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Time for Change?

Entry 887, on 2008-11-11 at 22:20:10 (Rating 2, Politics)

I have been reading through some of the comments people have been making regarding the result of the recent election in New Zealand. One of the accusations of a group who might be feeling a little bit bitter about the outcome, is that people have just voted for change for no reason except for change itself. In other words, the old Labour government did nothing particularly wrong, and the new National government are offering nothing particularly good, but people voted for change anyway.

I think there is some truth in this, although it would only apply to a certain fraction of people who voted Labour out this time. No doubt there are some reasons (real or imagined) for rejecting Labour and for supporting National but I don't think they were necessarily the reason Labour lost.

Look at the history of governments in New Zealand. We would have to go back to the 1960s to find one (the second National government of 1960 to 1972) which lasted more than three terms. Apart from that people seem to get sick of a government after two or three terms and them throw them out.

Here's the complete history of how many years New Zealand elected governments lasted, starting in 1891: 21, 16, 3, 4, 14, 8, 3, 12, 3, 8, 6, 9, 9. It seems to me that there is a trend from long and short terms early on to moderate terms (averaging about 8 years) more recently.

So why is this? There are many reasons, including people's sense of fairness which might be paraphrased as "this government has had a fair go, its time to let the others have their turn". There's also the "grass is greener" phenomenon which could be stated as "the current government has made mistakes so surely a new one will have better ideas". Of course, neither of these necessarily has a lot of validity.

There are a few phenomena which do have some validity though. I think governments do get "stale". They do seem to stop thinking of new ways to solve problems and simply continue to use the same ways which have worked (or they thought worked) in the past. The Labour government's insistence on more bureaucracy might fall into this category. Another contributing factor to this is keeping the successful party members and leaders. Why change your party members while they are winning? The old custom of the leader of the losing party resigning means change in government always means new personnel in the losing party.

Another phenomenon is the "arrogance effect". The longer a party is in power the more arrogant and sure of its own ideas it seems to become. While a party is winning its unlikely to recognise its weaknesses and assimilate ideas from outside itself. I'm afraid that I detected a certain amount of this in the outgoing Labour government as well.

If you look at its achievements the fifth Labour government did very well. During its nine years many key indicators improved greatly. But maybe most importantly it dragged New Zealand politics back towards the center after (ironically) the 1984 fourth Labour government, which was hijacked by the new right, dragged it to the far right. So the fact that even National is fairly moderate now is probably due to Labour.

The American system where a president can only serve two terms has often seemed strange to me. After all, if a president is doing well why shouldn't the people be able to vote for him again and if he's doing badly they can kick him out anyway. But there are two problems with not limiting the number of terms: first, the president only gets voted out after his performance has already deteriorated; and second, many people vote for a party, not a president, so even relatively bad presidents can be in power too long (I won't mention any examples!)

I could suggest introducing a limit on how long a leader or party can be in power in New Zealand but there are two reasons I don't think we should: first, it would be difficult to implement from a practical perspective; and second, there is already an effective limit being enforced by the voters anyway.

So National start their time in power now. The extremely difficult economic situation (and the influence of the Act nutters) might mean they feel the need to implement tough measures which might make them unpopular and limit their time, but history suggests Labour won't be back until 2017!

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Comment 1 (1803) by NJS on 2008-11-12 at 09:09:41:

The "fairness" argument is one I've heard in other places, and it's just plain silly. We're talking about the government of a country, not a shared toy! There's a simple solution for those who like the "fairness" idea, which also solves your implementation difficulties: no MP can sit for more than, say, two terms. Of course that then means there would be no "experienced" politicians (which might be a good thing! ☺) and probably little continuity.

I wonder how the "fairness" people would react if you said to them "you've been in your home for x years now, it's only fair that you move out and give someone else a turn" ☺

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Comment 2 (1804) by OJB on 2008-11-12 at 20:55:14:

I suspect that most people don't make rational decisions when they vote. I have (half seriously) suggested a knowledge test before a person's vote could be counted, that way people who are ignorant of the issues wouldn't be able to be part of the process. It wouldn't really work, of course, but the ignorance of many voters is depressing.

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