Graeme Edgeler: The Vague promise of a better tomorrow: Why a three-year Parliamentary term is good for New Zealand

Graeme Edgeler: The Vague promise of a better tomorrow: Why a three-year Parliamentary term is good for New Zealand

New Zealand is not the only country with a three-year term of Parliament, but there aren’t many others. Most countries have longer terms, with theoretically less of a democratic check on political power.

Most other countries also have some combination of: a bicameral legislature, a supreme constitution, strong judicial review of legislation, binding citizens initiated referendums, public input into candidacy via primary elections, recall elections, or a head of state with veto power.

I am not saying that any of these things would work for New Zealand, now, or perhaps ever. Some may be generally bad ideas. But New Zealand has adopted the option in each case that provides the least check on governmental power. The major check New Zealand has on the exercise of power by our Parliament is its slightly shorter legislative term. Even features such as the strength of our Parliamentary whip, and the power given to party leaders to expel members of Parliament not just from their caucus, but from Parliament itself set New Zealand apart from like countries: there is very little to stop a parliamentary majority doing whatever it wants. Except the threat of being voted out of office.

Why four years? No-one has ever really said. Why not six like the US Senate? Why not five, like Britain’s House of Commons or the European Parliament or the Irish Dáil? The basic proposition, during each of the last three occasions when an argument around the length of the Parliamentary term arose was that “three years is too short”. The argument rarely gets much beyond this, and it immediately leads to the rejoinder “too short to do what?”. 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.

Some people argue that with a longer term, politicians could take tougher decisions, more inoculated from public backlash, like ensuring the long-term affordability of Government superannuation. However, the existence of three-year terms didn’t prevent New Zealand from increasing eligibility from 60 to 65 between 1992 and 2001, over the course of three very different governments.

Then there is the question of whether longer terms work overseas. Has any country seen any advantage from increasing the term of the legislature, or even any state or province? Are other countries better governed than New Zealand? In some areas, some probably are. Overall, I suspect New Zealand does quite well. And even in areas where there are concerns around New Zealand’s approach, I do not see that these would be fixed by a move to four-year term.

There are fair criticisms of New Zealand’s governmental and parliamentary processes: too fast to do too much, and too often avoiding ordinary processes like select committee scrutiny, but the United Kingdom’s five-year term didn’t insulate its Conservative Party from feeling pressured to push for the Brexit referendum, and despite the suggestion that a four-year term would enable more considered policy-making, I haven’t heard the Prime Minister, argue that it should actually be linked to something like a ban on all-stages urgency, or a requirement that every bill spend six months at select committee unless supported by a 75% supermajority in the House.

New Zealand’s relatively short three-year term also has not stopped New Zealand reforming its criminal procedure laws, or overhauling search and surveillance legislation, or reforming income tax legislation, it’s just that these reforms were completed over the course of multiple governments, something that may instead be a feature of the New Zealand System.

Combined with the right set of other changes – around urgency, and reducing the power of Parliamentary leadership, and others, I could see my myself accepting a four-year term, but the bare proposal to increase the term currently offers little tangible to supporters of change, much less to opponents.

What then is to be gained? Without concrete proposals to change the problematic aspects of the system that are said to result from the length of the term, all we appear to have are vague promises of a better tomorrow. In reality, the argument appears to be: 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. That seems like a pretty strong argument against.


Graeme Edgeler is a Wellington barrister, with a professional interest in constitutional and electoral law

This article can be republished under a Creative Commons CC BY-ND 4.0  license. Attributions should include a link to the Democracy Project.