How long is long enough?

Kapi-Mana News - - OPINION -

The pro­pos­als (a) to shorten the Sonny Bill Wil­liams fight in Bris­bane and (b) to lengthen the term of government both came out of nowhere and not from the or­di­nary pun­ters.

On both oc­ca­sions, the ad­vo­cates for change seemed to be the peo­ple who stood to ben­e­fit most.

Namely, Sonny Bill and his as­so­ci­ates on one hand, and politi­cians on the other.

Even so, Labour leader David Shearer chose to place a bet each way. In op­po­si­tion, he noted, three years al­ways seems too long but when you’re in government it seems too short to get ev­ery­thing done.

For many peo­ple turned off by pol­i­tics, hav­ing to en­dure the elec­tion cir­cus less of­ten might sound at­trac­tive. Phrased dif­fer­ently though – would you like to give politi­cians an ex­tra year of lord­ing it over you be­fore you got the chance to kick them out? The same pro­posal would prob­a­bly be re­jected.

As former Prime Min­is­ter He­len Clark once pointed out, one rea­son we al­low gov­ern­ments only a three-year term in New Zealand is be­cause of our un­usu­ally bare­bones po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

This coun­try has only a sin­gle- tier Par­lia­ment with al­most no sig­nif­i­cant checks and bal­ances.

Given that sit­u­a­tion, a three­year term is a safe­guard against an elected dic­ta­tor­ship.

High-handed gov­ern­ments can be thrown out quickly, hopefully be­fore they do too much dam­age.

In 1967 and 1990, peo­ple voted against the idea of length­en­ing the term by more than a twothirds mar­gin.

The ar­gu­ment for a four-year term is that it would bet­ter en­able government to get the nec­es­sary work done.

As other com­men­ta­tors have al­ready pointed out, this would be a more com­pelling ar­gu­ment if, in the pri­vate sec­tor, the same ‘‘get out of their way and let them get on with it’’ ap­proach had been less con­tro­ver­sial.

Leaky homes, fee-goug­ing by banks, ex­ces­sive telco costs, high air­port charges and such like hardly pro­vide a com­pelling prece­dent for car­ry­ing the same ap­proach over to the pub­lic sec­tor.

Ul­ti­mately, it comes down to whether the de­sired end – a bet­ter per­for­mance, per­haps, by government – can jus­tify weak­en­ing the need to be ac­count­able to vot­ers.

Other coun­tries have two-tier par­lia­men­tary sys­tems, writ­ten con­sti­tu­tions, re­call pow­ers and bind­ing ref­er­en­dums that pro­vide far more ro­bust plat­forms for democ­racy than we have, and thus a four-year term of government is more fea­si­ble for them.

As it hap­pens, the present government has de­liv­ered a use­ful case study. With En­vi­ron­ment Can­ter­bury, the present government sus­pended democ­racy to achieve ends it deemed es­sen­tial.

That has not been a pop­u­lar move and the jury is still out on the re­sults.

His­tory tells us that such trade­offs are al­ways a risky busi­ness.

Last cen­tury, Italy learned the hard way that any al­leged ben­e­fits from hav­ing the trains run on time un­der Mus­solini was out­weighed by the longer-term costs.

Here, a pub­lic de­bate on the four-year term has barely be­gun.

Not long ago, there was a no­tice­able, very alarmed re­ac­tion among the na­tion’s ed­i­to­rial watch­dogs when Labour abol­ished our links to the Privy Coun­cil and cre­ated the Supreme Court.

That move was widely de­picted as a threat to our democ­racy.

To para­phrase Sher­lock Holmes, it seems rather sig­nif­i­cant that this time, the dogs are not bark­ing.

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