Queensland referendum result attacked as a victory for 'elite voices'

Clear majority vote for fixed four-year parliamentary terms in defiance of poll, but process decried as ‘woeful’

Queensland appears set to adopt longer terms of parliament after a referendum that one constitutional law expert branded a victory “by elite voices in a woeful process”.

A clear majority has emerged in favour after voters on Saturday were asked if the state parliament should move to fixed four-year terms instead of the current non-fixed three-year model.

The “yes” vote had a clear lead of 53.1% to 46.8%, with 48% already counted, according to the Queensland electoral commission on Sunday afternoon.

It is on track to be the first referendum to succeed in Queensland in more than a century, belying a Galaxy poll that last week predicted it would struggle with voters.

Voters in 72 of the state’s 89 seats were reportedly in favour of the longer and fixed terms, already in place in all other states and territories.

Both major parties, unions and the business lobby supported the change and the Queensland attorney general, Yvette D’Ath, and her opposition counterpart, Ian Walker, went on a joint tour last week to promote the “yes” vote.

Opponents of the change say Queensland lacks checks on executive power because it has no Senate or a bill of rights.

They attacked the framing of the referendum question as “tricky” because it wrapped a proposal for longer terms around the more popular one of fixed terms to end snap elections.

They also questioned the timing of the referendum with little warning on the same day as local government elections and no public funding for the “no” case.

The threat to call an early election made by the premier, Annastacia Palasczuk, this month might have convinced voters to back a proposal that would end snap elections, Walker told reporters.

“Ironically, I think that the Premier’s browbeating of people about a call to an early election actually turned the tables,” he said.

Walker later told Guardian Australia: “I was always hopeful we’d get it there but never confident and history was always against us.”

A University of Queensland constitutional law scholar, Graeme Orr, said the referendum was “won by elite voices in the absence of really any co-ordinated campaign for no, which is what they wanted”.

“And I can see why a lot of people would be probably even angrier than I am, particularly when they realise there’s not going to be a chance for the kind of even-handed reform – once you cede more power [to executive government] – unless there’s a major, major scandal,” Orr told Guardian Australia.

“On issues that people don’t have a great deal of information on, they take their cues from their leaders.

“And with the attorney general and the shadow attorney general barnstorming the east coast with taxpayer-funded flights and so on as well as support from the Courier Mail and so on, they’ve got it over the line.

“It’s been a pretty unfortunate process, the whole thing, particularly the way they ran two distinct questions together when they could have fixed terms through legislation.”

A Together union researcher, Scott Steel, said that the union’s polling indicated “60-70% wanting fixed terms [and] 60-70% wanting three-year terms”.

Orr said an opportunity for a debate around “providing some other more democratic checks and balances rather than just one vote every four years” – such as an upper house of legislative review – had been squandered.

Michael Cope, the president of the Queensland council for civil liberties, which opposed the change, said it was “dumped on people” without any public funding for those to run the no case.

One consolation from the result was that “clearly a large number of people didn’t do what their usual political party told them to do”.

Cope said the fixed four-year term of government could give impetus to a push for a human rights act as a check on executive power, as existed in Victoria and the ACT.

Currently before a parliamentary committee, the examination of a state human rights act was a precondition for the minority Labor government’s backing backing by independent speaker Peter Wellington.

Cope said: “While Labor has to keep Peter Wellington onside and perhaps even [newly independent MP] Rob Pyne, there might be more incentive to do something about it.”


Joshua Robertson with Australian Associated Press

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