Bryce Edwards: How to achieve transformational change in politics

Bryce Edwards: How to achieve transformational change in politics

There’s increasing doubt about how transformational the Labour-led Government is turning out to be. In all sorts of public policy areas the new administration is struggling to make the changes and produce the outcomes it promised. Perhaps expectations are too high? Maybe voters and commentators are too impatient? Or, could it be that the political system simply isn’t well equipped to allow transformational change.

For those interested in politics being more transformational and meaningful, an important report was published recently which relates to some of these issues. Produced by researchers at Victoria University of Wellington in conjunction with Parliament’s Office of the Clerk, the report contains some important – and contentious – recommendations for reform of New Zealand’s democracy – see the report here: Foresight, insight and oversight: Enhancing long-term governance through better parliamentary scrutiny.

Veteran political journalist John Armstrong said the report “arguably is the most meaty menu in terms of options for change in a fundamental component of the political system since the Royal Commission on the Electoral System of the mid-1980s” recommended the shift to MMP – see his must-read column: Report critiquing Government swept under the rug along with thoughts of the future.

Armstrong laments that the report hasn’t had much attention, suggesting it should be “compulsory reading” for MPs. But he’s not holding his breath: “How regrettable, wasteful and unforgivable it will be if MPs shun what is nothing less than blueprint for a much-needed overhaul of New Zealand’s increasingly sorry excuse for a Parliament.”

So, why aren’t our politicians interested in this report? Armstrong suggests that it challenges the very nature of modern politics, saying the report is “a very welcome antithesis to the self-serving unwillingness of politicians to address the future for fear of losing votes. It rejects the attempt to divorce the present from the future. It suggests numerous mechanisms to acknowledge the long-term rather than being fixated with the short-term.”

The report is all about finding ways to reconfigure parliamentary politics to be more future-focused, and able to deal with long-term and often intractable issues such as environmental collapse, and demographic population changes causing problems for resource use. It makes the argument that politicians don’t deal with such problems because they’re more focused on short-term and day-to-day problems in society.

This is all best explained by one of the co-authors of the report, Jonathan Boston, who argues that because of the way New Zealand’s system of political accountability is currently set up, “poor decision-making may go undetected while non-urgent, but potentially serious, long-term problems receive inadequate political attention. Future citizens are then left to pay the price” – see: Taking the fight to short-termism in government.

Boston has a number of questions about whether our system of parliamentary scrutiny is producing a forward-looking system of government: “Are they successfully identifying, mitigating and managing significant national risks? Are they sufficiently alert to slow-burning or creeping problems, not least those with irreversible consequences? Do they have effective strategies to address major long-term policy challenges such as biodiversity loss and climate change, the fiscal impacts of demographic changes or the social consequences of disruptive technologies? In short, are they exercising sound anticipatory governance?”

Although all politicians are likely to be more focused on the “present” than the “future”, Boston believes our democratic configuration “compounds the presentist bias in decision-making”.

A package of potential reforms is raised for debate in the report. These range from a number of changes that could be made in the way Parliament operates, through to the number of MPs (proposing an increase to 150), to the length of the parliamentary term (proposing it be extended from three to four years).

It’s this latter recommendation that has received the most media coverage. Jonathan Boston went on TVNZ’s Breakfast to advocate for the reduction in elections, saying that the main advantage to having less frequent elections is that politicians would then have “more time and opportunity to address big, long-term issues, whether they are environmental, economic and housing and so on” – see: Extending MP terms to four years would allow more ‘thoughtful analysis’, expert argues.

Speaking on RNZ’s Morning Report, Boston elaborated on the problems of the current three-year election cycle: “As it currently stands a new government can be formed and then in effect got to spend maybe the first year trying to work out what it’s going to do, the second year trying to do it and then the third year preparing for the next election. In dealing with very complex, difficult issues, that’s a very, very tight timeframe” – see: New report calls for four-year term, more MPs in Parliament.

In addition, RNZ reports Boston’s view that “short electoral cycles are compounded by the rapid nature of social media and the news media. Professor Boston said relentless reporting puts governments under pressure to deliver quickly, which encourages a short-term approach.” Boston is quoted saying: “I think we have plenty of evidence in New Zealand of governments of all persuasions really struggling to address big issues like climate change, fresh water, housing in very short parliamentary terms.”

