2008 Election & Beyond: Democratic Big Change, Part I

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.