The election has come and gone. While Wellington sits in stasis awaiting Winston’s next press scrum, New Zealanders might be forgiven for feeling that we’ve only recently been here before.
New Zealand has one of the world’s shortest parliamentary terms. There are familiar arguments in favour of increasing its length. Four-year terms would mean less spent on elections. Three-year terms mean election periods eat up one of every ten days that a government serves (before you adjust for sitting days). Short parliamentary terms constrain medium- and long-term policy thinking.
Nonetheless, longer terms are often seen as a beltway issue, endorsed by politicians but not something that energises voters. That perception was reinforced by referendums on extending term limits in 1967 and 1990. The public voted nearly 70% against on both occasions. Shorter terms may also constrain our parliament, which lacks constitutional checks on its power. Nonetheless, there is an underrated potential argument in favor of four-year terms – stronger opposition parties.
Since 1960, only one government has failed to win at least a second term, which lets opponents argue that we effectively have six-year terms. I would argue this may be the result of a flaw in our system, if we consider the political reality for parties entering opposition.
Incoming governments are said to have one year to acclimatise, one year to legislate, and one year to campaign. Perhaps we ought to have a similar model for the opposition: They have one year to stick with their old leader, one to pull out the knives, and one for their new leader to become electable.
Opposition instability is a growing issue. From 1993 to 2006, we had six Leaders of the Opposition. Over the same period from 2006 onwards, we have had eleven.
Often compounding the problems for parties newly relegated to opposition is a self-destructive culture of in-fighting and leaking and an inevitable departure of experienced MPs, unimpressed by the prospect of six years on the opposition benches.
Of course, benefits to the opposition from a longer term would be difficult to empirically establish, even via comparative analysis. Nonetheless, it remains an interesting idea in the debate around term length.
Three years may simply be too short a time for a new opposition to recover from defeat and regroup. While difficult to prove, it must be better than the constant knifing of the last two decades. New Zealand benefits when a government is challenged by a healthy and strong opposition.