During last week’s discussions at Waitangi, the Prime Minister stated that he favoured a four-year term for Parliament and a fixed election date. Labour’s David Shearer, the Green’s Metiria Turei, New Zealand First’s Winston Peters, and United Future’s Peter Dunne all agreed. ACT’s John Banks said he didn’t think the public would support a move to increase the job security of politicians, and the Maori Party said they didn’t have a view – even though the length of the term of Parliament and the issue of whether or not New Zealand should have a fixed election date are both key items for consideration in their constitutional review.
While New Zealand currently has a three-year term, our Parliament started its life with a five year term. The New Zealand Constitution Act of 1852, which founded the New Zealand nation by granting self-government to our Colony, fixed the maximum parliamentary term at 5 years. It stayed that way until 1879, when it was reduced to three years.
Since that time, there have only been three periods of general emergency when the term of Parliament has been extended in the national interest. The first occasion was in 1916 during the First World War, when the term was increased by cross party agreement to 5 years. The second was during the depression when, in 1932, the term was extended by a year. Following that, a general provision was passed in 1934 to increase the term of Parliament permanently to four years. This was however repealed after the 1935 general election, with some speculating that it could have contributed to the defeat of the Forbes government.
The third and final occasion that the term of Parliament was extended was during the Second World War, when in 1941 a one year extension was agreed by parties, followed by a further one year extension in 1942.
There have also been two attempts to extend the term of Parliament from three years to four years on a permanent basis, through public referenda.
The first of these was a stand-alone referendum held on 23 September 1967, when voters were asked to vote on two issues – extending the term of parliament and abolishing the six o’clock closing law that had been in place since 1917. The attempt to change the term of parliament from three years to four years was rejected by 68.1 percent of voters, while 64.5 percent voted in favour of ending the six o’clock swill. The voter turnout was 69.7 percent.
A second referendum on the length of the term of Parliament was held on 27 October 1990, in conjunction with New Zealand’s 43rd General Election. Voters were again asked whether they approved of extending the term of Parliament from three years to four years, but the change was rejected by 69.3 percent of voters. The voter turnout was 82.4 percent.
New Zealand’s three year parliamentary term is undoubtedly on the short side. The United States House of Representatives has a shorter term, at two years, and the Australian House of Representatives has a similar 3-year term, but most other countries have four, five or six-year terms. However, since New Zealand’s Upper House of Parliament – the Legislative Council – was abolished in 1950, our shorter term and more frequent elections are seen as the only way that voters can effectively restrain the powers of the Executive and hold the government to account. It is our way of ensuring that the government remains responsible to voters – ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’.
Over the years a number of arguments have been put forward by advocates of a four year term, but the main one is the issue of stability. Without a doubt elections have a destabilising influence on a country. As voters know, many personal and business decisions are put on hold until the outcome of an election is known.
For the business sector, it is an unfortunate reality that a change in government usually results in major changes to the tax system, the labour market, and the regulatory environment in which they operate. As a result, elections can seriously undermine business viability and confidence. Investors in particular can face major challenges as an upcoming election signals that the rules may be about to change.
It is also not uncommon for governments to engage in electioneering, in an attempt to “buy” the support of a voting block – like Labour’s 2005 free student loan policy (estimated at the time by Treasury to cost up to $1 billion a year), that was introduced in late July just weeks ahead of the September General Election. Extending the term of Parliament would reduce the frequency of such “bribes” designed for short term political advantage.
The other main reason given by advocates for extending the Parliamentary term is that a four-year period in office will encourage governments to focus more on the long term good of the country and will ultimately deliver better government. They argue that policies often need longer than three years to properly come into effect and that our present term is too short for voters to be able to adequately assess whether the government is doing a good job. However, this does not appear to have played out in practice, as there have only been two occasions in modern times when a government hasn’t been re-elected for a second term. The Second Labour Government under the leadership of Walter Nash is attributed to have lost office in 1960 after one term, due to a balance of payments crisis associated with a collapse in the price of butter in Britain, and a Black Budget that increased tax on beer, tobacco, cars and petrol. And the Third Labour Government under the stewardship of Prime Minister Bill Rowling lost office after a single term as a result of the death of the popular Prime Minister Norman Kirk and the economic challenges caused by the oil crisis.
In the final analysis, the main reason that the public are said to have rejected an extension to the length of the term of parliament over the years is that our shorter term is virtually the only democratic constraint that New Zealanders have on the government. Voters know that if a government becomes reckless or arrogant, then at least we only have to put up with them for three years before getting the opportunity to vote them out. If we had other measures in place to restrain government power, such as a second chamber of Parliament or a citizens’ right of veto for unjustifiable legislation – a system that works extremely well in Switzerland and the USA – New Zealanders would no doubt be more supportive of the concept of a longer parliamentary term.
This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is Graeme Edgeler, a Wellington Barrister with an interest in electoral and constitutional law and the author of the Legal Beagle blog. In his article A four-year parliamentary term?, Graeme examines a concern that has been raised – that with both John Key and David Shearer favouring an extension of the term of Parliament to four-years, together they would have the 75 percent majority needed in Parliament to pass such a law change under the reserve powers of the Electoral Act:
“This is technically accurate – the term of Parliament is contained in one of the reserved section of the Electoral Act, which requires a 75 percent vote in the House of Representatives, or public support at a referendum to amend. However, I do not accept that a 75 percent majority in the House of Representatives (or even a 100 percent majority) could legitimately extend the parliamentary term. I am firmly of the view that the allowance for a 75 percent majority to avoid the hard limit of three years for the term of Parliament is to allow for a temporary extension in a time of national emergency, in circumstances where a referendum couldn’t work.
“If, for example, a major natural disaster, perhaps on the scale of the Canterbury earthquakes, or larger, were to occur shortly before Parliament was to be dissolved prior to an election, it may be acceptable for the term of Parliament to be altered, in order to ensure that a fair election can be held. The requirement that both the government and a large segment of the opposition support such a move should ensure that it is not abused by being used unnecessarily, or for unnecessarily long. As such a government would lack the imprimatur of public legitimacy – the democratic mandate of its MPs (and of those in the opposition who support them) expiring after three years – I would expect that government to operate effectively as either a government of national unity, or with regard to the principles of caretaker government. Its role would be to save lives, ensure continuity of necessary services, and set in place the machinery for a fair election to be held as soon as possible.
“A decision on a permanent extension of the term of Parliament carries none of the urgency that permits Parliament, with a supermajority, to extend its term in a time of national emergency. Given that it is a decision as to how much control that we as voters have over those who control much of our lives, it is something over which voters must have the final say.” You can read Graeme’s excellent analysis of the pros and cons of a four year term HERE.
To his credit the Prime Minister is reported as saying that the only way that such a change to a four-year Parliamentary term would take place on his watch is through a public referendum process – “it would never take place unless New Zealanders have a chance to vote on it and decide they want to do it”.1
While John Key doesn’t appear to have spoken out publicly about any of the other key issues identified in the government’s constitutional review, one can only hope that his view that major changes to our constitutional arrangements should only take place through a public referendum process, will apply.
In the meantime, those political parties that support a change from our three-year parliamentary term to four years, should be asked what additional constraints on government power they propose the public should be given in return? Do they believe our Upper House of Parliament should be restored, or would they support the introduction of a Citizens’ Veto right on newly passed legislation? It is a very fair question.