Government terms: three years or four?

Opinion: While sceptical about extending the government term by a year, Ed Willis says it's a debate worth having. Here, he outlines some structure for that debate.

The Beehive: should a Government in power make it home for three year, or four?

As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about the finer details of New Zealand’s constitutional practice, I’m always surprised at the strength of feeling among members of the public about the issue of extending the Parliamentary term.

Currently, the maximum term of Parliament is three years, and because Government ministers are drawn from Parliament, that means three years is the longest time any government can stay in power before having to test their ongoing mandate with the electorate. But every few years or so, a proposal to extend the maximum term of Parliament — and therefore the Government — to four years is floated.

The issue is topical once again because the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition expressed support for the idea during the election campaign, and because Labour and the Greens have committed to exploring the possibility as part of their formal co-operation agreement.

People care about this issue, on both sides of the debate. That’s a good thing, because if we are investigating constitutional reform then an engaged public voice is essential to the legitimacy of that reform. Both positives and negatives of the proposal should be robustly tested in the forum of public opinion. But from what I’ve seen, the quality of the debate has not always been high. Both sides seem to treat their preferred view as the only obvious position, and there is more heat generated than light as each camp talks loudly past each other.

Personally, I’m sceptical about the case for extending the term but am willing to be convinced this scepticism is misplaced. Here, I want to outline some ways of thinking about the issue that might give the debate some structure. It’s both a debate worth having and worth doing right.

One useful starting point might be to ask what purpose elections serve in our constitutional framework. There are potentially different answers to this question, but one common idea is that elections protect us from the excesses of very powerful government actors. If the government of the day is doing something that we (collectively) disagree with, then we don’t want to have to wait too long to vote them out.

This democratic ‘check’ on government power is especially important because many of the other institutional features that might curb political excess aren’t present in New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements. We do not have a written constitution to guide appropriate exercise of government authority, nor do we have courts empowered to strike down government legislation. We have a small, unicameral (single legislative chamber) Parliament dominated by Cabinet (the most important actors in the government of the day) which can legislate very efficiently. In this context, free and fair, but also frequent, elections seem to be particularly important.

There are, of course, other institutional factors that might suggest government power is more limited than is immediately apparent. Chief among these, in my view, is a strong bi‑partisan commitment to the rule of law and human rights, the improving recognition of the fundamental role of the Treaty of Waitangi, and a highly‑skilled, independent public service. These factors might give proponents of reform sufficient comfort that a modest extension of the Parliamentary term from three to four years might not erode constitutional restraint on the government significantly.

Alternatively, other may find these factors too vulnerable to politics. A third view is that these factors might point to a case for reform only if other accountability mechanisms are enhanced — a more effective official information regime immediately comes to mind as a possible example.

Another way of thinking about the issue is to focus on Parliament rather than government. New Zealand has committed to a highly representative form of democracy that we commonly call ‘MMP’. A motivating idea here is that both individual Members of Parliament and their views are closely correlated with the views of the voting public. This is important because the Government is accountable to Parliament as the people’s representatives between elections. A close correlation in views between the people and their representatives promotes public confidence that the government is being pushed to deliver on issues that matter to us.

There are, of course, some institutional barriers to this close correlation, including the mediating role of political parties and the 5 percent electoral threshold. But even the idea of a highly representative Parliament is central in our constitutional system. This is relevant because more rather than less frequent elections contribute to the representative nature of Parliament by ensuring membership changes over time with changing views of electors. A Parliament truly representative a decade ago is unlikely to accurately reflect popular will now. That seems a face‑value reason to maintain the status quo, but just how frequent should elections be? Would an extension of a year really make that much of a difference?

We do have some indications that a five-year term might be too long. The Māori electoral option can only be exercised once every five years, following the national census, and concerns are regularly expressed that this inhibits the ability of Māori to ensure their voices are genuinely heard. Perhaps aligning the Parliamentary term with Māori electoral option at four years could be a principled position here if reform is pursued.

A third perspective on the issue might emphasise the effectiveness of government in terms of policy delivery. A three-year term might simply be too short to address even medium‑term policy issues. This argument is common among proponents of reform, including many elected politicians, and it often runs like this: it takes a year for a government to find its feet and another year to campaign for re-election, so there is really only one year in the middle to focus on meaningful policy delivery.

This position seems to be an accepted, bi‑partisan narrative among the political class, which is core to my own scepticism regarding reform. While bi-partisan agreement on questions of constitutional reform is to be encouraged, on this issue I tend to view the matter in the same way as if politicians across the spectrum were proposing to give themselves a 33 percent pay rise — the benefits to them are clear but for the rest of us not so much. A more credible version of the argument comes from civil servants themselves (although the nature of their role means that they don’t announce this view all that often). Being driven by the three‑year electoral cycle inhibits their ability to undertake serious, medium‑term policy work in a sustained fashion. If that’s true, it’s a genuine problem and we should be doing our best to find a solution.

While at the sub‑national level some states in Australia and the United States have changed the length of their electoral cycle, there is no good evidence that this materially changes the effectiveness of policy formation and delivery. That’s because of a lack of studies rather than anything more meaningful about the truth of these particular claims, but it does help put the claims of some proponents into perspective. It seems highly unlikely that, in order to rebalance the economy away from housing bubbles and towards productivity growth, to end child poverty or to solve climate change, an extra year is all the government needs.

But perhaps at an institutional level an extended electoral cycle might mean better information and more focus on effective delivery of current policies because the time to do this is available. Either way, if our public service is struggling to perform its vital role in our government, my view is that we should be looking closely at that issue before jumping to a proposed solution.

All of this is to say that, like most issues of constitutional reform, this one is complex. There are trade-offs and uncertainties with any position adopted, and reasonable people can quite reasonably disagree on the preferred approach. What we really need now is an informed discussion on the matter, addressing issues I raise here and others (such as the brutally pragmatic point about financial resources of political parties to effectively fight frequent elections).

Constitutional reform matters, and it is heartening that many New Zealanders have already taken the time to engage. Let’s help each other to reflect further before we collective make up our mind on this issue.

Dr Edward Willis is a lecturer in the Faculty of Law.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Government terms: three years or four? 4 November 2020.

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