Should New Zealand do away with a three-year parliamentary term?

3:02 pm on 31 July 2019

By Sandeep Singh*

Opinion - The question of whether to increase the three year parliamentary term has been raised again.

The Beehive, Wellington.

Photo: 123rf

And on this subject, New Zealand's ethnic communities can help in some way in changing the "inertia" around the whole argument.

There is high inertia within the New Zealand political system on the issue, with both the political class and the electorate seeming to have cold feet on the subject.

What else would explain a seemingly moribund response to a recently released report from the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies of Victoria University, which is seeking to rekindle the idea of expanding the parliamentary term?

There have not been many takers of the idea within the New Zealand political class.

In fact, Minister for Justice Andrew Little had already doused the idea by saying there is more of a need for educating New Zealanders around political process and democracy.

It seems that our political class has been too traumatised, by the earlier resounding rejection of an extension of the parliamentary term in 1967 and 1990 referendums, and the electorate, in the absence of any political thrust to educate them on this much-important issue, remains rightfully uninterested.

However, it should be noted that the composition of New Zealand electorates has changed dramatically since then. Particularly in the 1990s, when the changes to immigration policy based on the selection of immigrants based on skills, not country of origin, were introduced in 1986 and 1987, and the proportion of the ethnic migrant population significantly increased.

According to a recent population projection by Statistics NZ, nationally the Asian population will make up 21 percent of the population by 2038 (up from 12 percent in 2013).

So it is essential that they should be encouraged to formulate perspectives, especially on the critical governance issues, and put them forward in the mix of views available in the public discourse of mainstream New Zealand, for their benefits, more than anything else.

In this regard, ethnic migrants bring a variety of experience with parliamentary democracy, some have had minimal exposure to it, while others like the Kiwi-Indians have had a vigourous exposure to repetitive electoral cycles and intense political competitions.

To many of them, who have earlier lived overseas and seen a five-year parliamentary term, the idea of a three-year electoral cycle, is an intriguing deviation from an experience that they have understood as "normal."

For them, the argument that the three-year term is a severely short period for any new government to deliver any meaningful results makes far more sense.

In the first year those in a new government are expected to understand and prepare policies, while in the third year, which is also the election year, government returns to a conservative status-quo mode, fearing voter-wrath, thereby leaving only the second year for bold and energetic action.

Moreover, drawing from experiences of businesses, it has almost become conventional wisdom that the chief executives - who can look beyond their annual reporting cycle - are more effective in delivering meaningful results. Anything that encourages decision-makers in any field to lengthen their horizons is a good thing.

Even many recent migrants, who might have seen only the past electoral cycle, especially the high decibel campaigning around immigration and other infrastructure issues like housing and transport, would find it frustrating when the new government concedes almost unapologetically that they cannot bring much meaningful change within the first term of the government.

From issues ranging from immigration to Kiwibuild (housing), to transport (light-rail versus roading), New Zealand voters are given an option to vote for a distant future, and not immediate present.

Why we cannot have an electoral system where political parties' first campaign for what they can do effectively immediately, and then the government eventually delivers in the first term, rather than being seen making a self-entitled confession that the things they have campaigned for cannot be delivered in the first term.

Moreover, the suggestion or the trend of voting pattern suggesting that New Zealanders do not change their government in the first term and giving them a clear runway of at least three successive terms is contradictory to the very essence of the parliamentary democracy.

In this regard, there is a need for generating public debate, especially when the recent report by Victoria University has been made available to our politicians and members of the public to mull upon increasing the parliamentary-term.

*Sandeep Singh is the editor of Auckland based the Indian Weekender. The views expressed are personal.

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