Just who are you calling powerful, Mr Hide?

Have politicians forgotten just who really holds the power in a democracy?

In Monday's Dominion Post column, Colin James wrote that local government minister Rodney Hide has stated Auckland's new mayor will be the "second most powerful politician [in New Zealand] after the prime minister". James added this is debatable, but I took issue with Hide's assertion for different reasons.

Last time I looked, we still operated under a democratic system here, a government, if you want to use Abraham Lincoln's definition, "of the people, by the people, for the people."

Democracy, the word, comes from the Greek language, 'rule by the people', some say 'by the simple people', though that word 'simple' now has taken on pejorative connotations, unfortunately, because it was not always an epithet. 

The most powerful politician in this democracy of ours is the voter, not that you'd know it from the moment the campaigns begin, the hoardings go up, and the candidates are out on the hustings.

"Vote for me".

"People, not politics." (I don't know what this means.)

"Trust me."

New Zealand, justifiably, boasts of being the first in the world to claim universal suffrage but if Frederic Bastiat (1801 - 1850), French economist, statesman and author, were here right now he would dispute that. Universal, he argues in his famous book The Law, "conceals a great fallacy" because it excludes people, such as in New Zealand today,certain prisoners and everyone under the age of 18 years. As Bastiat argues:

There remains this question of fact: Who is capable? Are minors, females ['The Law' was published in 1850] insane persons, and persons who have committed certain major crimes the only ones to be determined incapable?

It's a debate worth pursuing, though not, I think, in the context of MP Paul Quinn's Bill.

And on the subject of campaigning, yes, I've been there too, so in some way, I feel I can carp from the sidelines, though my experience is national, not local body politics. It's a curious fact with local body politics that all one really needs is a face, or name, well-known for that much-needed tick-in-the-box, not that being famous should automatically rule out anyone's capacity for hard work.

But they get voted in to "power", all these eager people, and as we've seen over the past months, they get voted in to "money" and "credit cards". Another week, another muffin.

But do enough local or national politicians know about the important stuff? The things of beauty, like the separation of powers - government with executive power, parliament with legislative power, and courts of law with judicature?

As some of them sit there, criticising judges for instance, do they know whom they endanger when they threaten judicial independence? It's no use sticking up for judges if people don't understand the limitations of government. When asked in 1787 what kind of government would be created, Benjamin Franklin answered, "a republic, of course, if we can keep it."

Franklin new how easily democracy could be lost if the separation of powers is destroyed.

Last year in Chicago, retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter called for the restoration of civics to be taught in schools because two-thirds of Americans can't name all three branches of government. There has to be a separation of powers, he said, not to protect the judges or the politicians - they are powerful enough to protect themselves - but for the people.

"There has to be a safe place [for ordinary people] and we have to be it."

And while they may curse the fourth estate for prying into their muffin-munching, they should remember we nit-pickers sit outside to try and keep them all honest.

So what are our New Zealand politicians doing with their concentrated power? With apologies to Joan Didion, I sometimes fear they're slouching towards oligarchy.

When I first entered Parliament, a tough, former undercover cop friend, who'd put many drug dealers inside, rang me and said, "Never forget where you came from."

And when I did start to forget, I made the decision not to stand again. "Don't vote for me," I said sotto voce, "My heart's not in this any more."

The next mayor of Auckland city is only another human being. He (or she if a woman steps into the campaign) will only be as powerful as the one crucial vote which decides if he's a politician or one of the people.