Three years or more?

WHEN THREE IS NOT ENOUGH: Prime Minister John Key says should be a four-year fixed term of Parliament.
WHEN THREE IS NOT ENOUGH: Prime Minister John Key says should be a four-year fixed term of Parliament.


If politicians come out substantially in favour of a four-year parliamentary term - and they might - it will still be a far from straightforward matter selling it to the public.

The case for adding an extra year to the term of each government is not entirely fanciful and National and Labour are smiling upon it. But there's plenty of legitimate public mistrust that would need to be overcome before the idea could prevail at referendum level.

Three years, they say, is just too short for the poor old Government to realise its shimmering vision for the nation.

Another way to cast the same dynamic - a way even a below-average student of politics should recognise - is a cycle in which you spend the first year trying to do what you promised in the election or explain away why you're not doing it after all; the second year taking the chance to add new policies which have either just come upon you, unbidden, or which you weren't game to 'fess up to during the campaign; and then the third year fighting an election.

Those who argue for change aren't above raising some dodgy comparisons. Grave voices draw our attention to what a rarity a three-year term is among the countries with which we identify. Australia has one but the terms are longer in the United States and Europe. That's a careless comparison really because, as electoral commentator Philip Temple points out, those with four or five-year terms also have something else we don't - second houses which apply another level of scrutiny to laws before they are passed.

What we do have, we will no doubt be reminded, is an MMP system that puts more checks and balances on the potential excesses of our government. This is true and a good thing too. On the face of things it strengthens the argument for a longer period on the basis that any government nowadays has to choose its legislative agenda more carefully beforehand and will typically find that it cannot pass some of its cherished policies. (You could call this weaker government, but it's not easy to argue that it's a bad thing without sounding more than a little Muldoonist.)

And let's not forget that the future of MMP, as well as the electoral term, are matters that a constitutional review advisory panel is considering. Their significance certainly intertwines.

Prime Minister John Key favours a four-year term with a fixed election date. He has said before that there is an appetite among the public for a four-year term because as things stand they have to go back to the polls much more quickly than most of them want. Now is that right? You tell us.

There's no getting around it, either, that in the past quarter-century only two Governments were voted out after a single term, in 1960 and 1975. But that doesn't necessarily mean that an election three years after a new Government has come to power is just some tedious charade. People in 1960 and 1975 didn't seem to think so.

Dr Temple rather sniffily noted last year that business leaders promoting a four-year term were consistent with their earlier anti-MMP stance. Less democratic choice and accountability for the general public, he said.

The electoral system and parliamentary term provisions were interlocked and any final proposal must be put to a referendum, he said. And there should be basic safeguards including fixed election dates, with no possibility for snap elections at prime ministerial whim.

Mr Key would seem to be on board with that. But Dr Temple also warns there must be a system of constructive votes of no confidence for cases in which a government simply cannot continue.

The Southland Times