Let's rethink three-year parliaments

Published June 15th 2005 in The New Zealand Herald
Twice in the past 38 years, New Zealanders have overwhelmingly rejected increasing the term of Parliament from three to four years. In a 1967 referendum, 68.1 per cent of those who voted opposed the notion; 69.3 per cent said the same thing in 1990. Promoting the idea of a four-year fixed term, as the Prime Minister set about doing yesterday, is, therefore, not a job for the faint-hearted. It does, however, have a merit that can no longer be easily dismissed.

The argument for extending the term boils down to the balance that must be struck between effective government and voter sovereignty. Quite obviously, a four-year tenure would diminish the electorate's opportunity to exercise a measure of control by passing judgment on a government after a relatively brief period. In a country possessing few constitutional checks on the power of the Executive, that represents a clear means of restraint.

It is understandable that public sentiment has been strong, given the low esteem in which politicians have long been held. Doctrines or devices that would make government less responsive to the electorate have been steadfastly and consistently opposed. And in 1990 voters had an extra score to settle, as a two-term Labour Government that had put little store in the very notion of responsiveness came to the end of its run.

That referendum was, therefore, hardly the ideal time for the public to cast an unjaundiced eye over the advantages claimed for an extended term. The probability, for example, that four years would give governments a more realistic timeframe to implement policies - and give voters more time to assess their outcome. The chance, also, that governments would break out of a cycle that sees their first year spent settling in, the second tackling a forest of legislation, and the third contaminated by short-term election expedience.

Another widely suggested advantage of a four-year term is that it would enhance business confidence by avoiding boom and bust economic policies which may coincide with the electoral cycle. Corporate New Zealand would find itself on the same, more secure footing as its counterparts in the United States and Europe, the vast majority of whom operate under four or five-year terms.

The argument is finely balanced. Indeed, those who voted in 1990 probably chose correctly. Some doubtless took heed of the 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System, which saw merit in a four-year term, but only if additional restraints were imposed on Executive power. The question now is whether the subsequent introduction of proportional representation has provided that very curb.

Much of the evidence is positive. Under MMP, voters have ensured that, so far at least, no party has been able to govern outright. Thus, governments have had not only to consult more widely but to accommodate a wider range of views. Equally, the new electoral system, after a faltering start, is demonstrating that it can promote the stable base promised by its advocates.

The Labour Party has, in the past, shown no enthusiasm for extending the parliamentary term. It opposed a further referendum when the 2001 MMP review committee chaired by Jonathan Hunt canvassed the issue. Helen Clark's statement suggests a change of tack. At the very least, she is right on one point: an extended term would have to incorporate a fixed election date. A four-year non-fixed term would be an abomination. The government would gain an extra year without accountability to the electorate, while retaining the prime minister's ability to call an early poll.

Many of the proclaimed advantages are undoubtedly somewhat speculative. Nonetheless, there is appeal in the potential for added stability and more considered, responsible and effective government policy. Our radically different electoral system should be the catalyst for a new referendum. And a more positive public response.