The October election of an expanded Assembly is an opportune time to raise the question of the optimum length of service of politicians.
In the US, the idea of a job for life has been checked in a number of States by the application of Term Limits, whereby after a certain period the incumbent cannot stand for election again.
This is often three terms, say six years, although longer is not uncommon. These limits only apply in State, not Federal legislatures.
The argument is compelling if your running for office is to serve the community and your contribution diminishes the longer you stay, blocking younger candidates with fresh ideas. Perhaps lacking such selfless service the concept of limiting your time has not proven popular in Australia.
With four year terms for the ACT Assembly, three terms of twelve years would be ideal. This period would allow members to achieve (or not) their reason for seeking election because if you haven’t made it by then, you probably will not. The limit also would restrict time-servers and those being paid off for good and faithful party service.
The proposal could be challenged by those who see genuinely worthwhile members being tossed out before their time, however there are other factors that unhappily influence success.
Preselection committees can be wooed, cashed-up candidates can buy support and legends, particularly sporting, all can be chosen without thought about suitability for politics.
And then there are independents.
A popular independent cannot be replaced by another and while it can be argued the electorate ultimately will make the decision, a forced retirement would need legislative backing, especially as a loner may work harder to hold the seat than someone in a party team.
While term limits cannot only apply to major parties, they would benefit most.
They would overcome keeping people with internal party power too long in a parliament and could avoid bloody preselection fights which do harm. Problems certainly would arise if say, the Opposition leader’s time was up and victory was close, though no exception is made in this situation in the US. Also those stepping down might decide not to work or worse, push unpopular party policies because they had nothing to lose.
Nevertheless, turnover of politicians after a decent period of public service would not only rejuvenate politics but also give members an assurance they had a limited term before resuming normal life. This would overcome a difficulty of politicians staying too long and realising they have no alternative career ahead. They could confidently plan post-politics.
Criticism of such a proposal may not be as strong as is imagined because an examination of politicians’ periods in office does not usually extend much beyond twelve years anyway.
However, what is needed is a clear understanding backed by legislation that you are there to serve your constituents not yourself, thus cutting short those few who seek to make a career of their temporary position. The ACT Assembly would be a good place to start.