The New Zealand Initiative has an interesting debate in its weekly email update.
Elections are about choosing people we trust and task with decision-making on problems we may not even know at the time of the election. If you are uncomfortable with that then you have not understood the concept of parliamentary democracy.
The more substantive problem with three-year terms is that it leaves little time for parliamentary work. With new MPs and positions reshuffled, it takes the best part of a year for a new parliament to start functioning. Parliament also typically descends into a pre-election campaign well before the likely end of its term.
Currently this leaves just about one year for good, substantial governance. Increasing electoral terms to four years would double this quieter mid-term period when parliament can properly fulfill its role as the legislature. It would allow more time for good law-making, and it could well result in a better quality of policy. It might even encourage governments to undertake necessary reforms, even if their positive results do not materialise immediately.
The arguments for four- (or five-) year fixed parliamentary term can be summed up as stability, predictability and giving government time to implement its agenda. By having a longer fixed term, government governs better.
This is all well but ignores the basic principle that liberal democracies are founded upon: fear of tyranny. This fear is institutionalised through checks and balances to limit power of government.
I’m inclined to agree with Luke. The actual checks and balances in a liberal democracy have been demonstrated to be quite weak – especially in the face of determined political pressure to subvert or undermine those checks and balances. In the Westminster system, for example, the executive has (substantial) control of the legislature and citizens are reliant on the judiciary to keep the executive in line. Now that works well in some cases – the Malaysia option was struck down by the High Court, but only because it was inconsistent with Howard era legislation. But in other cases not so well – the expropriation of private property has been ruled to be valid in the case of tobacco plain packaging. Our High Court is hardly unique in that regard, the US Supreme Court did something similar in the Kelo case and its work around in the ObamaCare case.
So Luke’s point about tyranny is decisive. The only way to keep the bastards honest is to throw them out of office. That means shorter not longer electoral periods.