Friday, October 14, 2011

Electing what? Democracy in question

New Zealand goes to the polls on Saturday 26 November 2011. If the opinion polls are correct the ruling National Party will romp in, the Greens will increase their presence and the Maori vote will split. Some of the one-man band parties will vanish and a few others will stay. National will then claim a mandate for another three years.

But is this really democracy?

For alongside the election New Zealanders will also have an opportunity to vote on whether we should keep the MMP election system or choose one of four other models. For those in the United States this must seem like the ultimate expression of democracy. The two-party stitch-up that passes for Federal democracy in America is clearly not only not democratic (judging by opinion polls) but a travesty of the democratic representation.

Unfortunately we in New Zealand have learned that the means by which the legislature is selected has very little to do with practical democracy. Elections under any system have become farcical popularity contests and confidence tricks. Look like a winner and you are a winner. Look like a loser and you are a loser. It doesn't matter whether you are elected under first-past-the-post or mixed-member-proportional schemes you are still picking a team to lead the country from a bunch of clubs (political parties are normally registered incorporated societies) composed of backstabbers, bully-boys or nut-job ideologues

Having won the confidence of those who bother to vote, these people then declare they have a mandate to basically do what they like until they have to undergo another vote of confidence. All the populace really gets to do is vote no-confidence in the leaders they have. And increasingly around the world they are voting no-confidence on all those standing for election because the political party process does not produce candidates they have any confidence in, plus they have a sneaking suspicion is nothing more than a distraction from the actual powers that operate behind the throne.

In short whether the turkeys are elected by height or weight does not change the fact that they are still turkeys. The problem is political parties.

Political parties are basically just corporations for obtaining legislative and budgetary influence. The recent (and pointless) changing of the guard in the ACT party has shown just how paper-thin the wall between sponsors and politicians can be. There is very little in the selection criteria of candidates of a political party that would qualify anyone for a job in a legislature or executive branch of Government. They are simply political hothouses where the best wheeler-dealer, back-stabber or bully gains the nod.

Another problem with our "democracy"is the role of mass-media in electioneering. Where once politicians had a reasonable chance of  being interrogated by the populace increasingly that form of interaction has been replaced by giant marketing machines. The same people who sell toothpaste use the same techniques to install governments. All that is needed is money. The result is that the party most likley to be elected is the one best able to raise the cash.

For mass-marketing to work the object is to simplify everything down to one core idea, then "accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative and don't mess with Mr-in-between". This fundamentally comes down to a leader who smiles well, who people can relate to. The rest of the political party team is eclipsed by the dazzling teeth of the leader. The fact that they are backstabbers, bully-boys or nut-job ideologues is simply eliminated. Unlike the US, no-one here will question their ability to do jobs assigned by the possessor of the teeth (not that that has made very much difference).

In New Zealand there are rules about how much can be spent by parties on electioneering. But the fact is that most party memberships do not have the wherewithall themselves to fund a campaign. They therefore need donations and it would be totally naive to imagine donations do not come with strings. This is politics we are talking about, not feeding the starving. Just because the police rarely investigate politicians for corruption doesn't mean it doesn't exist.

This also raises the role of the civil service. In New Zealand the civil service is meant to be apolitical. In practice there is a tendency by politicians to appoint political mates to senior positions, sometimes with very little experience. In theory the civil service is meant to offer free and frank advice about the best course of action for the country to the Government of the day. In practice the civil service lives in terror of politicians and tries to second-guess their wishes by expediting whatever crazy ideas they come up with as fast as possible. In theory the machinery of government is meant to be transparent thanks to the freedom of information Act. Ours is better than Australias but nothing like as good as the US's. In practice however civil servants hide behind dubious claims for the need for "free and frank advice" or "commercial sensitivity" and rely on the fact that the politicians have "inadvertently" under resourced the Ombudsmans office so that there is a logjam of complaints a mile long making timely action by the Ombudsman almost impossible.

The net result is that come November, or any other time, we will end up with a Government that claims a mandate only because it is the alternative which garners more confidence than the other. As the old joke goes about two men running away from a Grizzly bear: you don't have to outpace the bear, you just have to outpace the other guy. The result will be the selection of a government of marginally better confidence than its opposition but not necessarily one which generates any absolute confidence at all.

In my view we do not need a referendum on electoral system, to improve democracy in this country. What we need is a democracy commission, rather like the commerce commission. The commerce commission is independent of commerce and rules on whether the law has been broken or not. Its judgements are subject to judicial review but it collects evidence and brings prosecutions on its own.

A democracy commission would police political parties and other organisations which are nominally democratic (eg unions and other incorporated societies) to ensure that the processes of democracy are indeed followed all the way to the core of the political process. The democracy commission would, like other commissioners, report to the head of state not the Prime Minister. It should be capable of recommending the dissolution of parliament where the Government of the day acts in contradiction of its own manifesto. It should also be able to prosecute MPs who change allegiance, on the grounds that they have been elected by misrepresentation.  And it should be the prime defender of a politically neutral civil service.

A further task for the democracy commission would be ensuring that provisions to consult with affected communities are followed meaningfully. Consultation should not mean a meeting attended by three pensioners in a local library at 2:30pm on a wet afternoon. Rules, or even laws, which require the provision of information to and obtaining views from affected citizens of all policies or investments should be conducted fairly and openly. This would be especially important in matter involving local government which is particularly shocking at hiding information and avoiding its legislative obligations (especially with regard to environmental management).

A democracy commission would not solve all New Zealand's political problems, but it would, at least, be a step in the right direction.

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