The impact of populist policies, and the increasing division between politicians and the
electorate in the UK up to 2010, have been amplified across the world in many democracies in the subsequent decade.
This has culminated in the widespread dissatisfaction with the political elite that led to the election of Donald Trump and also, arguably, to the massive Tory majority in the last UK election.
All too often our politicians appear to be either tone-deaf to the needs of the electorate or are so busy ensuring their own re-election that they fail to deliver on critical policies needed for the modern world. Populism and cautiousness are a potent combination.
To help guard against this, we need to rethink our political terms. In New Zealand there is already some debate around lengthening the parliamentary term from three years to four, to help reduce electioneering and give a government a decent period in which to implement its policies.
I consider this a sensible step, but it needs to be combined with another innovation – term limits for politicians. If a parliament is extended to a four-year term, each MP should be limited to no more than two four-year terms.
At first blush, this appears to be radical (although US presidencies have had a two-term limit since the 1940s) but, in reality, it would do much to address many of the failings of our political system.
First, it would create turnover in our parliamentary representatives; in effect, half of the 120 MPs would need to be replaced every election. This would very quickly correct issues of gender and ethnic representation, as longstanding politicians sitting in safe seats would also be removed, freeing up winnable seats for a new generation of politicians.
It would make quotas, and the associated constrained candidate shortlists, a thing of the past. Our political landscape must reflect the composition of our population and address historical irregularities in representation, but quotas have not always been perfect solutions.
A politician once told me that they were not able to bring needed skills into their caucus to manage a critical portfolio because the needs of gender rebalancing took precedence.
Second, it eliminates the career politician. Ironically, it is the success of our current Prime Minister that demonstrates the workability of this solution. Jacinda Ardern did not have ministerial or much party leadership experience before her election, indicating that traditional political experience is not that important.
What is important is that we get our brightest and best, with a diverse set of up-to-date skills and experience, sitting in Parliament and directing this country. All too often the political ranks are filled with advisers, lobbyists or researchers, whose experience outside of Wellington and political arenas is limited or non-existent.
In an ideal world, term limits would apply to all elected roles, including mayors and city councillors. The idea is to get more people acting as servants of their fellow citizens, so this becomes either a career break or something people consider after they have achieved
success in another field.
To allow for the translation of experience and skill sets to different roles, it might be appropriate to ring-fence term limits around each position – so a two-term MP could then be eligible to stand for (say) a mayoralty and serve two terms in that role, if successful.
In my own interactions with politicians of all hues, it often becomes apparent that their experience of the "real world" is out of date or coloured by views developed years before, and that their understanding of the dynamics of a modern economy is very limited.
Elimination of the career politician enables the full complement of skills in Parliament to be refreshed and also reinstates the political class as servants of the people – not just another individual pursuing a career in elected office.
I expect that this suggestion will not be received with any favour in Wellington – after all, why would turkeys vote for Christmas? But failure to revitalise our political agents to reengage with society – not just at the superficial level, but with policies that resonate with and are relevant to our people – inevitably leads to disengagement and, ultimately, to political experiments like President Trump.
• Entrepreneur and philanthropist Andrew Barnes is a former chairman of Regional Facilities Auckland, the innovator behind the four-day week and founder of a number of entities in the financial services and technology sectors.