Four-year term better in theory than practice

There’s no evidence that a four-year Parliamentary term would lead to better legislation, argues Wellington lawyer Graeme Edgeler. And nor is there evidence that the current three-year term prevents Parliament from completing major law reform projects.

When a four-year parliamentary term is suggested, its advocates tend to use variations on the same basic argument: ‘three years is too short’. Well, too short to do what?

If we had a longer term this might enable a Government to make the case for necessary but unpopular proposals (a common example is dealing with the long-term affordability of Government superannuation). But the existence of three-year term didn’t prevent the government from increasing eligibility from 60 to 65 between 1992 and 2001 (over the course of three very different governments), and hasn’t prevented both National and Labour promising to go further in the last few years.

I can appreciate the theory that a four-year term will enable a more considered policy formation process, better Parliamentary scrutiny of legislation, and less rushed law. It is a nice theory. But there seems to be very little evidence to support the idea that the theory will play out in practice. Are countries with longer terms than ours better governed than New Zealand? The United Kingdom’s five-year fixed term didn’t provide the necessary opportunity for the Government to convince people of the risks of voting for Brexit, and it didn’t stop the Conservative Party from promising the referendum in the first place. Did they need a six-year term instead?

New Zealand can do major law reform. During the debate on the third reading of the Income Tax Bill 2007, then Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen noted:

“I finish by pointing out that we are the only country in the world that has successfully completed this project. Other countries have attempted to do so, but have had to abandon the project part-way through.”

Over the course of multiple Parliaments we have passed major law reform projects not only with respect to income tax, but search and surveillance and criminal procedure. That it is difficult to prepare and pass such laws in one Parliament, or even in one Government may in fact be one of the strengths of our system. All the ground-breaking policy we have, we have been able to get with a three-year term. We are told that our Accident Compensation system is the envy of the world, but countries with four-, five- and six-year terms still haven’t been able to enact one.

Under the proposed Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand, we would have more protections for human rights, but we would still have many fewer checks on Government power than other constitutional democracies: we would still have a unicameral legislature, we would still have the strongest parliamentary whip of any of the countries we like to compare ourselves to, we wouldn’t have binding citizens-initiative referendums, or primary elections, or recall elections, and we wouldn’t have an elected head of state with a power of veto.

I might agree with those choices, but our system would still be made up by choosing the option that provides the least check on governmental power in most areas. When the possible advantages of a four-year term are so unclear, what at do we risk by abandoning the one major democratic check on Government we actually have – our relatively short legislative term?



Graeme Edgeler is a Wellington lawyer. He blogs on legal issues for Public Address.