Four-year term terminal for turnout long-term
The need for Aotearoa to have a codified constitution is self-evident.
Despite that, the initiative of constitutional lawyer Dr Andrew Butler and former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer, launched in August, has failed to fire up a nation-wide discussion in the mainstream media.
The project’s Twitter feed, nonetheless, is bravely upbeat:
We’re back in @TheSpinoffTV top 10 bestsellers for @unitybookswgtn ! It makes a great xmas present, go grab 1 today! https://t.co/d7IKT2hX7h
News that the book Butler and Palmer published in September, with its less than electrifying title, A Constitution for Aotearoa New ZealandVictoria University Press, made it to eighth place in the Wellington store section of Unity Books best-sellers for the week ending 2 December is not exactly front-page stuff. The not necessarily unhealthy reality is that for 99.9% of New Zealanders, to receive Butler and Palmer’s 256-page text would be all their Hoodoo McFiggin’s Christmases come at once:
“It’s a book,” he said, as he unwrapped it. “I wonder if it is fairy stories or adventures. Oh, I hope it’s adventures! I’ll read it all morning.”
No, Hoodoo, it was not precisely adventures. It was a small family Bible.
All New Zealanders should care about their lack of codified constitution, but not because every citizen should be a constitutional aficionado. They should care because theirs is the world’s first full democracy, and should forever strive to be worthy of that distinction. The three countries atop the Democracy Indexcompiled by the United Kingdom-based Economist Intelligence Unit—Norway, Iceland and Sweden—all score 10 out 10 for political culture. Aotearoa scores 8.13, putting it in 14th place, behind 14th-worst tax havenor, if the reader prefers, prime-ministerial nepotism, or ministerial bribery and corruption Mauritius and Brexiting United Kingdom.
New Zealand’s Press Freedom Rankaccording to World Audit, an international not-for-profit is also 14, for which New Zealanders can probably largely blame former prime minister John Key’s obdurate persecution of journalist Bradley Ambrose.
The greatest threat to democracy in Aotearoa, however, is not the lack of a codified constitution, it is the lack of voters. Voters must be raised, rather than recruited. The only evidence-based route to turning around voter-turnout decline is via pupils learning about voting, and actually voting, in schools. A good start would be to roll out the proven Kids Voting programme to all year-7–15 studentsin its current implementation, Kids Voting targets students to year-10 only. But studies show that the critical juncture is the point at which a young person can first vote in an adult election. If they are lucky enough to have not long turned 18 when they first cast a vote in a general election, the chances of them going on to be regular voters are good. However, if they are unlucky and, for example, turn 18 shortly after an election, they will be near-as-damn-it 21 before first getting that opportunity. The evidence is that those election-cycle-challenged young people will be far less likely to develop the voting habit.
Butler and Palmer, meantime, are busy proposing to make youth engagement significantly worse, with a one-year-longer electoral term, whereby some young people will be close to 22 before first exercising their enfranchisement. Butler and Palmer, unsurprisingly, argue from an inside-out, lawmaker’s perspective; a longer term would provide a longer uninterrupted period in which to draft and pass legislation. But rather more pass more legislation, Parliament needs to be passing better legislation. Reading between the lines written by the chief science advisor to the prime ministerProfessor Sir Peter Gluckman, Aotearoa has a long way to go to get the foundation of effective legislation right—the evidence-based policy-making part.
Not that the United States is a particularly good advertisement for it, given the terminal two-party dysfunction of its congress, the House of Representatives has a two-year term, never mind four years. There is no evidence that stretching New Zealand’s out to four years will produce better legislation. Indeed, the likelihood is that same-old-same-old game of cramming through as much of a party’s ideology-rich and evidence-poor policy through as possible, only for the other side to undo it all when it monopolises Parliament, would be ratcheted up a notch.
Aside from their deleterious impact on voting uptake by young people, the four-year-term provisions could well prove to be the sticking point in getting a codified constitution over the line. The greatest threat to democracy in Aotearoa is voter turnout low enough to allow a New Zealand demagogue to seize power with the support of a fraction of registered voters—a mere quarter, in the current, United States example. Clearly, a deeply venerated codified constitution proved to be no bulwark against Trumpism.
Electoral reform is generally driven by political élites, in their own interests. Noble exceptions are the emancipation of women and proportional representation, in Aotearoa, at the ends, respectively, of the 19th and 20th centuries. A four-year term was twice proposed by New Zealand’s political élites, in 1967 and 1990, only to be rejected more than two-to-one in the ensuing referendums. The only context in which it might be appropriate to explore the impact of a four-year term would be as part of a commission of inquiry addressing democratic disengagement, with terms of reference sufficiently broad to include a swath of evidence-based measures, including lowering the age of enfranchisement, pre-enfranchised voting, and pre-enrolment.
On Waitangi Day 2013, the then prime minister John Key argued for a four-year term. Of the 3931 responses to an online readers’ poll facilitated by Fairfax New Zealand, nearly two thirds were in favour. Although this is a far from scientific means of polling, with the increasing disdain for politicians and disenchantment with the political system, elections themselves are increasing unwelcome. With Butler and Palmer’s well-intentioned plan to hold fewer of them, there is a real danger is that citizens might vote for an early-Christmas, 25% diminishment of their enfranchisement, and saddle themselves with a extra year before representatives can be held to account.
As acknowledged at the outset, New Zealand’s need for a codified constitution is self-evident. The evidence, however, suggests that a one-year-longer parliamentary term would result in fewer young people developing the voting habit. And in any event, changing the electoral system—and many aspects of it do need refining—is a separate exercise.
Think on, Dr Butler and Sir Geoffrey. Please don’t tarnish your otherwise noble initiative.
Ordered by urgency of deployment
- Year-7–15 voting as curtain-raiser
- Universal year-7–15 voting in schools—extended Kids Voting
- Election Day enrol-and-vote
- Concurrent elections, which will quickly recoup the costs of 1–3, and pay for 4–11
- Lifetime licence to vote
- Pre-enfranchisement voting
- Pre-enfranchisement enrolment
- Lowering the age of enfranchisement—currently some turn 21 before being allowed to vote
- Fixed, holidayised, Mondayised, and festivalised Election Day
- Online voting
- Anytime voting*
*If not strictly evidence-based, then at least, strongly evidence-suggested.