Perhaps we could just trust voters?

It’s an oldie but a goodie, and it gets recycled every few years – our political leaders think we should have longer parliamentary terms. No matter that every time this one has been wheeled out for a referendum, it has been rejected.

The arguments in favour of a four year term seem to be that three years is too short, and that longer terms would enable politicians to take unpopular decisions and not be punished for it at the ballot box. That second reason is telling: the implication is that politicians are always right, and voters are just too silly to see it. As for the “too short” argument, it’s just a version of “how long is a piece of string?” What they really mean that terms are too short to make unpopular decisions i.e. we get bounced straight to the second “voters are too silly” reason.

There’s another version of the “voters are too silly” reason. Politicians have noticed that as every election rolls around, they seem to offer more and more bribes to the electorate. Then those wretched voters go and vote for them! If only we had four year terms, politicians wouldn’t need to offer as many bribes.

It’s not actually clear that the bribe problem really exists. For bribes to work, voters would have to be selfish, and vote only for themselves. But as it turns out, voters seem to vote based on who they think will do better for their country as a whole, not based on what they will get for themselves.

And even if the bribe problem was real, there would be one really straightforward way to stop it. Politicians could stop offering bribes.

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4 Responses to Perhaps we could just trust voters?

  1. Shane says:

    I like the idea of a four year term.

    One persuasive argument for me, is that we very rarely have one term governments. The last two were Labour ones, 1957 to 1960, and 1972 to 1975. With a four year term, we’d be taking a risk that we’d be stuck with a deeply unpopular government for a year longer than necessary, but the rarity of one term governments suggests to me that very few governments are so deeply unpopular to the voting public that we’d want to get rid of them after just three years. Many are elected for a second term, and some even a third.

    In the long term, a four year term would not necessarily mean being stuck with a government you don’t like for longer, either. It might be, for example, that a government that voters would have voted in for three three-year terms might instead only be in for two four-year terms. Only time would tell with that one though.

    And from the point of view of a politically active person, it gives parties more time to do fundraising and get their campaign structures in order. If the planning and work begins in the year prior to an election, there’s not much time left after the previous one! Also, for those people in areas of the country where partisan local government elections are held, there is even more work to do. A four year term might allow some of us to take more of a breather.

    So yeah, bring on the four year term. I’m surprised it’s come up though. It’s not the most important issue for me personally, and the previous referenda demonstrated that New Zealanders were very much against the idea.

  2. Malcolm says:

    I also support a four year term, just because I get so tired of the political PR I’d like to see less of it.

  3. Tony says:

    I still think three years is better than four years. New Zealand has a unicameral government (one legislative or parliamentary chamber) which essentially means we have an elected three year dictatorship where the majority of parties always win in parliament. There are few checks or balances on passing any law (seabed and foreshore anyone ?) or funding any idea.
    If I am to be ruled by a dictatorship (even an elected one I support) it needs to be for as short a period as possible … have a go for three years and then check back works for me. As already pointed out, in practice most governments get six years … shades of “two letters” ( see

    I would consider four years if we had an additional way of moderating parliament (you the usual ideas, 2nd chamber; mandatory referendum; written constitution including indivual rights and ability to challenge bad law in the courts).

    Anyway, we are talking about politicians here and the best way to manage things that are both powerful and uncontrollable is to keep them on a short leash !

    • Shane says:

      Just some speculation, but I suspect a four year term would increase the likelihood that the `dictatorships’ would be tossed out by the voting public after one four year term, rather than stay in for a second. Governments would either have to twiddle their thumbs, which wouldn’t look good, or get on with the more unpleasant aspects of their programme. Perhaps the reality of state asset sales might have been brought home to voters if National had introduced the required legislation before the end of its first term.

      In more recent times, voters came close to tossing out National in 1993 after just one term. For someone on the left then, it was a pretty bad time. Nevertheless, they managed to cling on with a one seat majority and less than one percentage point of the vote ahead of Labour. I wonder how bad things would have to get these days before voters considered a government a `dictatorship; and tossed them out. Of course, one person’s dictatorship is another’s much more competent government.

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