Analysis by Bryce Edwards.
Should we give more power to the politicians so that they can get things done? It’s an increasingly popular idea in New Zealand that we should hold elections every four years, rather than three, so Governments can implement more change.
This week the Act Party gave the idea another push with the release last Saturday of their “Democracy Policy”, which ironically suggests that democratic elections shouldn’t occur so often. For party leader David Seymour, as with other proponents of extending the parliamentary term, it’s all about improving law-making by politicians, and he’s now drafting a private member’s bill to achieve this – see Dan Satherley’s David Seymour wants four-year parliamentary terms, but with a catch.
Politician support for an extension
If Seymour’s bill gets considered there’s a good chance of it succeeding, because nearly all the party leaders in Parliament agree with him, and there are strong signs that the public do too.
The idea got a major push during last year’s election campaign, when party leaders from (then) all five parliamentary parties came out in favour of a change during the televised leaders debates.
Then, with the formation of the new Government, Labour promised the Greens that it would progress the issue (along with other electoral issues) as part of their governing “confidence agreement”. What’s more, Kris Faafoi, the new Minister of Justice, has indicated that he is aiming to hold a referendum in 2023 on the topic, so as to implement the electoral change. In contrast, his predecessor Andrew Little was not keen on the idea.
The notion of extending the parliamentary term has been around for quite a while, and resurfaces from time to time. Most notably, there was a major public debate back in 2013 – which I covered at the time in this roundup column: Democracy vs governing: A 4-year term?. Back then, too, the politicians seemed united in favour of having longer in power.
Then in 2019, a significant report on reforming Parliament was published by Victoria University of Wellington researchers in conjunction with Parliament’s Office of the Clerk, proposing a package of changes of which extending the parliamentary term was the most notable – you can read the report here: Foresight, insight and oversight: Enhancing long-term governance through better parliamentary scrutiny. And I rounded up the reactions to this in another column: How to achieve transformational change in politics.
The public has twice been given official votes on the issue – with referendums held on whether to shift to a four-year term in 1967 and 1990. Both times, the public overwhelmingly rejected the idea. The opposing vote was 68 percent in 1967, and 69 percent in 1990.
More recent polling suggests that the tide has turned. In November a poll by Research New Zealand showed that an extension to four years was supported by 61 per cent, with only 25 per cent in opposition – see RNZ’s Support growing for four-year parliamentary term, poll shows. And support for the change seemed to increase with a person’s age.
Electoral Law professor Andrew Geddis is cited in this story, explaining why he thinks support for a longer term has grown: “New Zealanders may be thinking ‘look we’ve got some big problems on our plate: we’ve got a housing crisis, we’ve got climate change, we’ve got increased inequality – big changes [may] need to be made… And if big changes need to be made, perhaps our politicians just need a little bit more time to do so before they have to go and run another election campaign’.”
A Colmar Brunton poll commissioned by TVNZ was released in December showing 60 per cent support for a shift to four years – see 1News’ Majority of Kiwis support extension to four-year Parliament terms — poll. This was up from 55 per cent from the previous poll on the question in 2013.
Newspaper editorials on the four-year term have all been supportive of change. Back in September the Otago Daily Times concluded “It is time for change” in its editorial, which argues that only having three years in power just encourages “Short-term and quick-fix policy” being made “in the face of mammoth challenges like accelerated climate change, a long-term housing crisis and the rapid growth of a mountain of debt” – see: Four-year parliamentary term.
The New Zealand Herald makes some similar arguments, and concludes: “A four-year term gives a government more opportunity to be visionary, and it is worth considering again” – see: Is a four-year electoral cycle too long? (paywalled).
Stuff’s editorial back in October argued that the idea of an extension “deserves further exploration”, especially given “the country faces increasingly complex social and economic challenges” – see: Time for a term extension?. However, the newspaper suggests we should be suspicious of politician self-interest and wants a more objective debate on the issue: “What should follow as soon as possible is an independent investigation into the issue, with no political involvement. That could examine all the relevant issues to ensure it was the right move, rather than just the move the major parties want.”
Business support for four-years
Are elections also bad for business? When he was prime minister, John Key said that the economy suffers from having elections, hence his support for holding them less frequently.
A few years later, BusinessNZ CEO Kirk Hope suggested in an opinion piece that fewer elections would be favoured by the corporates – see his Spinoff piece, No to elections: maybe we should only have them every four years?. He reported: “when I speak with Kiwi business leaders they tell me they think our three-year parliamentary term is too short, and a longer election cycle would bring greater business confidence and stability.”
And following on from this, in 2019 Finance Minister Grant Robertson made a plea for business to help him convince the public to shift to four-years – see Karyn Scherer’s NBR article, Business needs to back four-year parliamentary term, says Robertson (paywalled). According to this, Robertson told a banking breakfast that business audiences frequently lobbied him for the change, but “he said he didn’t believe the public would take the issue seriously if it were politicians who campaigned for a four-year term. Therefore it would be up to the business community to make the case for change.”
This year, entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrew Barnes has written in support of an extension, albeit with a twist, saying: “I consider this a sensible step, but it needs to be combined with another innovation – term limits for politicians. If a parliament is extended to a four-year term, each MP should be limited to no more than two four-year terms” – see: Give MPs just two terms to fulfil their potential (paywalled).
