Is New Zealand's political cycle too short?

Megan Lane
Wellington, New Zealand

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New Zealand Prime Minister John Key has voiced support for longer political terms

How short is too short - or long - between elections? New Zealand voters go to the polls on Saturday three years after last choosing a government.

For opposition politicians, three years can seem like an eternity. But for those in power, it can be over in the blink of an eye.

New Zealand is one of a handful of countries to have a three-year political term. It is five years in countries like the UK, Canada and India and four years in Germany and South Korea.

US presidents serve four-year terms while senators serve six years. But it is a two-year term in the American House of Representatives, one of the shortest in the world.

"The idea that a ropey government can be gotten rid of after three years is pretty attractive," said John Roughan, political commentator and author of "John Key, Portrait of a Prime Minister".

Referenda on longer terms have been held in 1967 and 1990. Both times, two-thirds of the public voted no.

At a pre-election debate, New Zealand's Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce complained of "unfinished business". "You've had six years, Steven!" tweeted political blogger David Cormack of The Ruminator.

'Move fast'

Mr Joyce belongs to the National Party-led coalition that's been in power for two terms.

Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark - who held office from 1999 to 2008 - told Australia's The Bottom Line interview series in April that three-year terms meant hitting the ground running.

"If you don't move fast in the first year then you're not going to have a lot to show for it at the end of the third," she said.

Last February, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and other party leaders voiced support for a four-year term.

The Constitutional Advisory Panel's report, which was released last December, noted "a reasonable amount of support for a longer term" but this meant that additional checks and balances such as reintroducing an upper house, would need to be explored.

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Former New Zealand leader Helen Clark said three years in office meant "hitting the ground running"
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Longer political terms would see measures like the reintroduction of an upper house
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Analysts said most New Zealanders would prefer seeing their politicians serving shorter terms

If given the choice between four years and an upper house, or sticking with three years, most New Zealanders would opt for the status quo, said Raymond Miller, a political scientist from the University of Auckland.

"The attitude towards politicians in New Zealand is the fewer the better," he said.

There are no plans - yet - for another referendum. "In an election year, it is a New Zealand convention that governments do not announce or make substantial constitutional change," said a justice department spokesman. Any further work would be up to a future government.

'Short-term strategy'

The short election cycle appeals to many as it's a chance to deliver a verdict on those in power, said Jack Vowles, a professor of comparative politics at the Victoria University of Wellington.

One hundred and thirty-five years ago, this same thinking led New Zealand to shorten its parliamentary term from five years to three, in order to increase voter control over the central government.

"Today, the argument is that three years is not long enough for governments to do what they want or need to do. But I'm desperately trying to think of any government in the past 50 years that was in any way seriously constrained by the three-year term," said Prof Vowles.

"In the 1980s, Labour was able to effect a revolution in economic and social policy. It won a second term after introducing unpopular policies such as goods and services tax and removing subsidies from farming. So what's the actual problem here?"

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The 2011 earthquake was considered New Zealand's worst natural disaster in 80 years
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John Key has lent his hand to earthquake recovery efforts

Mr Key himself played it safe for much of his first term between 2008 - 2011.

"He built a reputation for sound economic management during the global financial crisis," said Prof Miller. "The domestic crises that hit - the Pike River Mine disaster and the Christchurch earthquakes - also made him appear as a safe pair of hands at a difficult time."

But when election year dawned, Mr Key announced that National would - if granted a second term - partially sell state-owned enterprises such as power companies and Air New Zealand.

"It was brave and new for New Zealand," said Mr Roughan. "At no stage have any previous governments put privatisations to the electorate before doing it. Labour thought Christmas had arrived and planned its whole campaign around 'no asset sales' and Key got re-elected. He's got good instincts for what's going to shift votes and what won't."

Mr Roughan equated this to Mr Key's previous career in foreign exchange markets. "You've got to know which events are going to shift currency and which won't," he said.

Prof Vowles agreed. "Currency trading is all about managing the moment. It's short-term strategy and that's John Key," he said.

"He doesn't have a long-term strategy, he doesn't think in those terms. He and [Finance Minister] Bill English have run a competent government over a period of economic difficulty in a way which hasn't inflicted too much pain on ordinary New Zealanders. That's a fairly major achievement."

"On the other hand, there are a lot of issues they're sweeping under the carpet," Prof Vowles added, citing climate change, high levels of personal debt and the economy's reliance on selling powdered milk to China.

A third term?

Much of what Mr Key does is informed by polling and focus groups, says Prof Vowles. He sees this as fitting in what is arguably the world's first representative democracy - Maori and women both got the vote in the 19th Century.

"New Zealand has always been a very democratic country. We like our politicians to be thinking about the next election."

A third term seems likely for Mr Key. His party has been hovering around the 50% mark since June, according to Radio New Zealand's Poll of Polls, double that of the rival Labour Party.

Not even last month's publication of the book "Dirty Politics", with its allegations of smear campaigns, had dented the National Party's lead.

Image source, MEGAN LANE
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Political campaign posters for the ruling National Party lie toppled in a street
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Could allegations from controversial internet tycoon Kim Dotcom damage Mr Key's career?

On Monday, internet entrepreneur Kim Dotcom - who funds the Internet-Mana party contesting the election - hosted an event in Auckland to, he said, expose Mr Key's "lies" about the mass state surveillance of New Zealanders. The allegations drew on whistleblower Edward Snowden's trove of classified documents.

Mr Key countered with the release of previously secret government documents, which he said showed the cyber security activities of the Government Communications Security Bureau - New Zealand's NSA or GCHQ - did not "remotely resemble" the claimed spying efforts.

Will last-minute revelations be a game changer? Prof Miller suspects not. His research suggests at least six in 10 voters have long since decided who to back.

"Mr Key has been building a bank of goodwill with voters for some time and they just don't associate him with whatever has gone on."

And, in the past 40 years, New Zealand has largely settled into a pattern of allowing its prime ministers three terms before deciding it's time to fetch their coats.

"All governments have a life cycle. That's the problem with a three-year term. By the third term, the wheels are turning much more slowly," said Prof Miller.

Whether Mr Key will be given a chance to find out - and to act on his wish for a four-year cycle - will be decided on Saturday.

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