Four more years. Those words have carried depressing connotations for New Zealanders in the recent past, echoing as they do the gloat from Wallaby halfback George Gregan when the All Blacks were bundled out of yet another Rugby World Cup tournament. The win at home in 2011 put that particular anxiety to rest.

It emerges again, however, in a different context, one that might arise watching an election night party, as in the United States. On Waitangi Day, Prime Minister John Key and Opposition leader David Shearer both voiced support for extending our parliamentary term from three to four years. Both talked sense. Acknowledging any change would require public buy-in - Mr Key thought it a common sense move that could appeal to New Zealanders.

He said the topic was part of the Constitutional Review being overseen by deputy Prime Minister Bill English and Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples. A change would need support from either three-quarters of MPs in an (unlikely) vote in Parliament or a majority in a public referendum.

Mr Key's instinct that the public might see change as sensible now runs counter to the latest public vote on a four-year term. That referendum in 1990 was a rejection by almost 70 per cent of those responding, reinforcing a similar vote in the 1960s.


What is often overlooked is the result in 1990 followed intense public disquiet at the actions of the Fourth Labour Government between 1984 and 1990, producing its landslide defeat. Voters were in no mood to give the Executive more time to push through radical and unpopular reforms. Bruised by the Douglas-ite mantra that there was no alternative, the public chose what appeared to be one of its few remaining sanctions - the three-yearly chance to cry "enough".

The referendum defeat for the four-year term preceded the adoption of the new MMP electoral system, which took effect at the 1996 election. It has, as was intended, led to broader representation and coalition governments, often produced from close election night results between the left and right political groupings.

While the Executive still drives policy change - as with this Government's determination to sell parts of the state power companies - negotiation with coalition partners or with parties across the floor of the House to secure votes for controversial measures has tended to temper radicalism.

The Government's handling of the state asset sales may well reignite public distaste for politicians and the parliamentary process, derailing any new move to extend the term. Early reaction from letters to the editor would indicate much cynicism already about giving politicians more time at the wheel.

But the arguments in favour of an extra year are sound. Governments need time to establish and then implement new policies. New Zealand has too frequently run out of time in politicians' minds to prove their benefits to the public before the short election cycle interrupts normal business. Each year, the Budget documents forecast spending and revenues four or five years out, but the incumbent government must spend its political capital within a maximum of two and a half.

Some would argue that in winning a second or third term a government is able to pursue its strategy adequately; that a divisive debate over changing the term could in itself distract from the policy changes we most need.

It will not be easy to persuade voters of the benefits. Most, naturally, live in the here and now and have little time for long-term planning.

If it gets put to the vote, the country should take the longer view. New Zealand has long needed a plan for economic revival and development that is not hostage to the next opinion poll.