The arguments against a four-year term
The arguments in favour of extending the Parliamentary term generally assert that three years is too short because governments don’t have enough time to get proper changes implemented before they have to campaign again. Writing in rebuttal of this late last year, electoral law specialist Graeme Edgeler suggested that such arguments actually boil down to the following: “politicians are so venal and short-sighted that they cannot act in the best interests of the country when an election is in the offing, so we should give them more time between elections so that they can be less bad at governing the country” – see: The Vague promise of a better tomorrow: Why a three-year Parliamentary term is good for New Zealand.
Edgeler believes that in the New Zealand political system “there is very little to stop a parliamentary majority doing whatever it wants”. He argues that proponents of change fail to give examples of what laws haven’t passed as a result of the Parliament only sitting for three years: “It is never particularly clear. It is rare for anyone to point to a law that New Zealand does not have today, that they think it would have, if there was a four-year term.”
Writing last year, Stuff’s chief political reporter Henry Cooke says it’s entirely untrue that New Zealand governments don’t have enough power. In fact, he says the opposite is the case, and that’s why it would be a big mistake to give politicians even more power, given the lack of checks and balances in the system: “New Zealand has a system that gives an extremely large amount of power to each of our governments. Far more, in fact, than most of the countries we like to compare ourselves to” – see: Four-year political terms are a terrible idea. In this article he goes through in detail about the highly centralised nature of power in New Zealand.
Cooke also argues that governments can actually make a lot of change if they really want to. He gives these examples: “Three years is actually a very long time in politics. Between the 1935 and 1938 election the first Labour government created the welfare system, nationalised the Reserve Bank, and enacted compulsory unionism. Between 1990 and 1993 National undid a lot of that on a similarly speedy timeframe.”
Similarly, columnist Matthew Hooton has argued that the politicians currently arguing for more time in power are like turkeys wanting “us to vote to postpone their Christmas” and that it’s just not true that governments don’t have enough time to get things done: “Politicians who care enough about the things they talk about can achieve enormous change in three years if they put their mind to it and take some risks” – see: Call time on politicians’ four-year quest (paywalled). And he provides numerous examples of politicians who have previously managed to achieve significant reforms in a three-year term.
For Hooton the current situation works fine: “In practice, the term of a New Zealand Government is already six years, but with voters having a right of recall after three. Governments that maintain at least basic competence through six years are invariably rewarded with a bonus further three.” As for the public’s increased support for a four-term year, Hooton suggests they are “perhaps worn out by the shenanigans and ultimate emptiness of the 2020 campaign”.
Andrew Geddis has also responded to Act’s proposal this week by saying it amounts to a decrease in electoral accountability by 25 or 33 per cent, and would remove the vitally important safeguard of being able to hold politicians to account frequently: “Getting to regularly vote on whether to keep the bums in or kick the bums out (and bring another set of bums in) is our system of government’s most significant form of popular accountability. We underestimate its effectiveness at our peril. If we’re going to markedly decrease it, with what will it be replaced? Because, New Zealand already has precious few ways of holding government to account, so weakening our primary popular mechanism should give us real pause” – see: Some thoughts on David Seymour’s ‘democracy policy’.
Former political scientist Jon Johansson, who became the chief of staff for New Zealand First until they lost power last year, has also written strongly against the four-year term, saying that his experience working in the Beehive for the Labour-led Government has only reinforced his belief that “not having enough time isn’t the problem” with governing – see: A four-year parliamentary term? Be careful what you wish for. He argues it’s good for the public to have the weapon of frequent elections to hold over politicians. And he points to the 1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System as finding no real evidence that a longer term would result in better governance.
Leftwing political commentator Gordon Campbell is also opposed to any change, suggesting a four-year term might be very convenient for the politicians, especially given the reduced scrutiny that this would entail, but it’s New Zealand’s lack of checks and balances in the political system that should rule out holding elections less frequently – see: On four-year terms of Parliament.
On the right, Liam Hehir writes this week that the proposal is without much merit, and says “Perhaps political parties should work on getting their act together before coming to us asking for more time” – see: Turkeys voting for a late Christmas.
He concludes, “If politicians want more time before facing the voters, they need to agree to more substantive checks on their powers than what Act is proposing.” Also, see his earlier column from 2019, in which he disagrees with a colleague from his own party: Nick Smith is the latest cheerleader for a four-year term. Here’s why he’s wrong.
The process for changing the parliamentary term
The possible mechanisms for bringing in an extra year for politicians are very fraught according to Peter Dunne, who argued last year that it’s likely to get complicated, and could have a lot of unintended consequences – see: The tricky timing of constitutional change.
Could the extension be simply brought about by a vote in Parliament? Strictly speaking, it could, if 75 per cent of MPs were in favour. And this is the process recommended last year by New Zealand First leader Winston Peters, who thought a referendum was unnecessary and unlikely to succeed – see Vita Molyneux’s Many MPs support four-year terms in Parliament – so why hasn’t it happened?.
The Greens, too, have been negative about a referendum being used to decide the issue – see Rachel Thomas’ Political leaders favour four-year parliamentary term but many voters not so keen.
Finally, if the length of our parliamentary term changed, would local government elections need to change too? For debate on this, see Tracy Neal’s Councils push central government for four-year terms, and the ODT’s Four-year term worth debating.