Who's surprised the turkeys want us to vote to postpone their Christmas?
In a touching display of parliamentary unity hitherto known only when voting to increase their own pay and superannuation benefits, the leaders of our four largest political parties have declared themselves in favour of extending the parliamentary term from three years to four, and thus their own terms of employment as MPs. Only the Māori Party is yet to express a view.
The ever-diligent Justice Minister, Kris Faafoi, is working hard to put the question to voters at the 2023 election — which at least suggests, in contrast to his colleagues responsible for child poverty, climate change or housing, that one minister is planning to do something material over the next three years.
Disturbingly, polls suggest 60 per cent of voters, perhaps worn out by the shenanigans and ultimate emptiness of the 2020 campaign, would vote to give MPs their extra year — a radical departure from the 1967 and 1990 referenda when nearly 70 per cent of voters said no.
The argument politicians give in favour of extending their term is that three years doesn't give them enough time to do anything. Governments, they say, spend their first year working out what to do, their third year campaigning for re-election, and have only one proper "year of delivery" in between.
A four-year term, they claim, would double the "delivery" period to two years.
Politicians also allege that a three-year term doesn't allow for big, bold, long-term policies, since there is not enough time for their benefits to flow through before voters cast their ballots again. Give us that extra year, they beseech us, and we'll be able to deliver those ambitious and transformational programmes we always promise in election years.
Strangely, these purported constraints didn't hamper previous generations of political leaders.
For better or worse, Robert Muldoon built most of his massive energy projects. After 1984, David Lange and Roger Douglas radically transformed foreign and economic policy in less than three years and were re-elected in 1987 in a 48 per cent landslide.
Jim Bolger and Ruth Richardson unveiled benefit cuts and voluntary unionism just 53 days after the 1990 election and survived to benefit from growth of over 7 per cent during the 1993 election campaign. Bolger and Doug Graham then launched the then-controversial Treaty of Waitangi settlement process.
Even Helen Clark was prepared to raise taxes, introduce good faith bargaining and acquiesce to Laila Harre's paid parental leave scheme in 2000 before going on to be re-elected twice. John Key raised GST as part of his first-term tax switch, despite saying he wouldn't, and lived to tell the tale.
The three-year term prevented none of these then-radical moves — all of which endured for at least two more parliamentary terms, with most now locked in permanently. Nor did the three-year term prevent brave legislators like Fran Wilde, Tim Barnett, Sue Bradford, Louisa Wall and David Seymour from legalising male homosexuality and sex work, reforming child discipline, and achieving marriage equality and doctor-assisted euthanasia.
Politicians who care enough about the things they talk about can achieve enormous change in three years if they put their mind to it and take some risks.
Notwithstanding Jacinda Ardern's commitment to incrementalism that will ultimately doom her to leave no policy legacy at all, we might also note the overrepresentation of women MPs among those above who saw Parliament as more than a way to get free Koru Club membership and Instagram likes.
The change to MMP was prompted not by voters thinking politicians were too passive, but by concerns they were hyperactive. Legal scholar Geoffrey Palmer worried as early as 1977 about the New Zealand Parliament being "the fastest law-makers in the west" — although that didn't stop him making use of those same provisions as Lange's Deputy Prime Minister and, briefly, as Prime Minister himself.
The concern about hyperactivity led Bolger to propose a restored Upper House to check the House of Representatives, as an alternative to MMP. If we do go for a four-year term, something like that would be needed.
An Upper House could be like the US or Australian senates and be democratically elected. Alternatively, we could look at an indigenous version of something like the House of Lords.
That could include strong representation from iwi connected to particular rohe, similar to but not the same as British hereditary peers, plus the great and the good from business, the unions, sport and the arts appointed for life. Being unelected, the role of such an Upper House could only be to publicly call out a Government for going too far and perhaps delay things, with the ultimate decision still resting with the existing democratic House of Representatives, but that would be better than nothing.
Trust me, Richardson and Harre are friends of mine and I admire them greatly, but you really don't want either running around Parliament for four years unchecked, or a Muldoon, Douglas or Bradford. Faafoi will need to tell us what sort of additional checks he has in mind if he wants voters to take his referendum seriously.
If the case against a four-year term was previously that politicians were too active, the case against it now is that they are too lazy.
In practice, the term of a New Zealand Government is already six years, but with voters having a right of recall after three. Governments that maintain at least basic competence through six years are invariably rewarded with a bonus further three.
Nine years is plenty for a Government to transform New Zealand in line with some guiding economic and political philosophy, if they have one and the wherewithal and inclination to bother executing it.
That Key and now Ardern decided that ambitiously tackling our infrastructure and social deficits was mere election talk, not to be taken as indicative of serious intent, is not some systemic failure. It is on them. And there is absolutely no reason to reward their successors with a fourth year in which just to fiddle around.
- Matthew Hooton is an Auckland-based PR consultant.