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Time to get off the hamster wheel

By Pip England, Chief Executive Partner, Chapman Tripp

With election season well and truly upon us, this is an opportunity to consider whether it’s finally time that New Zealand moved to a four year electoral cycle.

It’s a decision that can only be made by a 75% vote in Parliament or by a simple majority in a public referendum, and previously the prevailing opinion among voters has been that we want to keep our politicians on a tight leash.

Two referendums have been held on the subject – in 1967 and 1990 – and both were lost by more than two thirds’ majorities.

But that view may be changing. The 2013 Constitutional Advisory Panel noted that there was “reasonable support” for a four year term among the people it consulted and recommended a further public consultation on the idea.

And it has surfaced again in the interim report of the Independent Electoral Review, released in June, which recommends that we have another referendum, this time supported by a well-resourced information campaign, including dedicated engagement with Māori communities and leaders.

I know BusinessNZ is already providing leadership in this area but the rest of us need to get in behind.

New Zealand is increasingly an outlier. Of the 190 countries with some form of parliament, only nine have three year terms. And we are one of only three jurisdictions that have a unicameral or single chamber house and a three year term. The other two are Nauru and El Salvador.

There are real costs attached to the status quo.

There is a point at which voter sovereignty must be balanced against intelligent and effective government - and international evidence would suggest that the three year term may be on the wrong side of that balance.

The hamster wheel nature of the three year term and its debilitating effects on our political culture are well understood.

The first year in office is typically dominated by ostentatious list-ticking as the government delivers on its key election commitments - whether they still make fiscal sense, or ever made sense.

Most of the third year is also often wasted as difficult decisions are shelved and the attention of MPs is increasingly drawn away from the House and from the business of government.

It was these behaviours which Sir Geoffrey Palmer was no doubt referring to when he described the three year term as "the greatest enemy of good legislation.”

There is also a qualitative argument about whether voter control is best achieved through regular elections or through allowing time for policies to bed in so that we can make a more informed judgement about the calibre of the governance on offer.

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