A four-year term: would it make a difference?

A four-year Parliamentary term won’t on its own improve the quality of New Zealand legislation, argues Professor Margaret Wilson. What’s needed are broader reforms to protect citizens’ rights and change Parliament’s adversarial culture. 

If there is one thing everyone who talks about constitutional reform agrees on it is that New Zealand should have a four-year Parliamentary term. The arguments for this change are compelling. A four-year term would provide more time for policy to develop and legislation to be better scrutinised before enactment. The result, it is argued, would be better law, and better law would mean greater clarity and certainty that should lead to more efficiency and hopefully justice for all.

The fundamental argument for the four-year term therefore rests on having more time. More time for the political and administrative process to improve the whole system of governance. The basic issue then is whether more time alone will deliver better policy. I remain sceptical time alone will produce the desired outcome. The real issue is how the time is used as much as how much time you have. A more efficient use of time, however, requires substantial changes to the way Parliamentary time is organised and a more inclusive approach to citizen participation in policy making.

As a Minister, I certainly felt the tyranny of political time compressed into three years to deliver the manifesto commitments and fulfil the expectations of those who voted for your party. The first year was spent coming to terms with the reality and responsibility of governance and delivering such policy change to reassure voters you are fulfilling your promises.  For example, as Minister of Labour I was instructed to introduce a new employment relationship statutory framework within 100 days. President Trump is experiencing the same 100-day expectation even though he has a four-year term.

If you are lucky the second year of the government will enable considered policy development resulting in your Bill being enacted that year or at least high enough on the Order Paper to be enacted early in the third year. The final year of course is all about preparing for the election at the end of the year.

Even given these time constraints, some argue New Zealand’s Parliament still produces too much legislation. It is true the quality is variable but I doubt more time alone will improve the quality. For me it is how time is used that is more important than whether we have a three or four-year Parliamentary term. Without any other change to our constitutional arrangements in Parliament, four years is unlikely to improve the quality of either policy or legislation.

In the past, I have not supported a four-year Parliamentary term because under our current constitution we have in reality executive sovereignty, not Parliamentary sovereignty. A four-year term alone would just enable another year of essentially unchecked executive decision making. As an ordinary citizen, the only check on this power is the three-year election.

For me, then, a four-year Parliamentary term must be accompanied by a more formal recognition of the rights of the opposition in Parliament to challenge and contribute to government decision making. The UK Parliament provides some useful examples we could use to ensure the opposition can raise and debate issues to challenge the government and provide a check on the tyranny of the majority that is often a very small majority of two or three votes. The prevailing winner-take-all adversarial approach in our Parliament continues to dominate political thinking in Parliament. As Speaker, I found a deep-seated reluctance to place any real constraint on Members’ behaviour when the Standing Orders Committee rejected introducing a code of good practice, even though many individual members supported such a change.

Also, the rights of individual citizens must be respected and not overturned under urgency without any real opportunity for anyone, including the opposition, to challenge the abolition of fundamental human rights as happened in both the Peter Jackson-inspired amendment to the Employment Relations Act and the New Zealand Public Health and Disability Amendment Act 2013. It is also time we recognised the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act is not an optional extra to any government action. Citizens’ right to challenge government decisions that ignore fundamental human rights must be clarified and supported through entrenchment of respect for the rule of law. It is the rule of law that provides transparent, accessible and accountable public decision making.

Personally, I welcome a debate on the four-year Parliamentary term but only in the context of the approach outlined by Palmer and Butler in their book A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand. It is time to seriously consider formalising our constitutional arrangements. We need to recognise public governance in the 21st century is more complex than in the 19th century. If we are to preserve our democratic form of governance we need a courageous government to lead the debate for a new constitutional arrangement.

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Professor Margaret Wilson is a former Cabinet Minister and Speaker of the House. She was the founding Dean of the University of Waikato School of Law, and has served in wide range of public service roles.