To end the short-termism of politics, we need to end short terms

Published in the National Business Review (Auckland), 22 September 2017

We probably all lost count how many times we have now heard the phrase “that extraordinary election this year.” And indeed, by all accounts, it was unusual in many ways.

Since Bill English announced the election date on 1 February, we have had nearly eight months of campaigning. This included an election budget, three new party leaders, wild swings in the polls and now even a fuel crisis to deal with. If that is not enough democratic excitement, then I do not know what is.

There is only one problem with all of this. Despite all this exhilaration, we have hardly talked about serious policy-development.

“Hang on,” I hear you say, “but haven’t the last few weeks been full of policy debate?” And, of course, you would be right in a literal sense. Yes, we have heard a lot about tax ideas and working groups, spending plans, transport and education initiatives.

But correct me if I am wrong, a lot of these ideas seem to be policy on the fly – made up as our politicians went along. And that is not even a criticism. It is just what happens when parties try to come up with policy during the madness of an election campaign.

Election campaigns are, almost by definition, the worst possible times to seriously think about the future of the country.

If you are a politician running a campaign, your goal is to be elected. That is what elections are about for them.

Therefore, as a politician you will do whatever is necessary to reach that goal: Play ping-pong with Herald journalists, kiss babies, wear high-viz vests – and promise just enough goodies to people who might vote for you.

Occasionally, there will even be some raw policy ideas raised during election campaigns. But these are always a means to an end – and emphatically the end is not good public policy.

In short, even those civic-minded idealists among us who still believe in democracy must admit that election times are the worst for sound and creative policy thinking.

And that is the problem. Since February this year, we have not had any serious debate. Well, make that December when the country broke for Christmas and the summer break.

So that is a full ten months spent in eager anticipation of the election. Or nearly a third of this electoral term. What a waste of time.

You can add to this policy-free time the first months of this term which the Key government spent in a strange kind of paralysis. Remember the Northland by-election in March 2015? This distraction first robbed the Government of its focus and then of its parliamentary majority. And it cost the country six months. And I will not even mention the flag referendum here.

If we were to subtract these times of campaign, distraction and our long summer breaks, it would probably leave little more than a year in this term in principle available to policy development.

By the way, this is a problem for both government and opposition parties. All parties suffer from the lack of uninterrupted time for policy thinking and development. The machinery of playing politics crushed it.

No wonder, then, that Labour could not tell us their detailed tax plans. I do not believe in conspiracy theories that they were hiding anything from view. I believe that they simply have not been able to think properly about it – despite nine years in opposition.

To spare us the madness of future election campaigns with their instant policy prescriptions, there is one and only one way out of this quagmire: New Zealand needs to increase the length of its parliamentary terms.

Now, I know the instant counterargument: Longer terms make it harder to kick out bad governments. That is true.

But on the flipside, shorter terms make it so much harder to become a good government – or indeed a good opposition.

The short-termism that comes with electioneering sucks all the creativity and intelligence out of our politicians and dedicates it to campaigning. It makes them go mad, and it makes voters mad, too.

It is telling that in the other advanced country under MMP, Germany, they are currently debating parliamentary terms as well. Except in Germany, terms at the federal level are already four years – and the question is to increase them to five. In 15 out of 16 German federal state parliaments, terms are five years already.

There is only one thing worse than this year’s election. It is the thought that there will be another one in 2020.

Why don’t we make it 2021 – or even 2022?

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