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How long is long enough?

Last updated 10:01 11/02/2013

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The proposals (a) to shorten the Sonny Bill Williams fight in Brisbane and (b) to lengthen the term of government both came out of nowhere, and not from the ordinary punters.

On both occasions, the advocates for change seemed to be the people who stood to benefit most.

Namely, Sonny Bill and his associates on one hand, and politicians on the other.

Even so, Labour leader David Shearer chose to place a bet each way - in opposition, he noted, three years always seems too long, but when you're in government it seems too short to get everything done.

For many people turned off by politics, having to endure the election circus less often might sound attractive. Phrased differently though - would you like to give politicians an extra year of lording it over you before you got the chance to kick them out? - the same proposal would probably be rejected.

As former Prime Minister Helen Clark once pointed out, one reason we allow governments only a three-year term in New Zealand is because of our unusually bare-bones political system.

This country has only a single-tier Parliament, with almost no significant checks and balances.

Given that situation, a three-year term is a safeguard against an elected dictatorship. High-handed governments can be thrown out quickly - hopefully, before they do too much damage.

In 1967 and 1990, the public voted against the idea of lengthening the term by more than a two-thirds margin.

The argument for a four-year term is that it would better enable government to get the necessary work done.

As other commentators have already pointed out, this would be a more compelling argument if, in the private sector, the same "get out of their way and let them get on with it" approach had been less controversial.

Leaky homes, fee-gouging by banks, excessive telco costs, high airport charges etc hardly provide a compelling precedent for carrying the same approach over to the public sector.

Ultimately, it comes down to whether the desired end - a better performance, perhaps, by government - can justify weakening the need to be accountable to voters.

Other countries have two-tier parliamentary systems, written constitutions, recall powers and binding referendums etc that provide far more robust platforms for democracy than we have, and thus a four-year term of government is more feasible for them.

As it happens, the current government has delivered a useful case study.

With Environment Canterbury, the current government suspended democracy to achieve ends it deemed essential.

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That has not been a popular move, and the jury is still out on the results. History tells us that such trade-offs are always a risky business.

Last century, Italy learned the hard way that any alleged benefits from having the trains run on time under Mussolini was outweighed by the longer-term costs.

Here, a public debate on the four-year term has barely begun.

Not long ago, there was a noticeable, very alarmed reaction among the nation's editorial watchdogs when Labour abolished our links to the Privy Council and created the Supreme Court.

That move was widely depicted as a threat to our democracy.

To paraphrase Sherlock Holmes, it seems rather significant that this time, the dogs are not barking.

- The Wellingtonian


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