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.

Comments (21)

by Steve on December 07, 2012

By all means allow a 4 year term, but introduce binding citizens innitiated refereda to keep our politicians to account.

by Pete Sime on December 07, 2012
Pete Sime

One of the big differences between New Zealand and other countries is that we don't have an upper chamber to keep Parliament in check. Nor do we have supreme law to strike down unjust legislation. The only accountability is through the ballot box. Fewer elections = less democracy and I would be uncomfortable concentrating power even further into the hands of just 61 people.

by Chris de Lisle on December 07, 2012
Chris de Lisle

I agree with Pete - I like politicians worrying about how they will fare at the next election. I don't want either side starting to feel like they can do things without thinking about public reaction. 

We are supposedly a democracy, and this is supposedly a good thing - so arguments that politicians need to be free from the tyranny of the election cycle don't hold much weight for me - the fact that they find it uncomfortable and unpleasant suggests to me that the current cycle is having exactly the effect I'd like it to.

Your second point is an interesting one. I like the idea of politicians listening to and critiquing the arguments of others. This sort of public input into policy is a very good thing.

by Tim Watkin on December 07, 2012
Tim Watkin

Steve - hell no. Worst of both worlds.

Pete - that's why I made the distinction now that we have MMP. That places more restrictions on power than FPP. Perhaps it's enough of a bridle to allow an extra year without an upper house or codified constitution.

Chris - well, the more time they spend worrying about the next election, the less time they spend governing. Worth it? And let's not pretend one extra year makes us less a democracy. By that standard the vast majority of democracies are lesser than us and indeed the US House of Reps is the gold standard!

by Peter Tenby on December 07, 2012
Peter Tenby

Tim: One of the fundamental assumptions in your reply to Chris's comment is that the government acts with the best interests of the public (or at least their voting block's interests) at heart when left to their own devices.

Is that really a meme that anyone believes anymore? With this government? With the last? With any of them?

I mean, seriously??

by Peter Tenby on December 07, 2012
Peter Tenby

PS: I personally think it is patently obvious they act with their majority donors best interests at heart (increasingly so as time moves on) and the only except to this is the very vote grabbing you seem to think is no good.

In the case of labour that happens include unions which at least benefits the common worker most of the time...

by Graeme Edgeler on December 07, 2012
Graeme Edgeler

And let's not pretend one extra year makes us less a democracy. By that standard the vast majority of democracies are lesser than us and indeed the US House of Reps is the gold standard!

The Gold standard for quantity of democracy would surely be Switzerland. Public votes four times a year. If you are looking at looking into something like this next year, you could do worse than interview the Swiss Ambassador. I attended a public lecture she gave about Swiss referendums a month or two back and found it very interesting. I imagine you could fill in 10-15 minute slot with enough of broad interest.

by Tim Watkin on December 07, 2012
Tim Watkin

Peter, that's too cynical for my tastes. If you're so dismissive of a government actually governing you may as well give up on democracy.

Graeme, duly noted.

by Peter Tenby on December 08, 2012
Peter Tenby

Your problem Tim is you think being called cynical is an insult or at least distastful. 

A healthy democracy is full of potential cynics but even more importantly an engaged and informed population - typically informed by those with the academic rigoure to be cynical when required. For example: when you have a democracy in which there are anonomous corporate donations and lobbyist aplenty with quite obvious and real effects on the decisions of government - one has to be cynical about it and call it for what it is.

If only our mainstream media had more of them.

I am not giving up on democracy - I am suggesting to have more of it and of better quality. I would argue your position as stated above is moving towards giving up democracy. The further from the will of the people, the further from democracy. e.g. The USA.

I am saying outright that I consider your position above about longer terms and leaving government to their own devices being better for the country is naive and anti-democractic. To ignore such obvious influences when suggestion solutions is not just naive - it is dangerous.

But then I am just a cynic who tends to ignore spin...

by Ross on December 08, 2012

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

Maybe but I'd need to be convinced. What is the Government unable to do that it would be able to do were it given another year? If there was clear evidence that a 4 year term would bring about significant benefits (eg, a higher standard of living, less poverty, better educational outcomes), then I'd be all for it. But where's the evidence?

by Tim Watkin on December 08, 2012
Tim Watkin

Peter, thanks goodness you can see spin when the rest of us are its hapless victims! Please...

Although I was using cynical in a pergorative fashion, I wasn't intending it as an insult. I simply said your cynicism wasn't to my tastes. Cynicism to me lacks hope. I prefer a bit of an open mind alongside my scepticism, but each to their own. We can agree to disagree.

