with a government they see as incompetent and introspective. The idea was put forward by opposition leader Barry O’Farrell early this year and he has been promoting it at every opportunity since. Of course, if we already had such an option available he would be the beneficiary because on current opinion poll figures he would win any such election.

Currently, there are very few options for getting rid of a poorly performing government. The governor really cannot do anything unless the government does something which is illegal or unconstitutional. That leaves the parliament itself to pass a no confidence motion in the lower house which would require the governor to then dissolve the parliament and open the way for an election. Since the government has rock solid control of the lower house that would amount to sacking themselves, and that is just not going to happen. It is because of this state of affairs that a recall election seems like such an appealing idea.

It is a process which already exists in other parts of the world, most famously in California where it was a recall election which saw Arnold Schwartzenegger take office in 2003. It also exists in the Canadian province of British Columbia, which has a similar system of government to our own. A recall election process simply allows ordinary citizens to sign a petition for an election on the grounds that the government is not meeting performance standards. If enough signatures are collected, an election is called. It’s power to the people in the most direct and democratic manner.

Of course, it is important how performance standards are defined, and how many signatures are required, so that we are not running off to elections at the drop of a hat, but the overseas experience shows that the system can work well. While our experiment with fixed four year terms has been disappointing, a recall election mechanism would provide an escape clause which would help to ensure that governments maintain standards throughout their term. It doesn’t mean that the fixed terms would be superseded, just made to work better.

Barry O’Farrell is promising to call the required referendum to introduce recall elections should he become Premier in 2011. Ironically, that means that while the current government will stubbornly serve out its fixed four year term, Mr. O’Farrell would himself be subject to the provisions of any such recall election law. It would mean that his government, and all successive governments, will be subject to a higher level of accountability and that can only be a good thing. It is more power to the people, and that is something that politicians very rarely give away.

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