Retiring from Parliament last week, former Attorney General Chris Finlayson made a plea for New Zealand to adopt a four-year parliamentary term. It is a plea heard often before, usually from political insiders, seldom from the public at large.
When the proposal was put to voters at referendums in 1967 and 1990, they voted to retain the three-year term by majorities of 68 per cent and 69 per cent. But the suggestion does not go away.
It has much to commend it. Those who say a three-year electoral cycle is too short argue that it severely limits what governments can do. A new government is liable to spend its first year working out what it wants to do and its third year trying not to disturb the voters before another election, leaving too little time in between for taking steps that may be necessary but will not be popular.
Those who defend the three-year term prefer it for precisely the same reason: it severely limits what governments can do. Or to put it more positively, it keeps governments responsive to the voters.
They argue a short electoral cycle is in fact the only strong check on government actions in a country that lacks others such as a written constitution, a second chamber of Parliament or a federal system. Political power in New Zealand is centralised in a single chamber parliamentary majority.
That argument was stronger when all that power was awarded to the party that won elections under the Westminster electoral system. It has less force now that we have proportional representation. No single party has governed New Zealand since the adoption of MMP, all have relied on negotiated agreements with other parties.
Proportional representation was always one of the options, with a written constitution or a second chamber, for proving checks and balances on government power. Now that we have one, should we have another look at a four-year term?
Anything that encourages decision makers in any field to lengthen their horizons is a good thing. Just as business needs chief executives who can look beyond their annual reporting cycle, and beyond their likely tenure at the top, democracies need governments that can look well beyond the next election.
Even one extra year in the electoral cycle might make quite a difference since new governments are normally re-elected at least once. New Zealand has not had a one-term government since 1975 and it has happened only twice in more than 125 years of party politics as we know it.
Most of our governments have been re-elected twice, lasting nine years. Often the public mood swings against them in their final term when people want a change. It is quite possible a four-year term would bring changes of government after eight years rather than nine, which might not be a bad thing.
The United States limits its presidency to eight years, two four-year terms, by law, believing a change at that point to be healthy for the country. But the term between elections is probably more important than a government's total duration.
A four-year term gives a government more room to be bold and far-sighted. It is worth considering again.