I'm wondering who these anonymous corporate donors are with such influence in New Zealand – do you have evidence or are you assuming? The best lobbyists seem to be trad groups such as Fed Farmers and the Unions, depending on who's in power. This year I can think of the alcohol lobby, Sky City and Sky TV doing pretty well. But they're hardly anonymous. And how influential are they? I can also think how unsuccessful the tobacco lobby, for example, has been. And sometimes lobbyists offer expertise, however self-interested, that stop governments making bad law out of ignorance.

Can you give any of the 'patently obvious' examples of actions where parties have acted for their donors against public interest? (Without defaming anyone).

I'm not sure what you're saying about the USA. It has two year terms in the House but a horribly lobbyist-infected system. So not sure where you're making the link.

by Tim Watkin on December 08, 2012
Tim Watkin

Ross, you have a point. I don't have any evidence. I'm more running an idea up a flagpole with this one and working on an instinct that a little more time thinking rather than campaigning might be good. And that long-term thinking as a whole is preferable.

But you're right. Braid talks about a longer term allowing MPs to have the courage to stop making promises about super and capital gains taxes that make no sense. But I'm not sure there's any evidence such policies would find more favour if MPs had more time.

by Dr Jon Johansson on December 09, 2012
Dr Jon Johansson

I'm a supporter, in principle, of increasing the length of the cycle to four years, but not without a fulsome debate about whether strengthening constitutional safeguards are also required to accompany such a move. We the voters have been burnt too often to give our political elites a blank cheque me thinks.

So, forget 2014 Tim. When the PM launched our post-election book 'Kicking the Tyres' a couple of weeks ago he lamented holding the MMP referendum (which he blames, increduously, on Don Brash) and said he wished it had, instead, been on the length of the electoral cycle. That was the second time in a month I'd heard this from the PM. I suggested to him afterwards that if really wanted to advance this reform then he should write an opinion piece after he has left politics and get every other living Prime Minister to co-sign it. I think that, more than any other suggestion, would set the best platform for a subsequent discussion.  

Another point is that you have to be careful what you wish for. We think, intuitively, that more time means better public policy. But is this right? Maybe, but perhaps an unintended consequence of a longer electoral cycle would be that we would actually see more one-term governments, which might then make quality public policy more elusive. Why? Our history shows that we are very forgiving of most first term governments (Nash and Rowling the exceptions ), largely because three years is not perceived as long enough. But, if we had a four year term, perhaps then perceptions would shift and results would be demanded earlier because it's one thing to commit to six years for one lot or the other, but eight? If every first term government then had to have real-world tangible results after four years might this not equally drive short-termism out of their new electoral imperative?

I have no idea if this is what would happen or not, but do think that one variable - the quality of policy making - is but one variable potentially affected by changing the length of the term, and there are other variables that may make this reform less appealing than it appears on the surface. On that basis I'd take plenty of time to consider this idea and given the proliferation of other constitutional and electoral tinkering at the moment (i.e., the Constitutional Review; the MMP review response) I would wait and see.

In fact, the government's response to the MMP review will be a very useful barometer of how much we can trust this lot to act above their narrow party self-interest. We'll see, but this sceptical realist is loath to grant our political elites, whether blue, red, green or any other colour, any more power without better protection.  



by Andrew Geddis on December 09, 2012
Andrew Geddis

When the PM launched our post-election book 'Kicking the Tyres' a couple of weeks ago he lamented holding the MMP referendum (which he blames, increduously, on Don Brash) and said he wished it had, instead, been on the length of the electoral cycle.

Well, that's somewhat late remorse ... some of us pointed out at the time that the whole MMP referendum was a waste of time and failed to address the really important issues surrounding our electoral system. But I guess that Key had already dumped so much of Brash's policy promises that he felt this was a cheap and easy one to keep on board.

On that basis I'd take plenty of time to consider this idea and given the proliferation of other constitutional and electoral tinkering at the moment (i.e., the Constitutional Review; the MMP review response) I would wait and see.

The length of Parliament's term is one of the issues that the Constitutional Review is explicitly required to consider. My prediction, for what it is worth, is that the result of this Review will be:

... to move to a 4 year parliamentary term, with fixed election dates as the quid-pro-quo. The "inside the beltway" view is that 3 years just isn't enough time to get government business done, but the public just won't vote for extending the parliamentary term. A recommendation that this should happen - tied to a fixed term, to take that advantage away from the PM - will allow MPs to do it for themselves.

by Dr Jon Johansson on December 09, 2012
Dr Jon Johansson

Understood Andrew - Although not much of a quid pro quo for my tastes, and that's really my point. I'd prefer an op-ed from the former PM's to establish a bi-partisan base from the people who understand best the tension and I also happen to think that anything caught in the haphazard web of the Constitutional Review will suffer from their inclusion. Hard to see an on-ramp in a cul-de-sac. The Brash stuff is of course ridiculous. Key apparently only had agency for some things, but not others, which is a surprise for those of us who watched him overturn all of Brash's key non-economic planks within 24 hours of being elected leader.  

by Ross on December 09, 2012

Braid talks about a longer term allowing MPs to have the courage to stop making promises about super and capital gains taxes that make no sense.

