2016 elections: Are three-year parliamentary terms too short?

It’s been 12 years since Australia and the US headed to the polls at the same time; our parliamentary terms – three years in Australia and four in the US – mean that we seldom match up. Election Watch asks: is one system more conducive to good governance?

Federal elections in Australia must be held every three years while globally, 90 per cent of countries have four or five-year terms.

This statistical anomaly is a hangover from federation. And it's not likely to change any time soon. A 2004 report by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters recommended extending parliamentary terms to four years. Plus, calls to extend parliamentary terms have received bipartisan support. But parliament hasn’t acted.

Australia’s newest parliamentarian, Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman, used his maiden speech in parliament to criticise Australia’s three year parliamentary terms and advocate for four-year terms. It’s worth reflecting, he says, that “every 33 years out of every century are potentially lost to good governance.”

According to a dataset published by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the majority of national lower houses worldwide have either four or five-year terms. For example, out of 77 countries which have a bicameral (two chamber) parliamentary system (like Australia), 71 have either four or five-year terms, while only three, including Australia, have three-year terms.

Australia, Mexico and the Philippines are the only three countries that use a three-year lower house term in a bicameral (two-chamber) parliament. Australia’s three-year term has more in common with Britain’s 322-year-old Member of Parliament Act of 1694 – which established three-year terms – than it does with the UK’s current five-year terms updated in 1911.

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