Jon explores our democratic deficit, arguing that a democratic summit be convened irrespective of who wins power on Saturday

“A Government that does not know what to do

may nevertheless feel the urgency to do something.”

James K. Baxter, New Zealand: A Short History

Research NZ published a poll back in August which showed, by a 46-41 percent margin, support for a return to First Past the Post. A bog standard result for these confused times one might think.

Yet the interesting point about the poll breakdown was that voters who had only ever voted under MMP overwhelmingly supported its retention (by a whopping 30 points). It is we voters who have voted under both systems who are more dissatisfied with the politics MMP produces. And the older we are the grumpier we feel about it. One strong argument in favour of MMP’s retention therefore is that our young, our nation’s future in other words, don’t favour a change. Why should we stand in their way?

Another argument is that if we continue to equate problems in our political system solely with problems in our electoral system, we risk destabilizing our democracy by provoking constant electoral system change. This will not prove a path to political stability, let alone democratic renewal.

I’ve always argued that MMP is primarily an unintended consequence of Muldoon’s excesses and the revolutionary politics on display between 1984 and 1992. As such, the electoral system change that it caused wasn’t necessarily the most appropriate remedy for the malaise of cynicism and broken promises that were the root-cause of so much public hostility towards their political class.

We do nonetheless have both troubling and complex questions to pose to ourselves over the future direction of our democracy. The current dance around the entrenchment or abolition of the Maori seats is, in this context, small beer. It is but a symptom of the most crucial question of our age: What is the appropriate role and location of the Treaty of Waitangi in 21st Century New Zealand?

Another recent strain on our democracy is imposed by our electoral finance laws. If National wins it will be interesting to watch its transformation from a partisan critic of electoral finance reform to a bi-partisan consensus seeker. I’d suggest the only thing the EFA debate proved was that we the people should trust none of our politicians to rise above their narrow party interests.

We need an independent body to fully investigate our electoral finance laws. National would do well to leave in place the mechanisms already established for an expert panel to complete its work and an intended citizen’s assembly to run parallel to the electoral finance reform process. The Burkean view of representation is not set in stone and even conservatives like Bill English can surely move into this century and embrace new thinking.

The reason I say this is because of an even greater underlying problem in our democracy; the ever-increasing alienation and cynicism of people, especially younger New Zealanders, towards politicians and politics, not to mention a similar antipathy towards the media who report on it. I feel that if we don’t begin to explore innovative mechanisms to better connect our governors with the people, a bond flowing in both directions, this trend will only worsen.

The trajectory of our history is also moving us ever closer to our coming-out party, the day we declare ourselves a republic. Both major party leaders know this, but Clark has always preferred to advance the republican agenda by stealth, and not always to her credit. In contrast John Key, who called himself a “new generation” leader on a recent appearance on ‘Agenda,’ showcased his ‘fresh’ thinking by promoting the woefully retrograde step of restoring knighthoods.

But, with all due respect to the Queen’s physicians, they can only delay – not prevent – one of life’s certainties. Across the ditch our Australian cousins will likely not wait for King Charles to talk and walk amongst their fauna.

But given the arch-difficulty we have in discussing tricky issues of public policy without being drowned out by extremists from either side of the spectrum – think race relations, prostitution law reform, civil unions, Section 59, and electoral finance – our leaders need to be thinking now about how we begin our most vital and much needed constitutional conversation.

There has always been a strong school of thought that suggests piecemeal constitutional reform is entirely consistent with our history, and comforting for being so. I respect that view, but I do wonder whether we, as a dramatically and increasingly diverse nation of peoples, have the luxury of continuing to follow our reactive dictates.

Also, with constitutional devolution already well underway in Britain the logic of the status quo begins to look ever more fragile. One could go further and argue that the ‘Mother Country’ withdrew from us quite some time ago, to better put her own house in order, so it’s about time that we Kiwis simply acknowledged this reality and did the same.

However, the journey to our nation’s adulthood will prove a rocky one, with all paths converging on our collective need to adapt the Treaty to our present day conditions, and to use it to unlock a more purposeful and unified future for our nation. This will require us to exhibit patience and the spirit of mutual respect and mutual compromise that characterises the best of our treaty-based relationships.

It will also require facilitation from our political elites, and also their impetus and direction. If democratic 'big change' is to be a process of regeneration and of our self-confident assertion of full independence, then every one of us will need to feel engaged and hopeful about the process and its integrity.

Our next Prime Minister could do worse than to, as a starting point, convene a democratic summit for all interested parties, including representatives of the people themselves, during the next term. Issues such as future electoral system change, electoral finance reform, the future of the Maori seats, the location of the treaty in a written codified constitution, and republicanism can be tabled, alongside any other aspect of our democracy that the people think merits inclusion.

