I’m not at all sure why there’s so much upset at the government’s proposal for a fixed term five year parliament, with an option to dissolve parliament if 55 per cent of the House agrees.
I’m not a constitutional expert, but I’ve been thinking about it for a few days and I think on the face of the proposal as presented, this is a good thing. If anything, this gives Parliament more constitutional power, a power which they, as our democratically elected representatives, never had before.
The five year fixed term ties the Prime Minister’s hands to stop them calling an election on a whim or whenever the polls appear to be in their favour.
Similarly, the 55 per cent dissolution proposal makes it more difficult for the PM to call an election. A proposal that moves power away from the PM to Parliament is a good thing.
Currently all the house needs for a vote of No Confidence is a 50 per cent plus one MP vote. A no confidence scenario means the sitting Prime Minister has the opportunity to form a new government to present to the monarch. If in the unlikely event that no suitable replacement government can be formed then in extremis the monarch can dissolve Parliament. This constitutional safety valve remains.
There is an argument to be had that 55 per cent is too high a bar, especially given that it’s at such a level that on first look it seems contrived to protect the sitting coalition government. However, I don’t think calling for dissolution should be too easy. Democracy isn’t served well by a government having to defend frequent malicious and frivolous challenges. Much of the objection to the 55 rule also seems to ignore two possibilities: that government backbenchers always agree with their own party; and that under a possible future proportional representation electoral model, the make up of Parliament may look very different.
The new 5-55 proposals also represent a radical constitutional move from a governmental system still infected with the relics of feudalism, to constitutional rules written for Parliament and the citizenry. This would be a protection for Parliament that cuts down the gentleman’s club horse trading and reduces the constitutional role of the monarch, who nominally enacts power in the name of a god.
The debate shines a harsh cold light on the key weakness of our constitution – it’s unwritten. A constitution based upon interpretation of precedent, tradition and godly favour is as credible as rune casting and out of place in a modern democracy. It would be very much better if the 5-55 changes formed a part of a larger project – a fully written constitution which described the powers and limits of Parliament and the Prime Minister.
For that we need a public debate on how we would like our democratic system modernised, and a Parliament without a party majority offers an opportunity for electors to lobby their MPs to move for a constitutional revolution.