Tim, I'm a little confused by that statement. Changes to super and the introduction of a CGT make a lot of (economic) sense. Ironically, these policies were announced in the context of a 3 year cycle. I'd like to think these policies will eventually be adopted whether or not there is a longer term.

by Chris de Lisle on December 10, 2012
Chris de Lisle

I think that the reason that the House of Representatives (and the Swiss system) aren't the gold standard of democracy is because of the quality of voting more than anything to do with term limits.

The American system prevents votes counting in the same way that FPP did, and the Swiss magic formula prevents voters from changing the composition of their government. This is, I think part of why the referendum-movement is so strong there. Quality of voting is, a precondition for frequency to matter - If voters cannot easily effect change, then it doesn't matter how often they vote. But I think that we genuinely do have high quality voting. 

I'm not sure why worrying about the election is the opposite of governing courageously. Courage strikes me as a response to fear - Worrying about the election resulted in the creation of Kiwirail, the interest-free student loan, and MMP (or maybe that last one is about mucking up an election). In countries where the government is truly not worried about elections, things don't change. Look at Japan (less so, since electoral reform in the late 90s) or Singapore, where elections have historically been ineffectual - Their governments do not govern courageously, they govern autocratically and lazily. Because, if you're going to hold power anyway, why bother doing anything bold or difficult?

by stuart munro on December 11, 2012
stuart munro

I'm with Steve. We need to improve citizen access to the decision making process and displace entrenched elites like our inept economic 'experts' who perennially underperform. But our major parties for the most part are keener on a less democratic Dahlian polyarchy. It serves their interests, but not the public interest.

by Tim Watkin on December 11, 2012
Tim Watkin

Ross, sorry for being slow to reply. You're right my sentence suffered from 'being written late at night-ness'. Braid's a supporter of those policies, the promises he thinks makes no sense are Key's not to change the former and introduce the latter.

You're right they may yet come in under the current term, but he reckons governments would feel more able to take riskier, better decisions if they had longer between elections.

Chris, the point is that fear of the election is why super ain't changing any time soon. And I'd disagree with your point on MMP and Kiwirail. You're better to argue, I think, that fear of elections is why we still have Kiwirail!

I'm not sure about the Japan and Singapore comparisons. I'm wary, but some say Singapore has made better strategic decisions and made its population richer because of its stability. And Chinese governments don't fear elections, yet they have led massive upheavals. So you can be unafraid of elections and bold.

But anyway, the point remains it's hard to know whether an extra year would embolden our leaders or not.

by Chris de Lisle on December 11, 2012
Chris de Lisle

I'm sure I remember KiwiRail being announced and trumpeted with great hoohah, immediately before the 2008 election - Labour certainly made much of it (& their current focus on state assets shows that it's still on their minds), and the process which led to MMP has its origins in comments by Lange during the leadup to the '87 election (According to Nigel Roberts' 2008 lecture, anyway - I wasn't election-watching in 1987).

I may well be wrong on both of these points, though. I accept your point on super - but that's as close as we get in NZ to a third rail. I struggle to believe that any NZ government could put even a distant election so far out of mind as to touch it (Untill, twenty years from now, the electorate starts demanding reform). But you've actually spoken to the people who make these decisions - if you can imagine it, that means more than whether I can.

All of which is to say that yes, the point remains that it is hard to know what will embolden our leaders.

by nommopilot on December 16, 2012

and well after the post, but here's my 2c...

Have we forgotten National's '90 days of mayhem' or whatever it was when they first got into power?  I don't think the length of term has a great deal of impact on "getting things done" since most governments manage multiple terms anyway and if they don't; probably they wazn't doing it rite. 

If you're scared that enacting your policies will get you unelected then you haven't sold them to the electorate well enough and, whether they're good policies or not, you deserve to be booted out.  Good leadership is where you get people on board with your decisions.  I think CGTs and changes to super and such are totally possible but our current crop of politicians have done a terrible job of selling the reasons why they're necessary or desirable.

The bottom line is longer terms mean I will have less opportunities to vote in my lifetime - and therefore less democrazyies - so I would rather it stayed at 3 years.

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