Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Steve Baron: A longer election term needed?

New Zealand is a progressive nation when it comes to democracy and politics. Our political system has changed and developed over the last millennium and is nothing like it was back in 1853 when we had our first general election. Now that we have come to a final decision regarding our electoral system, perhaps now is the time to consider a longer election term? Yes, a scary thought for some as it is often said that a three year election term is too short for a good government but too long for a bad government—yet there are many aspects about a longer election term that should be considered and debated if we are to continue to improve our democracy. There are many advantages to having a longer election term of say four or even five years. Some of these advantages include cost savings. Think of all the money that could be saved and used for other things if political parties only had to promote their abilities every five years instead of every three years, not to mention the cost savings of staging elections and employing election staff. Voters wouldn't have to be traipsing off to election booths so often so there would be less inconvenience and maybe therefore, more of us might take more interest and actually vote. This is an important aspect given such a low voter turn-out at the last election—a very concerning trend which is only getting worse.

A longer election term would also give a government more time to implement its policies with the prospect of them coming to fruition before the next election which allows voters to make a more considered decision. As it stands at present with the three year term, governments appear to rush through policy in the early stages of their term so all the difficult stuff is out of the way before the next election. No doubt this gives them a better chance of being re-elected because it may be another year or so before the public knows the outcome of earlier policy decisions. It also helps the business community because they can plan ahead with confidence having a good idea of what they can expect. When there is no confidence, business people do not invest and the economy suffers from this. A longer election term would give the business community far more certainty.

It may surprise some people to know, but a longer election term is nothing new in New Zealand. Up until 1879 New Zealanders only went to the polls every five years. Other countries such as the United Kingdom, the USA and Canada also have longer terms than New Zealand. The British and Canadians have a five year election term and the Americans four years. Our neighbours Australia have continued with a three year term just like us but the Senate (Upper House) has a six year term. One could however argue that a longer election term does not seem to have made much difference to the above countries. There is still much argument over controversial policies and these countries do not appear to be doing much better than New Zealand in regard to their political decision making. There are still however the cost savings discussed earlier.

Discussions on a longer election term are not new to New Zealand either. In 1990 New Zealanders decided in a government initiated plebiscite, to keep the three year election term. There was a very high turn-out of 85.2% with 69.3% opting to keep the three year term and 30.7% wanting a four year term. The cynical amongst us would say this result was not surprising given the distaste for the two-term Labour government of the day who showed no interest in listening to the views of New Zealanders and were hell-bent on pushing through a multitude of unpopular and divisive policies.

The downside to a longer election term is that four or five years is a long time to put up with an unpopular government and a lot of water can flow under the bridge during this time. New Zealand has very few constitutional checks and balances which is a concern. It does not have an Upper House of Parliament like many other countries, which often acts as a handbrake to policy decisions, many of which are based on party political ideology and agendas, and not necessarily with the best interests of the majority of New Zealanders at heart.

Personally, I would find it difficult to support a longer election term, and doubt New Zealanders would support one either, as much as I would like to actually see a longer one—because I simply do not trust our politicians to always make the right decisions. If for example, the veto referendum, Citizens Initiated referendum and the Recall referendum were in place to act as a check and balance on parliament I think voters would make a different decision knowing that it was they who had the final say on public policy. The trouble is here, that politicians do not like to give up their power—just like turkeys don't like to vote for Christmas.


Auntie Podes said...

A longer term? NO WAY! I am trembling in my boots wondering what the constitutional review is going to come up with. Our gummints are weak-kneed idiots who have no concept of what is desperately required to restrain Maori ambitions to completely take control of New Zealand. They have no concept of what is required for a proper basis for just and fair government where the freedoms of each and every individual are equal and paramount while the powers of politicians are restricted to restrain their personal ambitions and agendas.

Anonymous said...

You touch on the matter. The reality is that we can't trust our politicians and I say we should not even consider giving them a longer term in office while the citizens have no effective way of opposing their stitched up deals and unmandated policies.

Reform the system first and then look at a longer term of office!
Denis McCarthy