Editorial: Four more years?

16:00, Feb 07 2013

There are two ways to look at John Key's call for a four-year parliamentary term.

The first is that it will give the "bastards" more time. The second is that it will give voters more time to assess whether their representatives and, more particularly, governments are deserving of another term.

By international standards New Zealand's electoral cycle is short. Australia too, has a three-year term, but the United States president serves for four years and so do the parliaments of Germany, Japan and a host of other nations. Britain has a five-year term.

The attraction of a shorter electoral cycle is that it allows voters to dismiss truly awful governments quickly and it make politicians more responsive to public opinion.

The reality in New Zealand since 1960, however, is that voters have only once exercised their prerogative to turf out a government after only three years.

That was in 1975, when National leader Rob Muldoon described the Labour prime minister Bill Rowling as "a shiver looking for a spine to run up" and ran the infamous "Dancing Cossacks" advertisements that characterised Labour's superannuation policy as Communism by stealth.


Many who voted for National that day probably now wish they had been a little slower to pull the trigger, particularly as the Labour superannuation scheme scrapped by Sir Robert would, if it had endured, have taken care of this country's superannuation worries.

Since 1996 the picture has been complicated by the switch to the MMP electoral system. Voters have tinkered with governments by altering the makeup of governing alliances.

Between 1999 and 2002, for example, Helen Clark's Labour Party governed in coalition with the Alliance and with the support of the Greens.

By 2005 her party was dependent upon Winston Peters' NZ First for its parliamentary majority. However, the dominant party in post-MMP governments has also always governed for at least two terms.

The major disadvantage of a three-year term is also its biggest advantage: It makes politicians keenly aware of public opinion.

No sooner has a government been elected than it is facing re-election. It takes a brave government in those circumstances to take hard decisions and to avoid the temptation to prime the pumps.

As the pre-election sweeteners routinely dished out before elections have shown, this country has not been blessed with many brave governments.

What government is going to make hard choices when its members face the prospect of unemployment if they do the right thing?

A four-year term would provide breathing space. It would also give governments more time to fine-tune their policies before implementing them. The New Zealand Parliament has not earned the reputation for being the fastest legislator in the west for no reason.

Finally, a four-year term would give voters more time to take the measure of their elected representatives. One more year might be enough to identify hopeless governments that should be put out of our misery.

The Dominion Post