Parliament's 'short term' thinking

Politicians seem to agree that three years is too short... but will anything be done about it now we've got MMP?

For the final Q+A of the year, we turned our format on its head. Instead of politicians talking and experts analysing, we did it the other way round. Sort of. We got eight big thinkers from around the country and gave them 90 seconds to pitch their idea. What was the one thing they’d like to see happen to improve New Zealand and help the country grow.

You can watch the various ideas here, but two things stood out for me.

First, Don Braid argued that our three year electoral cycles were too short. Short terms, he said, led to short-term thinking. Given the time he’s spent up in China in recent years leading Mainfreight’s successful expansion into Asia, he’s got a taste for the five-year plans and politicians thinking about the next generation rather than the next election. Whether our terms stretch to four or five years, the change would give our politicians the chance to act and vote more courageously and without constant concern about the next campaign.

In short, it would allow for more governing, less politics.

Yet that wasn’t the stand out factor. What stood out was that all five politicians – Judith Collins, Peter Dunne, Winston Peters, Metiria Turei and Len Brown – agreed with Braid. New Zealand First and United Future leaders found common cause for the first time on the programme, while National’s Judith Collins said “three years is a long time when you’re in Opposition”, but when in power “it’s too short”. Green Co-leader Metiria Turei said it should go to a referendum and she and Peters thought it would pass if politicians all backed it.

But would voters? Peters nailed the doubts many would feel when he said, “every timid voter, either on the left or the right, thinks they might not win, so don’t want the enemy to have four years”.

To change the term lengths parliament would have to vote 75% in favour or a simple majority would have to be won at a referendum. New Zealand has twice held referenda on this. In 1967 68 percent voted to retain the three year-term. In 1990 it was 69 percent. The main concern seemed to be voter sovereignty and the desire to keep a tight rein on those in power.

But it wasn’t always thus. From 1852 until 1879 our parliament had five year terms. And since those previous referenda we’ve introduced MMP. There are now restraints on the power of government that didn’t exist before and the time is right to debate this again. I’m not sure we’d automatically get better decisions. Bad or radical governments would get more time, as would those governments which have simply run out of ideas.

Three years, though, just doesn't seem long enough. In most countries, it’s not. Australia also has three years (Sweden went to four years in the ‘90s) and in America the House of Representatives is oddly just two years (compared to the Senate at six and President at four). But all other democracies have either four or five year terms.

As Peters said, if all the Opposition parties banded together and said they’d be happy for the 2014 election to a battle for a four year term, a referendum could be arranged. Perhaps it could be held at the same time as the likely referendum on partial state asset sales next year.

The second stand out point was the impact the ideas had. The politicians spoke to the thinkers afterwards, especially Auckland mayor Len Brown. He wanted to hear more from Tracey Lee on trains and arranged a lunch in the new year with young entrepreneur Fady Mishriki. Martin Snedden and Franceska Banga are both going to be actively pushing their ideas around the seats of power in the next few months.

There was a sense that some of the talk might just turn into action. We’ll keep an eye on that.