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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 7. 1967.

Referendum should be delayed

page 3

Referendum should be delayed

Salient Reporter

Bipartisan approval is necessary before a referendum on its term of Parliament is held, Professors Brookes, Roberts and Dr. A. Robinson told the Statutes Revision Committee this week.

In Their submissions they expressed support for a four year term but claimed a defeat this year would delay change for many years. They said:

"Is it appropriate that a proposal to extend the term of future Parliaments to four years should be put to the public in a referendum? In general, we believe that a government should govern, and that the proper role of the public is to record a judgment on its performance at a general election, not to make specific decisions on individual issues: but constitutional changes, especially those affecting the nature or frequency of general elections, are a special case. This has been recognised in the Electoral Act 1956. which prevents the government from acting unilaterally to make certain constitutional changes; these require either a 75 per cent majority in the House of Representatives, or approval by referendum. We consider it most desirable that, whenever possible, bipartisan approval should be obtained for constitutional changes, This need not preclude the submission of such a change to the public in a referendum, if both major parties agree to that course of action, but in such a case the voters can be given a clear lead, and it is possible to avoid any suspicion that either party is attempting to gain an advantage for itself.

"Provided that there is bipartisan support for the present proposal, we see no objection to the proposed referendum. If there is not, we question whether the time is ripe for it. We feel that a constitutional change, sponsored by one major party and opposed by the other, can be justified only if the issue is one on which voters have had a good opportunity to develop a flrm and informed opinion, and on which they are likely to render a clear verdict one way or the other. We question whether these conditions are yet satisfied in the case of the present proposal.

In arguing this, we must make it clear that personally we are in favour of a four-year term for Parliament, for reasons which we shall explain. It would be a pity, however, if a desirable change was defeated in a referendum, and set back perhaps for many years, because of an error in timing. We doubt whether enough voters have yet given enough thought to the matter to come to a firm judgment, and in the absence of a clear bipartisan lead the proposed change might well be defeated.

"If general elections are infrequent, there is a risk that the government may pay too little regard to the views of the voters; if they are frequent, there is a risk that the Government may not have an adequate opportunity to implement policies on which the voters can properly pass judgment. A balance must be struck such that government is both responsive and effective. Nothing in the experience of government either in New Zealand or overseas suggests that the increased effectiveness resulting from a four-year term would be offset by reduced responsiveness to the public. Nor do New Zealand voters seem to need a triennial opportunity to turn out the Government: in only three out of the last 10 general elections have they done so, and on only one of those occasions had the Government been in office for as little as three years.

"On the other hand, the nature of government has changed markedly since the three-year term was opted in 1879. Today, government programmes represent by far the most important determinant of overall economic activity. The Economic Review of 1966 states: "The Government reached the conclusion some time ago that the traditional system of decision making and control not only viewed public expenditures in an unduly piecemeal way, but also had an unduly short term perspective.' The Review outlines the system of forward estimates, capital and departmental planning and economic investigation that is intended to remedy these defects, but it also demonstrates clearly that the period of three years is quite inappropriate for important areas of public planning. While an increase of only one year cannot be regarded as ideal for these purposes, it would provide a better opportunity for effective programming, and for the development of new techniques of parliamentary control (such as a four-year budget and economic policy) designed to focus the attention of Members and of the general public on major governmental programmes in a more effective way than by debating the annual financial legislation. Progress has al-ready been made in this direction in certain European countries (notably Sweden), and in part in the United States.

"Not only have government policies become more long-term since 1879, they have also become more technical. This trend has strengthened the executive, compared with the legislature: Cabinet Ministers are well supplied with expert advice from their departmental officers, but Parliament, whose constitutional responsibility it is to scrutinise government administration, and to debate government policy in a way that will keep the electorate properly informed. In our view, the constitutional balance has tilted too far, and steps should be taken to increase the power and prestige of Parliament. An extension of the parliamentary term is only one of these steps; an increase in the number of investigating committees (on the lines of the Public Expenditure Commit there has been no comparable; increase in the supply of expert advice to Members of tee) is another, to probe such areas as scientific development, social welfare, education, mental health, and urban pro-blems, among others; and the provision of expert staff to assist these committees, and of expanded research facilities for Members through the Parliamentary Library (on the lines of these being developed by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library in Australia), and of proper secretarial services, is also necessary if Parliament is to maintain an effective scrutiny of government activity.

"We see an extension of the parliamentary term as a logical part of this process. For three years in every four the MP could devote himself to these enlarged duties, free from the distractions which inevitably arise in election year, and acquiring through greater emphasis on com-mittee work a specialised ex-pertise which would tend to enhance his reputation, and that of the House. But the additional year may itself tend to increase the prestige of the House. It is noticeable that in the United States the Senate, in which the term of office is six years has unquestionably more prestige and influence than the House of Representatives, in which the term is only two years. There are no substantial differences in the powers of the two chambers, but the Representative, forced to devote himself more frequently to the business of re-election, has little opportunity to develop the breadth of statesmanship which is not infrequently found among Senators.

"We conclude, therefore, that an extension of the parliamentary term is desirable, as part of a major reorganisation designed to enhance the power and performance of Parliament. Since such a reorganisation would represent a major attempt to alter the balance of the constitution, every effort should be made to secure for it bipartisan approval. With bipartisan approval, it would be possible to give to the public the clear lead which will be necessary if they are to understand the reasons for the proposed change. Lacking such a lead, we question whether a sufficiently informed opinion has yet emerged to warrant a referendum on the matter at the present time."