Monday, November 21, 2016

Divisive politics and electoral reform - lessons from a small pacific nation

On the 29th of August 1981, at the age of 20, I was arrested for disorderly conduct in a public place. I was not alone. I was one of many thousands of people (my brother and father included) protesting against apartheid and the visit of the South African rugby team (the Springboks).
The 1981 Springbok tour was a crucial turning point in New Zealand politics and the more I look at political events in the United States recently, the more I am reminded of it. I am reminded of why the kind of divisive politics that has taken hold in the United States will not be a feature in my own country. It's not because New Zealanders are in any way superior to Americans. It's just we've been there, done it and have implemented systems to prevent that sort of crap happening again.

The 1981 Springbok tour was a lot more than a series of games of New Zealand's obscure but fanatically followed national sport - rugby. It was a huge political confrontation which split families, friendships and political groupings all over the country. As issue: whether or not it was acceptable to play sport with apartheid South Africa. It not only split left and right but also raised New Zealand's own history of racism and colonialism. But looked at historically it was the beginning of the end for the divisive politics of the Prime Minister of the Day, Sir Robert Muldoon.

Muldoon was a small time accountant who's rise to political power was based on exploiting the then electoral system of New Zealand. Essentially the country was divided into electorates and each electorate voted for a Member of Parliament. The political party with the most Menbers of Parliament got to form a government. In theory there were checks and balances. The elected MPs could roll the party leader. The judiciary is independent, etc. But Muldoon was a wily politician and a vicious bully and with the help of "Rob's mob" he soon reduced New Zealand's parliamentary democracy to what some such as Sir Geoffrey Palmer termed an "elected dictatorship".
Not everyone was unhappy about that. "Rob's Mob" loved Muldoon's "down to earth" style, his pugnacious 'punch em in the mouth' temperament, and his conservative support for farmers, employers and businessmen. Just like the recent turnout for Donald Trump "Rob's Mob" were largely rural, less well educated, and fairly racist. They were pretty damn misogynistic and homophobic as hell (it was 1981). The biggest difference is that New Zealand's evangelistic movement has never been united or all that large.
Robert Muldoon's political economy was based on vast subsidies (quarter of the Govt budget in 1981) for the agricultural community (not clever in a nation whose main industry is agriculture and lacks a source of industrial income to fund the subsisidy). He also borrowed from the IMF (at their suggestion) to invest in energy projects speculating (with taxpayers funds) on the historically high price of oil.
Not surprisingly economists considered him an idiot. He combined protectionism, speculation and a growing level of border controls that made New Zealand not unlike Albania. When he froze all wages in order to ban inflation The Economist magazine in london referred to his political economy as "Muldoonery".
The 1981 Springbok tour was a perfect instrument for Muldoon. It was a reward for "Rob's Mob" and a way to create division and annoy the liberals. By the end in September it had become a "law and order issue" with riot squads, protesters literally becoming rioters, and light aircraft being used to disrupt the games. Muldoon was re-elected not long after with less than 40% of the popular vote and a razor thin parliamentry majority. The politics of division had worked but people were rapidly tiring of it.
By 1984 there was a sense of crisis. Getting rid of Muldoon had become the focus of politics. Muldoon even forestalled a putsch by his own party by going on TV the night before and appealling to Rob's Mob to keep him as leader. The national cabinet backed down.
While the Labour Party had chosen the glib and charismatic David Lange there was still a danger that the 1984 election would split on party lines and Muldoon would again cheat political death. It was only when businessman Robert Jones promoted the "New Zealand Party" to split the conservative vote that Muldoon finally fell. The Labour party triumphed, the New Zealand Party vanished (although its policies were taken up by labour) and National was smashed.
Yet the most important development of this period was a deep mistrust of the political system. The story of post Muldoon electoral reform is not one of noble political champions but a web of election promises which eventually forced politicians to act. see
The result was the mixed member proportional system similar to that in Germany. It was introduced by referendum and has been tested since by referendum.
As a result there cannot be the kind of elected dictatorship of the kind Robert Muldoon specialised in again. Small parties can and do form and have a reasonable chance of being elected. Every party must strive to gain the centre because without it a party or coalition has little hope of holding power, and no government has been elected with an overall majority in its own right.
New Zealand is the only English speaking country with an MMP political system. It has taken some time for both politicians and voters to get used to it and adapt it to our political culture. But the strength of the MMP system now means that, while political disagreement remains (as it does everywhere), the results of elections tends toward stable and rational political direction.
I cannot argue that MMP improves public political discourse, or any particular appreciation of the crucial matters facing New Zealand. It does not suddenly make New Zealanders individually any more politically intelligent or insightful. Electoral systems don't do that.
But because the electorate is fully represented the wisdom of the entire electorate is often quite remarkably successful at finding a good balance between stability and responsiveness.
The result is that, if the major political parties have offerings which are credible, participation can easily top 80% for the simple reason that every vote really does count.
Any country where electoral participation is under two thirds can only marginally call itself a democracy. At 58% (2016) the US is even less of a democracy than India (66%, 2014).
Without a proper system of representation voters become apathetic. They lose faith in the system and belief in the notion of democracy. The repeatedly vote for "change" and with each candidate that does not or cannot deliver change the less they take the system seriously. From a 'sacred duty' voting becomes a case of happily fucking up a fucked system.
Can the USA reform itself electorally? I have no idea. But if it doesn't begin the journey very soon I suggest the self proclaimed home of democracy will have no more right to that title than the People's Republic of China.

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