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David Seymour and fellow Act MPs on Election night 2020 (Getty Images)
David Seymour and fellow Act MPs on Election night 2020 (Getty Images)

OPINIONPoliticsMay 24, 2021

Some thoughts on David Seymour’s ‘democracy policy’

David Seymour and fellow Act MPs on Election night 2020 (Getty Images)
David Seymour and fellow Act MPs on Election night 2020 (Getty Images)

The evidence for the merits of a four-year term is still lacking – and letting each government trade-off term-length for other stuff just doesn’t make sense, argues Andrew Geddis.

If the ACT Party gets its way, we could be voting at the 2023 election on whether to push out the parliamentary term to four years. Maybe. If a bunch of stuff happens first. That’s the headline takeaway from its “democracy policy” announcement on Saturday.

Making that announcement, David Seymour proposed introducing a member’s bill that extends parliament’s term, provided a couple of conditions are met. The first is that all select committees in the House must have opposition majorities. The second is that a majority of voters ratify the move at a referendum, as occurred with assisted dying at the last election. I’ll start with the general wisdom of moving from triennial to quadrennial elections, then look at the specific conditions ACT would put on doing so.

Because it’s not like ACT has stumbled across the idea of longer parliaments and fewer elections all on its own. The parliamentary leadership of Labour, National and even NZ First have indicated recent support for it (although we really must note that the Social Credit Party is less keen). The Labour-Greens co-operation agreement records: “the government’s intention to work with political parties from across parliament (including the opposition) on issues that affect our democracy, including … the length of the parliamentary term.” ACT’s announcement is thus more the first concrete proposal on how to make this change rather than a brave and novel innovation. 

The reasons for this apparent consensus are pretty simple, so I’ll let David Seymour express them: “To properly consult and design a policy, then get it through the cabinet process, then draft the legislation, then get it through parliament, then implement it, to do all of that properly, takes two years. By this time you’re ready for another election.” This time-crunch then is said to undercut properly designed and considered policy. Again, this is not something ACT (or MPs generally) are alone in claiming. A 2019 joint report from The Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University of Wellington and the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives on fostering better long-term public decision making endorses the argument. 

All of which is fine, as far as it goes. However, there are two counters to any felt-need to give governments more time before facing the voters. First of all, it is not self-evidentially true that governments will do a better job if given more time. Graeme Edgeler wrote perhaps the definitive post on this issue back in 2013, so I’ll steal from him: “The arguments we have been presented of late have mostly been simplistic observations to the effect that “four years seems like a good idea” or “three years is too short”. Well, too short to do what? What laws that we don’t presently have, do you think we would have today, if we had a four-year term?

His point is that the evidential onus lies on those alleging the need for more governing time between elections. What specific examples are there of bad laws rushed into place or good policies not progressed because of a requirement to meet election timetables? How could a specific policy development process have been improved had not an impending election date intervened? Of course, providing such examples would require governments to admit “we screwed this up when we did it, but we could have done it properly had we more time back then”. Which is not something governments seem likely to confess. Yet, absent such stories, we are left with vague assertions that things will just “be better” if only the pesky voters didn’t keep insisting upon themselves quite so often.

To which I might add, there are situations where giving governments longer in office actually may hamper policy delivery. The 2017-2020 Labour-NZ First Government wasn’t stymied because it lacked time to do what it wanted. Rather, it suffered from fundamental ideological divergence and a smaller partner whose raison d’être was to “moderate” its larger partner’s policies. Would another year of such government before an election reset really have produced “better” policy and law-making? Equally, time wasn’t the reason successive National-led governments were unable to advance RMA reforms. They couldn’t do so because voters repeatedly refused to provide a parliamentary majority for their preferred policy approach. Would 12 long years of blocked RMA reform, rather than nine, have been “better”?

So, maybe longer-lasting governments would be better governments, or maybe not. I’m honestly quite agnostic on that point; let’s see actual concrete evidence on it (as opposed to assertions from folk who, lets face it, have reasons for wanting to fight fewer election battles). Because, one thing is certain — extending the term of parliament to four years decreases electoral accountability by 33%. Or is it 25%? I don’t know; maths is hard! Either way, it’s quite a lot.

Getting to regularly vote on whether to keep the bums in or kick the bums out (and bring another set of bums in) is our system of government’s most significant form of popular accountability. We underestimate its effectiveness at our peril. If we’re going to markedly decrease it, with what will it be replaced? Because, New Zealand already has precious few ways of holding government to account, so weakening our primary popular mechanism should give us real pause.

That brings us to ACT’s conditions on extending the parliamentary term: turning over select committees to opposition control; and requiring a referendum. The second point is a no-brainer. If the parliamentary term ever gets extended without a referendum being held, I will run down the main street of Pūrākaunui naked. The former condition, however, is both interesting and hard to imagine working in practice.

For one thing, I don’t really understand how it’s meant to be implemented. Here’s what David Seymour said on Saturday: “ACT would introduce independent select committee (sic) as a pre-requisite for a four year term. The three-year term would actually remain the default. It would offer an incoming government the possibility of going four years, if it turned over control of select committees.” Does he seriously mean every government can choose whether to have a three-year term with control of select committees, or a four-year term without? I think overseeing compliance with that bargain raises all sorts of constitutional fishhooks. More fundamentally, either more government time is a good thing for the country (and so we need four year terms), or it isn’t (and so we don’t). Letting each government make its own choice on this matter makes no real sense to me.  

We also might question the long-term effects of turning select committees into vehicles for sustained opposition scrutiny of governmental action. Yes, this worked really well for one committee set up for a short period during the exigencies of Covid-19. Everyone involved in that process was on their best behaviour, both because the issues mattered so much and any sort of grandstanding would attract public opprobrium. But if every committee provided the opposition with the chance to try and stymie the government throughout the entire life of a parliament? Would that really be a recipe for better law-making and governance? Might it not simply cause the government, which always will have a majority in the House, to start defanging select committees by (say) invoking urgency when legislating, ignoring requests for ministers or officials to appear before them, routinely voting down their proposed amendments to bills, requiring them to report back to the House in short time-frames, and so on? 

The point is that constitutional actions beget reactions. Making one reasonably large change to our processes of government accountability is fraught. Making that change dependent on another large change to our processes of governing accountability is even more fraught. To be frank, trying to do so through a member’s bill with little-to-no prior public consultation really isn’t the best law-making process. 

But, if nothing else, at least ACT’s policy announcement can start us asking an important question — if not this, then what would you want to see put in place before giving future governments an extra year of power over your life? 

Keep going!