Monday, November 21, 2011

Steve Baron: What would you tell Afghanistan about democracy?

What do you think of when I say the word 'democracy' and what do you even expect from your political system? It's an important subject, especially when New Zealand is about to go to the polls, yet something most people often take for granted, especially given that over 20% of New Zealanders don't even bother to vote each election—and that number is growing.

Just recently I have been forced to think even harder about our democracy because amongst the many emails I receive (most of which include offers to enlarge certain parts of my anatomy and Russian beauties offering me their undying love if I agree to marry them) was an email from Democracy International. This US based organization helps provide technical assistance and implements democracy and governance programs worldwide. It is financially supported by a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). They are bringing a delegation of civic leaders from Afghanistan to New Zealand to look at our political system, observe our elections and meet with various people with a background in elections.

This group has been assembled to develop a comprehensive electoral and governance reform agenda and have asked me to meet with them to discuss New Zealand's democracy, along with my studies into direct democracy. For those of you who do not know me, I founded a group called Better Democracy New Zealand which has campaigned to improve our democracy through more use of direct democracy like that of Switzerland.

Most people would agree that voting is the cornerstone of a democracy. It is often said voting is a privilege that many New Zealander's died for during past wars to protect, so it must be cherished and valued. The more cynical say why bother voting, all it does is encourage those good for nothing politicians. Democracy is something we often take for granted, as mentioned above, over 20% of New Zealanders do not even bother to vote. The word democracy also means many things to many people. To some it's simply voting once every three years at a general election. Others, like myself, take a keen interest and have been actively involved to make New Zealand a better democracy by pressing for improvements to our political system.

I have to admit that I know very little about Afghanistan, but I do know their democracy is a far cry from what we have here in New Zealand. What I also know about Afghanistan is that it is one of the poorest nations in the world, has been invaded over the centuries by many military conquerors, civil war has been rife and it was recently ruled by an extremist government. Living in the idyllic nation we call New Zealand, I find it hard to imagine what it would be like to live under such conditions. So what is it these people will witness here in New Zealand? There is no doubt they will see one of the most democratic nations in the world. New Zealand certainly has free and fair elections regularly and individual rights are well protected under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, although this Act is not entrenched and neither do we have a codified Constitution like that of the USA. The whole political process is all relatively transparent with little corruption. Citizens have easy access to their local MPs, and they can present petitions to parliament as well as make submissions to government select committees and other authorities. There is strong competition at elections between numerous political parties, although this is dominated by the National and Labour parties—all signs of an inclusive society and a strong democracy.

What I do find strange is that voters put so much faith in names like George Bush, Barrack Obama, Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah, John Key or Phil Goff and their various political parties. While elected representation is an acceptable and proven system (to some extent), does one leader or one party have all the answers and do they get public policy decisions right all the time? Are they always in sync with the wishes of the people who elected them? I think not and this is the downfall of elected representation and the blind faith voters give these people and their parties. To me, democracy certainly isn't just one day of democracy every three years on election day—that is simply an elected dictatorship. To me democracy means a true exchange of communication between the elected and the electorate, with the electorate being able to override the decisions of those we elect, when the electorate thinks it is important to do so because the next election years down the track often lets too much water flow under the bridge. Democracy also means putting forward public policies that are ignored by elected representatives and putting public policies on the political agenda that are often politically unpalatable to elected representatives. While many of us may have doubts about the intelligence of our neighbour, for me personally, I have more faith in the collective wisdom of three million New Zealand voters to make the ultimate decisions on public policy more than I do in the collective wisdom of 120 MPs who are bound by party ideology and party politics. This is the kind of democracy I will be encouraging the Afghan delegation to consider and press for in Afghanistan.


Allen said...

I just love your last paragraph for me it sums up what we should aspire to. Unfortunately I can't see it happening here any time soon. We will just go on with the benign parlimentary dictatorship that we enjoy(?) at the moment.

Anonymous said...

Well said Steve. As long as we tolerate a system where the MPs can ignore the wishes of the citizens and impose unwanted and unmandated legislation then we can't pretend that we have a true democracy.

John Mathews said...

Western democracy is a myth. Politicians mouth the word "Democracy" throughout their campaigns but once ensconced, it is the Party Whips who control the vote.

The routine way that referenda have been ignored by the politicians of both major parties over the past decade is well established.