Why we favour a four-year term

A four-year term, along with other constitutional reforms, would help Parliament to function better and improve the quality of lawmaking, argue Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Dr Andrew Butler.

We are proposing that parliamentary elections should be held every four years, instead of every three years as at present.

We think this is necessary because New Zealand’s lawmaking system is in serious need of improvement, both in terms of the process by which legislation is made and the quality of the legislation itself.

Parliament spends more time making law than doing anything else. Yet the amount of time spent is not reflected in the quality of the legislation produced. On the contrary, New Zealand’s statute book is weighed down by laws that cannot be said to be fit for purpose.

One reason for that is the relatively short time between elections. In many countries, legislatures have four years or more between elections. New Zealand’s three-year term means the legislative programme is rushed.

Big, important Bills containing significant new laws are often hurried into force without proper planning or development. The lack of time means insufficient effort is made to get the underlying policies and the legislation itself right — there is more pressure to get things through than to get them right.

At the same time, important but usually uncontroversial smaller laws that might be very beneficial tend to languish on Parliament’s order paper, waiting – sometimes for years – for consideration. Some never become law, even when all sides agree that they should.

Insufficient time also leads governments and Parliament to amend laws in a piecemeal fashion, instead of undertaking a systematic review. Statutes subjected to this approach become long, incoherent and unclear. And, like the original laws, amendments are passed without proper consideration.

New Zealand is drowning under a sea of legislation. Since the last election, Parliament has passed more than 70 new laws, affecting many areas of New Zealanders’ lives. At the time of writing, more than 60 other proposed laws are waiting for Parliament’s consideration.

There are other reasons for poor-quality lawmaking. One is the Government’s use of urgency to get its Bills passed into law without proper consultation and consideration. Urgency is sometimes needed to respond to emergencies, but not very often. But, too often, urgency has been used to shorten select committee consideration of Bills and reduce the time available for public debate. As well as recommending a four-year term, we are recommending that use of urgency be tightened up.

Yet another reason for poor quality legislation is that the Government has a great deal of control of over the lawmaking process, and can manipulate it to avoid scrutiny or for other political purposes. Our proposals would increase the checks on government power, and give cross-party select committees more influence over the lawmaking process.

We also propose changes that would enhance the political neutrality of Parliament’s Speaker.

These changes are important, but so is the introduction of a four-year term.

As well as helping to address deficiencies in New Zealand’s lawmaking system, a fixed four-year term would also mean that governments couldn’t manipulate general election dates to suit their own political advantage. Elections would be held every four years.

In response to the argument that a four-year term is too long, we have incorporated in the proposed Constitution many more formal checks and balances than currently exist, especially a stronger Bill of Rights. Any dangers of an increased term are therefore limited, and we are strongly of the view that it is safe and far more preferable to have a longer term.



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For more information about New Zealand lawmaking, see Sir Geoffrey Palmer’s article here.