Short electoral cycle breeds inexperience and conservatism

New Zealand’s short three-year parliamentary term is an impediment to meaningful policy implementation. Politicians have a fire under their bum to get stuff done fast. There is no time for new politicians to learn the ropes and, consequently, policy-on-the-fly becomes the modus operandi.

There’s also a tendency to play it safe and shy away from tackling the most politically unpalatable and divisive topics. After all, why would you risk going out on a limb with implementing a bold policy when you have little time to win over your critics before the next election?

I recently stumbled across a fantastic interview by Professor Jonathan Boston from Victoria University that elegantly dissected why New Zealand should move from a three to four-year parliamentary term.

Professor Boston said the key arguments for a longer term “relate to having more time and opportunity to address big, long-term issues, whether they are environmental, economic and housing and so on”.

A longer term would also allow for more time to “consult, deliberate and seek to build a consensus across the political spectrum to address the hard challenges that we face”, he said.

Professor Boston also said that New Zealand’s move to MMP has made that arguments for a four-year term even stronger.

“Single-party Government with a clear majority, obviously, is much easier to decide what your policy is and implement it,” he said. “But when you have to negotiate across the House – in quite a complicated situation sometimes – you need more time. And you don’t just need to negotiate with other MPs, to address the big issues of the day. You need wide public consultation, and you need the capacity to be able to build consensus on the way forward.”

Professor Boston also added that having a shorter term reduces the experience and expertise that you have in the House.

“We have a turnover of roughly a quarter of MPs every Parliament, so a lot of new MPs each time, and aside from that, just having a longer term means that politicians can take a somewhat more measured approach to decision-making, which will hopefully result in better decisions,” he said.

The interview with Professor Boston concluded by exploring how you would seek a mandate for changing from a three to four-year parliamentary term.

There would need to be a government-initiated referendum at the time of the next election, taken in the context of cross-party support. There is no point putting this issue to referendum if parliament is divided.

If the referendum was successful, the lengthened parliamentary-term would then not start until the subsequent election.

In other words, you would still have a standard three-year term next cycle, and then the first four-year term would take effect at the subsequent election.

You can listen to Professor Boston’s full interview below.