Support from business for longer terms

16:00, Mar 01 2013

The prime minister has thrown his weight behind a four-year Parliamentary term. William Mace talked to business leaders about why they agree.

John Key will next week move into 15th position among New Zealand's longest serving prime ministers, overtaking one of the nation's most loved politicians, Michael Joseph Savage.

Savage died in office during World War II after repelling a vicious attack from inside his own Labour Party, so it seems longevity is really the only parallel that can be drawn between he and Key.

But after two election victories and a swathe of positive polling results at the mid-way point of this Parliament, Key will fancy his chances to hold on to power at next year's election.

So his Waitangi Day pronouncement that New Zealand's Parliamentary term should be extended from three to four years could be seen as an opportunistic attempt to get an extra year in office without the nuisance of winning a fourth election.

Ten years would put him past Helen Clark and Peter Fraser into third in the longevity stakes - though still well short of "King Dick" Seddon, who held on to power for 13 years.


But the issue engenders more than self-interest judging by the unanimous support for the change among business leaders surveyed.

While some acknowledge the difficulty with keeping politicians accountable to their constituents when elections are four years apart, the need for more long term, strategic planning and policy-making from our political leaders trumped that concern.

Any change in the Parliamentary term would require the support of 75 per cent of MPs but Key has said it would need to be decided through public support in a referendum.

A poll of 3882 people found 61 per cent in favour of a four-year term and 39 per cent against.

A similar proposal has failed twice before, in 1967 and 1990.


Regardless of which party leads the coalition government, New Zealanders and our economy would benefit greatly from having greater stability in our central government.

The current three-year term causes governments to favour more populist policies and defer taking some of the tougher calls that are often needed to serve New Zealanders' longer term interests.

We elect governments to provide bold leadership, not to merely reflect the views of the latest opinion polls. A four-year term would give our policy makers enough time between election campaigns to get on and lead the country.


New Zealand's political pendulum appears to have settled closer to the centre than ever before so we see a large group of "swingers" who can very easily tip the pendulum one side or the other every time we have a general election.

Any government of the day is going to be constrained to small incremental changes in order to achieve outcomes that are merely adaptations of the former government's agendas.

Trying to have our entire country transform within a three-year time horizon is akin to an SME-cum-micro business operating from day-to-day and seeing just six to 12 months ahead.

A four-year, or even a five-year, term, regardless of the political agenda, therefore has to be a good thing. Our "swinging" voters will then become more directed and develop a stronger sense of purpose with clearer values.

Voters will hunger for information, pay more attention to political agendas, be more proactive and therefore display a greater sense of values and purpose.


It should change to four years, otherwise there's just not enough time for any party to dig in and get things happening.

But we never seem to give the people we vote for a definitive sense of direction from a voters' perspective of what we're looking for them to accomplish and that's not going to change whether it's three or four years. It's not just the political parties' fault, it's the voters' fault for not understanding the broader issues - I don't know how we conquer that.

The bigger issue is to let the voters understand whatever the issue is - economy, jobs, social welfare, mining - let's not just worry about the hole in the road outside our driveway.

The problem is we don't really know who we've got to run the country until the voting is over and then in many cases they don't necessarily have the expertise for the portfolios we give them

We rely on the public service and the ongoing bureaucracy so nothing really changes . . . we allow politicians to steer the country with the existing bureaucracy in place unchallenged.


It's expensive and not only in terms of the cost of running elections but because everybody has to down tools, and public policy often takes quite a long time to actually work.

The reason it's three years is because people say, "Well, we don't trust the buggers" - but we should just take a little more care about who we elect and then give them a chance to do the job. We'll hope it doesn't become four years of electioneering like the US.

What business wants is certainty . . . no matter what the circumstances may be you can factor in a plan for it, but if things keep changing all the time nothing settles down.

Because of the short amount of time, a lot of legislation is rushed and poorly drafted and a lot of detail is left to regulations which then officials have to sort through, and often the regulations themselves become problematic.


In a country our size, particularly where you don't have state governments, a government needs four years to bed-in what their policies are.

There are many instances in the past where governments have been voted out when they have started policies which would be of benefit to the country but which are never implemented because the other party that gets in, whether [the policy is] good or bad, just won't have anything to do with them.

There is a possibility a longer term leads to a little laziness . . . but no matter what colour the government is, they need to be able to give their policies a fair shake.

SMEs sometimes can be the forgotten end of town but they generate a fair percentage of the country's wealth and employ a fair percentage of the country's population.

They don't get the opportunity to present their opinions and needs to governments because of the shortness of time - ministers are damn difficult to tie down - so given that extra year I think SMEs would feel there's another 12 months for us to get in and state our views.


Moving to a four-year term makes a lot of sense, particularly in regards to providing continuity for the country.

From a business perspective, we need investment certainty. A four-year term would mean the government would have more time between election campaigns, which typically take a lot of time and can be extremely distracting.

As a company that is continually making large investment decisions, we need policy-makers who can execute on their longer-term view with less concern for imminent re-election battles. It takes time to deliver on a telecommunications vision and it also requires commitment to promote competitive outcomes that generate real value for consumers and businesses.

A longer term would ensure there is more stability and consistency, not just with elected representatives, but also with their officials and ministries.

PHIL VEAL, NEW YORK-BASED PARTNER AT GROWFIRE AND CHAIRMAN OF THE KIWI EXPATRIATES ASSOCIATION I don't think there's enough time in the current three-year cycle for government to achieve anything constructive.

I'm all for keeping politicians accountable . . . but I would be happy seeing a longer term that would force parties to be more visionary and strategic in their policy setting and how they pitch themselves to the electorate.

A longer term would give them a better sense of where the economy's going and what are the priorities for the next electoral cycle.

One of the things I would like to see more of in New Zealand is politicians who are not afraid to make bigger calls at the risk of putting themselves out of a job at the next election.

If people are going to commit their lives to politics we need to give them just a little bit longer to achieve.

[The US President] has got a maximum of eight years so in the first term you want to prepare something relatively material in the first two years and then bed down and prepare and hope those changes are realised and the electorate benefits in the next two years.

Then hopefully that gets you home for the second term.


After many years observing governments and some reflection, I have formed the personal view that a move to four-year parliamentary terms is likely to be beneficial for the country.

It takes time for governments to implement their vision and, as a small country, we are vulnerable to external influences that can delay the policy plans of even the most focused of governments.

By adding one year to the parliamentary term, we are likely to be reducing the amount of short-term thinking displayed as elections loom, and hopefully make policy implementation a lot more certain.

I believe that MMP has provided us with greater political diversity so far, and consequently a wider political scrutiny of decision-making.

The Ngai Tahu vision is embodied in our whakatauki [proverb] "Mo tatou, a mo ka uri a muri ake nei", which translates as "For us and our children after us".

It is this intergenerational thinking that we would like to encourage governments to participate in and my hope would be that a four-year term would encourage a longer-term mind-set.


It would bring additional stability and certainty for business, but it wouldn't solve all our problems - we still need regulatory change and better, evidence-based policy development.

What would make more of a difference is improving the poor quality of much of our new law - through a proper Regulatory Responsibility Act that requires all planned new legislation to conform to standards of transparency, accountability and cost-benefit efficiency.

Other fixes include getting better public debate around important issues, better understanding of the role of politicians, improving the policy-making process generally, and dealing with the problems brought by MMP, in particular the deal-making among political parties that brings so much uncertainty.