Four-year fixed terms? Bring it on!

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 15 February 2013

Prime Minister John Key wants to change a constitutional settlement that has lasted 173 years. He proposes to extend parliamentary terms to four years, with a fixed election date at the end.

Opinions on this issue are divided, even at The New Zealand Initiative. Like my esteemed colleague Luke Malpass argues below, some believe the prime minister’s plan does not make much sense.

With all due respect to Luke, on this occasion I side with the prime minister. New Zealand would benefit from longer parliamentary terms, and its democratic process strengthened by fixed terms.

It is an odd privilege for governments in the Westminster tradition to be able to choose the Election Day. This confers an advantage to the prime minister of the day who can try to wrong-foot the opposition and exploit temporary swings in public opinion.

Mind you, this may not always work as intended. However, in the interest of a level playing field between government and opposition, having certainty about the end of the parliamentary term would help.

I am not convinced by the counterargument that governments might, on occasion, need to seek a ‘new mandate’ from the electorate. We do not elect governments on single issues. That’s what referendums are for.

Elections are about choosing people we trust and task with decision-making on problems we may not even know at the time of the election. If you are uncomfortable with that then you have not understood the concept of parliamentary democracy.

The more substantive problem with three-year terms is that it leaves little time for parliamentary work. With new MPs and positions reshuffled, it takes the best part of a year for a new parliament to start functioning. Parliament also typically descends into a pre-election campaign well before the likely end of its term.

Currently this leaves just about one year for good, substantial governance. Increasing electoral terms to four years would double this quieter mid-term period when parliament can properly fulfill its role as the legislature. It would allow more time for good law-making, and it could well result in a better quality of policy. It might even encourage governments to undertake necessary reforms, even if their positive results do not materialise immediately.

Of course political observers love the spectacle and drama of elections campaigns. But all this excitement is not an end in itself. Its real purpose is to constitute both a parliament and a government that do their jobs well. And for this reason, fixed four-year terms would improve New Zealand’s democracy.

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