Such a beginning would represent true preparatory leadership. It is also consistent with leadership opportunity during a generational transition, laying down markers which succeeding generations could then build upon. The haphazard and piecemeal history of our constitutional development has served its purpose, but in the 21st Century we need to push further and push harder. We must, most of all, be bold and self-confident enough to try.

Comments (7)

by Graeme Edgeler on November 03, 2008
Graeme Edgeler

It is we voters who have voted under both systems who are more dissatisfied with the politics MMP produces. And the older we are the grumpier we feel about it. One strong argument in favour of MMP’s retention therefore is that our young, our nation’s future in other words, don’t favour a change. Why should we stand in their way?

The argument could go the other way. People who have tried both prefer first past the post, why should people who haven't stand in the way of those with experience of both systems :-)

National would do well to leave in place the mechanisms already established for an expert panel to complete its work and an intended citizen’s assembly to run parallel to the electoral finance reform process.

Even though it's not looking at donation disclosure, third party spending or a bunch of other controversial issues?

by Dr Jon Johansson on November 03, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Graeme - If younger voters are comfortable with coalition government and overwhelmingly favour the retention of MMP, as the polling I quoted strongly projects, then I'd suggest that it is we less flexible voters who should take three deep breaths, especially as further electoral system change risks further destabilising a system that isn't broke, especially once the relics from FPP finally begin to depart the stage.

Perhaps we older voters could admit to ourselves that we do not hold any greater wisdom than our young.

Regarding your second point, that's why I say a democratic summit is necessary. The ratsnest of malfescence we have witnessed between 2005-2008 has strained our democracy and we need to act not in an ad-hoc way, reacting to the latest act of dodgy behaviour, but in a considered and inclusive way. It is the people's democracy.  

by Waikanae Kid on November 03, 2008
Waikanae Kid

Dr JJ, as usual a well presented and argued article.

With respect to the concept of New Zealand moving towards a Republic, I for one am more than ready to embrace it.

In fact I feel that we have indeed been tardy in not being more open to the concept that as you correctly suggest is an inevitability.

The extremists from both sides will attempt to drown out balanced and objective discussion.

To them I would merely show a recent picture of Prince William exchanging cell phone numbers with Paris Hilton and tell them to think about it!

by Andrew Geddis on November 03, 2008
Andrew Geddis

Graeme,

You ask why the expert panel on election funding should be retained:

Even though it's not looking at donation disclosure, third party spending or a bunch of other controversial issues?

You might wish to consider the terms of reference for the panel, which state:

The review will examine the current system of election funding and the question of introducing a system of state funding of political parties in New Zealand, including: .....

issues with the current system of funding elections and political parties.

Seems to me that this language is inclusive of the issues you raise.

by Tim Watkin on November 03, 2008
Tim Watkin

As someone who instinctively leans towards the transparency and equity inherent in state funding of elections, it's great to hear that the panel will be digging its spade deep into the soil of donations and funding, Andrew. Hopefully your recommendations can counter what Jon rightly describes as the risk of cycnicism towards politics.

I wonder what you thought about the Listener saying your work was doomed even before you began:

There is no cross-party support for the Government’s panel, though that is not a criticism of those on it. No matter how hard they try to act with integrity and even-handedness, the exercise is doomed from the start.

You think you can get other parties on board post-election?

by Andrew Geddis on November 03, 2008
Andrew Geddis

Tim,

I'm not sure to what extent we as a panel can (or should) "get other parties on board post-election" - there'd be something unseemly in us as a panel lobbying/agitating to stay in existence! That said, once the reality of trying to make law in this field sinks home, it may be that the parties reconsider the value of the Citizens' Jury concept ... after all, it'll simply provide information about what a representative sample of NZers think should happen here (after being educated on the issues involved and deliberating together on them), as opposed to what the political parties think might best serve their interests.  Just what the next government wishes to do with that information - and whether Parliament chooses to give it legislative effect - is another question altogether.

 

by Chris de Lisle on November 04, 2008
Chris de Lisle

As a young voter who is relatively alienated from politics, politicians and the government, I'm not convinced that an overhaul of the voting system would make a great deal of difference to alienation.

I think the alienation derives from the fact that the politicians spend most of their time talking about things that don't interest us yet (My tax cut amounts to $2 per week, and does not concern me in the slightest, for example). So in some sense it's just that the young are a minority alienated from the majority's concerns... Which is better than the reverse.

The other problem is that we have only a very few opportunities to impact the system by voting. The average twenty year old might have voted once, the average sixty year old has voted some 13 times. With such a tiny amount of possible input, how can anyone, old or young, not feel a little bit alienated? I don't think any overhaul that will  change this lack of input would ever be even remotely on the tables, and thus I'm not convinced that any engaging people's democracy is possible.

*    *    *

"including representatives of the people themselves"

Isn't this what the politicians are supposed to be? How hollow is our democracy when it dosen't feel like we are represented by the people we elect to represent us?

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