Date published: 
24 July 2017
Media type: 
General public

24 July 2017


Topics: Four year parliamentary terms; same sex marriage plebiscite


Greg Hunt is the Minister for Health in the Turnbull Coalition Government, the Member for Flinders, and someone who has previously publically spoken about the need for reform of exactly this kind. Greg Hunt, good morning to you.


And good morning, Jon.


What sort of reform would you like to see?


Look, as Scott said today, it’s not a major priority for the Government. It is a possibility. It’s been raised actually by David Coleman, who’s a very, very capable Member for Banks in Sydney, he’s a Coalition federal member.

He’s put forward a draft proposal, and the real question here is whether the Australian public would like to see four year terms for Parliament.

I think John Howard raised this in 1998, so a while ago now, and was strongly supportive of the idea.

He referred to the fact that it’s a good idea to have a longer period of time to deal with medium and longer term issues, but these are ultimately questions for the Australian people. Have I talked about it before?

Yes, I actually included it both in my maiden speech, and a few years ago I wrote a public opinion piece saying that there is a good case for four year terms for giving us exactly the opportunity that John Howard referred to, of a longer period to deal with medium and the deep issues.

But at the moment, it’s not the priority and my focus is on things such as mental health and getting new drugs onto the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and working with the doctors and nurses.


Forgive me for my cheap quip, but it might even give your party and the Labor Party a chance to have two changes of leadership within one term, one parliamentary term, instead of only one.


Well, I’ll note that it’s a quip but I won’t forgive you.


I didn’t expect that, but still, couldn’t resist it. More seriously though, we constantly talk about short-termism as one of the biggest problems in Australian political life, we talk about the flip-flop nature of stop-start infrastructure and the like.

Surely this is one of the most important things that can be done to deal with that exact problem?


So it is very possible to do long-term work in a three year Parliament. The Howard point is that it is more likely, if you have less of a run-up to an election, to have the opportunity to embed long-term reform – infrastructure in particular is one.

I think what happened in Victoria, albeit under a four year term, I have to say, with the cancellation of the East West project was an example of short-termism trumping long-term infrastructure.

But infrastructure is important, and then, where there needs to be from the start of a parliamentary term a significant debate around a major change, where you have to for really good policy win community support, it does provide that opportunity.

Now, it’s perfectly possible to achieve, as we saw under the Howard era, significant reforms. The sorts of things that we’re doing with reforming the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and reforming the outcomes with our hospitals and mental health and medical research, all of these things are achievable, it’s just potentially more likely with a reasonable longer term, if that’s what the Australian people want.

It’s not about us, it’s ultimately only about what benefits the public and what the public would like.


So the next issue is what do you do about the Senate? And Professor Cheryl Saunders, constitutional law expert, was on AM this morning saying that it throws the Senate out of whack.

Do we really want senators, who are elected for two four year terms, as it happens, which means on one vote you get eight years in the job?


Well, they did put forward in 1988 a double question in a referendum, and that was four year terms but with one term of the Senate.

At the time, about 58 per cent of people supported four year terms, but because it brought the Senate into a single period of the House, it was overwhelmingly rejected. It got slightly less than one third of the vote.

So that question has been put to the public and categorically rejected, so I suspect that’s exactly what would happen again.

It’s a major change in the structure of the Parliament and the constitution, whereas a simple change to four year terms, with two terms of the House, would be far less intrusive and far more likely to win public support, on my very preliminary judgement. But again, it’s not the key issue here.

You can make good changes, the question is whether you could have better governance with a longer period of stability early on and the ability to take the public on the journey of long-term reform. That, again, going back to the Howard touchstone, would be the reason to do this.


Any interest at all in curtailing how long any one individual can stay in the Parliament? In other countries there are limits. For instance, the President of the United States can serve for two terms only, although you can be in the Senate or the Congress for life, and some people are.

But there’s a view in some jurisdictions, in particular in Europe, where you get into Parliament, or whatever body it is, you get in, you do something, and then you get out again.

Would you be, or anyone in Parliament, interested in saying, okay, you can go in for three terms and then that’s it, you can’t stay on and make a lifetime career of it?


Look it’s not something that I have supported, because there is a high turnover of members of Parliament. My understanding, but it would need to be checked, is that the average period of time is in the seven to eight year bracket.

I haven’t seen updated figures. That means there is a significant turnover. It’s good to have some longer term members of Parliament.


Sure, but it’s the seats that churn backwards and forwards, and then you’ve got safe seats where people can be there 20-30 years. How’s that good for democracy?


Yeah, but that’s actually quite unusual. You have some, but it’s a combination of experience, but with turnover. The voters are pretty quick, and the parties will also do this, to turf out somebody who’s an underperformer.

So I think that that combination of experience and turnover is a very strong feature of the Australian system. In the US, it seems to be that, particularly in the Senate, you will have people stay for a much longer period of time.

The natural Australian way is that they look for underperformers and the Australian public is rightly pretty canny and pretty quick to deal with anybody that they think’s cruising.


But it’s one of the problems. I mean I suppose what I’m driving, Greg Hunt, is that the idea of a professional political class is what many of us are now feeling is holding us back.

And in fact, instead if you got people who came from business, from the professions, from the academy, from universities and the like, if they were prepared to say: yeah, I’ll go in, I’ll give it a shot for a while and then I’ll get out and so does everybody else, you would transform our political system. You would completely change the way people go about contributing to political life.


Well that’s actually what happens with, I can certainly speak for the Liberal Party. We have people like Warren Entsch, who was a crocodile farmer, Jason Wood, who was a policeman, Sarah Henderson, who was an ABC journalist, dare I say.

You have people such as Malcolm Turnbull, from business, Andrew Robb, who come from business and politics. You’ve got so many people from different backgrounds.

Julia Banks, of course was very involved in business. Who may not necessarily have had a long term involvement in the party, they have been outside the party, or they have been operating in other areas. And then they’ve come in through a genuinely competitive pre-selection system.

So I think that is actually happening, certainly on our side, that you get diversity. There’s very much a union culture, I think, on the other side.

But the real question is, what are the priorities? And for me it’s mental health, it’s medical research, it’s making sure that people have access to doctors and to medicine.

This could provide, again going back to the Howard formula, the capacity for more chance at building a long term reform consensus within the community. And that’s the value of considering it.

It’s something which is worthwhile considering. It’s not a fundamental priority.


Alright, and I’m just about to have a chat to Lyle Shelton, from the Australian Catholic Lobby. The idea has been floated for a postal vote on same sex marriage. Just yes or no, Greg Hunt – you interested?


The plebiscite, absolutely, the form of it, I won’t speculate on. It’s well known I would vote in a plebiscite in favour of same sex marriage, but do I support a plebiscite as a national free vote? Absolutely. The form of it, I won’t speculate.


Alright, I’ll take that up and pursue it further with my next guest. Thank you indeed for your time this morning.


Thanks, Jon.


Greg Hunt, the Health Minister and Member for Flinders in the Turnbull Coalition Government.