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Taking the fight to short-termism in government

Parliamentary scrutiny of quality of long-term governance in New Zealand is limited, ad hoc and unsystematic. So what are the solutions, asks Jonathan Boston

Safeguarding the interests of current and future citizens is one of parliament’s crucial roles. This requires holding governments to account for the quality of their governance, especially their long-term governance. Forward-looking scrutiny is critical to such accountability.

Above all, this means investigating how well governments are preparing and planning for the future. For instance, are they undertaking effective foresight? Are they successfully identifying, mitigating and managing significant national risks? Are they sufficiently alert to slow-burning or creeping problems, not least those with irreversible consequences? Do they have effective strategies to address major long-term policy challenges such as biodiversity loss and climate change, the fiscal impacts of demographic changes or the social consequences of disruptive technologies? In short, are they exercising sound anticipatory governance?

Evidence from a new report published by the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University of Wellington – Foresight, Insight and Oversight – suggests parliamentary scrutiny of the quality of long-term governance in New Zealand is less than ideal. Put bluntly, it is limited, ad hoc and unsystematic.

This is unfortunate. Weak parliamentary scrutiny reduces the political incentives for good governance. It also means poor decision-making may go undetected while non-urgent, but potentially serious, long-term problems receive inadequate political attention. Future citizens are then left to pay the price.

Parliament’s limited focus on long-term matters is readily explicable. Legislators face powerful political incentives to concentrate on short-term issues. Voters typically want solutions today rather than tomorrow. New Zealand’s three-year parliamentary term, which is very short by international standards, compounds the presentist bias in decision-making. Moreover, many of the solutions to long-term problems require measures that entail upfront fiscal or other costs. Intertemporal choices of this nature are rarely popular.

Aside from this, forward-looking scrutiny and future-focused analysis by our parliament is hampered by various institutional and constitutional constraints. For one thing, the House of Representatives is relatively small when compared with legislatures in comparable democracies, such as Denmark, Finland, Ireland and Norway. This restricts the availability of MPs to sit on select committees and encourages strict party discipline. For another, even in the context of minority governments, the House is dominated by the executive. This places significant political limits on detailed scrutiny of governmental performance.

Parliamentary oversight of long-term governance is further constrained by the high workloads faced by most select committees and the priority accorded to the scrutiny of government bills. Matters are not helped by the House’s relatively limited access to, and modest use of, independent expert advice.

What, then, are the solutions? Plainly, there is no silver bullet. However, the Institute’s report outlines numerous options for enhancing parliamentary scrutiny, especially forward-looking scrutiny.

One possibility would be to establish a select committee dedicated to future-oriented issues. Finland has a Committee for the Future. The House of Lords in London has a Committee on Intergenerational Fairness and Provision. Meanwhile, the Scottish parliament has established a Futures Forum, which brings together parliamentarians, researchers and civic leaders. These provide useful models for the New Zealand parliament to explore.

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Another option would be to establish a select committee dedicated to governance matters, of which long-term governance would be a crucial component. This could be combined with the inclusion of a new specialist function on long-term governance in parliament’s standing orders. The specialist function would provide guidance to MPs on the kinds of future-focused issues requiring investigation.

The Institute’s report considers many other options. Among these are:

  • Requiring the prime minister’s statement at the beginning of each year to include information about long-term matters
  • Amending arrangements for oral questions in the House to provide for periodic sessions focusing on long-term matters
  • Requiring chairpersons and deputy chairpersons of select committees be allocated across parties in accordance with proportionality, as in the United Kingdom’s House of Commons
  • Requiring specified select committees such as the Finance and Expenditure Committee be chaired by a member of an opposition party
  • Improving range and quality of performance information provided to select committees by departments, agencies and Office of the Auditor-General
  • Increasing the funding of parliament to enable greater use of independent experts to help subject select committees with their review and oversight activities
  • Appointing a chief parliamentary science adviser.

Plainly, some of these options will entail extra costs. But these are likely to be relatively modest and should not be considered in isolation from their expected benefits. After all, better parliamentary scrutiny of long-term governance has the potential to enhance the quality of governmental decision-making, thereby reducing future fiscal, social and environmental costs.

Equally, if not more important, a healthy and vibrant democracy does not come cheap. It requires proper investment in high-quality political institutions and robust policy processes. Current and future generations deserve nothing less.


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