To me, the beauty of the American political system is in its enforced renewal. Every two years, the populist House has to be re-mandated. It is this very nature that makes it populist. Meanwhile, their ultimate leader and national figurehead, the President, gets a little longer, but is not allowed to stick around for more than eight years, lest he (not yet a she) start to get ideas above his station, and become a little too attached to the trappings of office.
There aren’t many other Western political systems that have such rigorous time and term limits on everything. The rest of us, especially Westminster inspired systems, have a lot more flexibility regarding the calling of elections. And that’s where the problem begins.
Take Australia. In January, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd looked in an extremely powerful position. The opposition had just replaced its leader, in a fractious contest that split the party down the middle. His personal approval ratings were sky high. The opposition controlled Senate had just blocked a key plank of his legislation – environmental regulation – for the second time. This opened the door for Rudd to engage in some constitutional jiggery-pokery: a “double dissolution” election, which, most probably, would have resulted in a sweeping Labour victory in both chambers of the Parliament.
Instead, he decides to tough it out. And then sees everything go wrong, getting chucked out and replaced by Julia Gillard.
Julia Gillard doesn’t want to repeat Rudd’s mistake. While the polls see her arrival as positive, and the Labor Party improves its standing, she decides to seize upon the honeymoon and go straight to that election. The net result: Labor on the brink, courtesy of a terrible, back-biting campaign, and an opposition that had had eight months to prepare for this very moment.
Then there’s Gordon Brown: clinging on by his fingernails till the very last moment. If only he’d gone straight away, like so many commentators (including me) thought he should. His first job, after accepting the invitation of the Queen to be the Prime Minister, should have been to say, “And now I’d like an election to mandate this change”. He didn’t. He didn’t want to be one of the shortest ever PMs. And yet all the omens were good for them. Tories still not ready. Old election boundaries. Honeymoon period. The rest is history.
Recent evidence seems to be that politicians are not very good at choosing the timing of elections. They either worry that they’re about to sign their own death warrant, or are hopelessly optimistic about what’s lurking around the corner.
Since we should only trust politicians as much as is necessary, we should do them all a favour and back the idea of fixed election dates. Let’s take the stress off them, and in return, remove a major element of political fiddling from the system.
Though I still think five years is too long…