The same article quotes former Labour Party president Mike Williams agreeing on the need for change, but suggesting that it would be unlikely: “My gut feeling is both would be rejected. My personal opinion is that the term is too short and four years would be much better. I just don’t think that would be acceptable to the public. They like the option of being able to chuck a government out after three years.”

This ability to throw governments out is also emphasised in the same article by Otago University professor of law Andrew Geddis, as an important part of holding politicians to account in a system with very few checks on power: “We don’t have a written constitution, we don’t have courts that can strike down legislation, we don’t have an upper house of parliament or anything like that… So if we get rid of three-yearly elections and move to four yearly we’d have to ask what other arrangements we put in place to increase the accountability of members of parliament.”

Regardless, it’s highly unlikely to occur since Justice Minister Andrew Little has stated the Government’s lack of enthusiasm for the proposal – see the Herald article, Andrew Little cold on change to four-year parliamentary term.

However, it’s worth noting that “National’s electoral law spokesman, Nick Smith, said the party was considering a policy backing a referendum on longer terms.” And when he retired from Parliament late last year, former Attorney General Chris Finlayson also made a plea to shift to a four-year parliamentary term.

This was taken up at the time by a New Zealand Herald editorial, which argued, “Anything that encourages decision makers in any field to lengthen their horizons is a good thing. Just as business needs chief executives who can look beyond their annual reporting cycle, and beyond their likely tenure at the top, democracies need governments that can look well beyond the next election. Even one extra year in the electoral cycle might make quite a difference” – see: Four year terms could make governments more far-sighted – New Zealand Herald.

In contrast, for some opposing arguments, it’s worth reading an older opinion piece by lawyer Graeme Edgeler: Four-year term better in theory than practice. He puts forward the case that “There’s no evidence that a four-year Parliamentary term would lead to better legislation. And nor is there evidence that the current three-year term prevents Parliament from completing major law reform projects.”

The proposal to increase the size of Parliament from 120 to 150 MPs is also highly unlikely to be accepted by the public. After all, New Zealand has previously had referendums which give an idea of the likely public orientations to the idea.

Brittney Deguara reports: “In 1967 and 1990, two referendums were held regarding a potential term expansion. Both produced results against a term increase, with only around a third of voters supporting the change.  Similarly, a 1999 referendum resulted in the majority of citizens – 81 per cent – voting in favour of reducing the number of MPs from 120 to 100” – see: Proposal to extend parliamentary term to four years, increase MPs to 150.

As blogger David Farrar says the notion is “likely to be about as popular as a Big Mac at a Green Party conference”, but he supports it – see: Good parliamentary reform proposals.

Farrar makes some comparisons between the New Zealand Parliament and those of some other comparable countries: “A rough rule of thumb for the size of national legislatures is the cube root of the population. That would mean we should have 169 MPs. We have one of the smallest legislatures in the world because we have only one chamber. Also we have no state legislatures. Let’s look at the size of legislatures in a few countries. Croatia and Ireland have smaller populations than NZ and have 151 and 218 MPs respectively. Norway, Finland and Denmark have under six million population and have 169, 200 and 179 MPs respectively. Sweden has 349 MPs for 10 million people.”

Reducing the voting age to 16 has been raised again in the report, but this has also been rejected by the Prime Minister – see Danielle Clent’s Lowering voting age not on radar but more electoral education needed, PM Jacinda Ardern says.

Therefore, it seems as if the package of suggested reforms is not getting much traction. But there really are many other options worth debating in the report. As John Armstrong says, even if some of the higher profiles proposals are rejected, this “still leaves a truckload of other recommendations which are not contentious. MPs could pick and choose the ones they favour. In a sense, the gauntlet has been thrown down for the Speaker to pick up. It is an opportunity for Trevor Mallard to show leadership in that role.”

And without some of this type of change, there’s the risk that New Zealand democracy will continue to be mired in what Rod Oram calls the “soundbites, dog whistles, one-liners and other cynical devices” instead of the “fundamental, comprehensive and long-term change” that is necessary – see his column from late last year: Ditch the dog-whistle, save democracy.

Finally, members of the public will soon get the chance to have their say on some of the types of recommendations in the report that pertain to how Parliament operates. That’s because every three years the Standing Orders Committee of MPs call for recommendations for the rules of Parliament, and RNZ’s Phil Smith explains how this works – see: Adding foresight to oversight.