Fixing the election date

Written By: - Date published: 7:23 am, July 17th, 2010 - 9 comments
Categories: democratic participation, election 2011, election funding, MMP - Tags: ,

I’ve mentioned here before that I’m a big fan of Pundit. Pundit writer and legal academic Andrew Geddis has been doing some important work on electoral law, including contributions to the select committee that is looking at the 2011 referendum on MMP and the reform of campaign funding practices. He covers some of this work in a couple of posts on Pundit, which were picked up and reported very fully by TVNZ.

In the first post:

John Key to announce the election date soon – I hope

New Zealand should fix its election date in law. Otherwise, John Key needs to tell us when the 2011 election will be held … and soon.

But the bigger problem arises where an early election gets called at relatively short notice (as happened in 2002 and 1984). Because here the “regulated period” will start only when the election is called – which in 2002 was 46 days before election day, and in 1984 was a mere 30 days in advance. Furthermore, the fact that only the Prime Minister and his (or her) party knows when the election will be called, and thus the regulated period begins, confers a considerable potential advantage. The incumbent party could engage in a swift, expensive advertising blitz, then call an early election and thereby restrict how much the opposition can spend in response (while still being able to spend up to the cap itself).

Which is where the idea of fixing the election date in law comes in. For if the election day was specified in advance for all to see, with a fixed 90-day/3 month period of regulated spending preceding it, then any partisan advantage would be nullified. And why should the Prime Minister even have the effective power to decide what day we get to vote on? (In formal terms it is the Governor General who dissolves Parliament and calls an election, but by constitutional convention he or she only will do so on the advice of the Prime Minister.) It seems more a hangover of practices past than a rule that has good reasons to recommend it.

In the second post Geddis drafts a possible member’s bill that would achieve the goals he has outlined.

The argument and the supporting documentation is much richer than the brief summary I have given it here, and this is an interesting and important constitutional debate. If you have a (sensible and constructive) comment to make then I highly recommend that you head on over to Pundit and make it there. And while we’re on the subject of interesting policy blogs, I hope you’re keeping an eye on Policy Progress too.

9 comments on “Fixing the election date”

  1. Thanks for the plug, R0B! I’m a fan of Pundit too — Tim Watkin’s political commentary is superior to almost anything in the mainstream media, and Rob Salmond (who wrote an excellent guest-post for Policy Progress recently) is blogging there now too.

    • r0b 1.1

      My pleasure. We’re filling a different niche here, but thoughtful policy development has to be the way forward…

  2. gingercrush 2

    I like Pundit too. I particularly enjoy reading Claire Browning’s posts.

    Though I disagree with Andrew Geddis. I would prefer flexibility in when an election can be held and as we’ve rarely seen that abused to any real extent (the closest would be Labour in 2002 and even then that is a huge stretch). I see no reason to change and while it can be argued that the changes to a regulated period 3 months on could give the government in-sitting the advantage. I still see no real need for that to change and I can’t see it being change. And for it to change surely it would need to be changed after the 2011 election and not before.

  3. DS 3

    Fixed election dates do not go well with a Westminster system, especially a Westminster system where minority governments are now the norm. One could conceive of a paralysed government that is forced to limp on because the numbers aren’t quite there to hold an election, but the PM, short of engaging in a tactical no-confidence vote, is unable to go back to the people to seek a new mandate.

    • Draco T Bastard 3.1

      Oh, you mean like in 1999 when the National lead government of the day collapsed and the election was held in normal time. Wasn’t brought forward due to lack of public confidence (and there wasn’t a hell of a lot of public confidence in that one IMO) or anything like that.

      It sounds like a nice idea that governments can call the election early if needed but don’t assume that if they can then they will. The more likely option is that the government will hold on to power as long as possible. If actual confidence does collapse and the government can no longer pass law (the Nat/NZF coalition could still pass laws) then there are methods available that don’t require the ruling party to call an early election.

  4. Draco T Bastard 4

    The election date should have been fixed when the EFA went through. Regulated period from Jan1 through to 1st Saturday in November or something. That way every body would know exactly what the regulated period was and it would remove any possibility of the abuse that National showed in 2005 when they spent massively just before the regulated period without it being legally “electioneering” when that was exactly what it was.

  5. First up, thanks R0B for reading and the kind words. This sort of interplay is one of the nicer things about the blogosphere.

    Without wishing to reproduce the discussion that’s been going on over at Pundit, I’ll quickly respond to a couple of points raised here:

    gingercrush: I think taking the power to call an early election from the PM’s hands and placing this with the House is a good idea in any case (and that’s what I’m proposing … not that there cannot be early elections at all, but rather that a majority of MPs should be the ones to decide one is needed and not just the PM alone). But the proposals in the Electoral (Finance Reform and Advance Voting) Bill make the argument even stronger, given that the rules it would create further incentivise calling an early election for partisan benefit. So past behaviour may not be the best predictor of future actions in this new regulatory environment.

    DS: “Fixed election dates do not go well with a Westminster system, especially a Westminster system where minority governments are now the norm.” Well – why not? Canada has fixed elections and minority government (albeit a form of fixed elections that are easily gamed). NSW, Victoria and South Australia have fixed election dates. The UK is introducing fixed election dates under its new coalition government. Germany, the home of MMP, has fixed election dates. So the empirical basis of your claim is, with respect, a little threadbare.

  6. oscar 6

    As well as fixing the election date, we should have all our government elections on the same day.
    Local and central government, same day, every three years. Why waste more money on local elections the year before a general one.
    If it was all done at the same time, at least then the country would be able to ensure that both local and central government would work together and not have their ideological barriers to implementing any initiatives.

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