Friday, March 21, 2014

Steve Baron: To vote or not to vote… that is the question

I’d like to tell you about Ben. I first met Ben at Victoria University when I attended there in 2012 as a mature post graduate student. Ben had just finished his undergraduate degree and was doing the same political science post graduate paper as me. Ben is an impressive young man with a sharp intellect. He’s not a flashy know-it-all character, just determined, down to earth and like most politically minded people he wants to make a difference. Ben’s all excited now the election date has been announced and he is encouraging all of his Facebook friends to get out and vote. Being a political party zealot (member), he naturally expected everyone to vote for ‘his’ political party!

Statistics show that 25% of New Zealanders didn’t bother to vote at the last election. I suspect there will be even more who don’t bother this year, as turnout rates drop almost every election. 

Political party zealots like Ben struggle to understand why people don’t bother to vote, as do far more esteemed political scientists than Ben and I, who also pondered this phenomenon. Public Choice Theory states that given there is only a tiny probability that one vote will ever change the outcome of an election; it would therefore be irrational for people to bother voting at all. This theory is obviously wrong, given that the vast majority still vote, even when it’s not compulsory. The cynical suggest New Zealanders are just an apathetic bunch, but I don’t subscribe to that theory either.

Another theory is that people abstain from voting because they feel alienated and that no political party represents their ideas. Ben would argue that as long as you agree with 70% of what a political party stands for then that’s enough to vote for that party. But what about those polarising issues that are extremely important to you? For example, your party sup-ports protecting the environment which you vehemently agree with, but also has a policy that says you must work until you are 75, which you vehemently disagree with. Yet one of the other parties has a retirement policy that is more conducive to your way of thinking, but is happy for mining to take place in the middle of one of our most pristine national parks. How can you bring yourself to vote for either?

What people like Ben don’t understand is that every political party represents something most of us agree with, but voting in New Zealand is a package deal—bundled policies. We have no way to cherry-pick the policies the majority of us feel would be best for New Zealand. The counter argument here is that politics is not all about majoritarianism. Politicians are responsible for protecting minorities from tyranny of the majority. But then there’s tyranny of the minority, where a few elitist politicians make all the important decisions the majority don’t agree with. The fact is that politicians are always making policies that adversely affect some particular minority. Be that young people, elderly people, unemployed people or rich people. In the past politicians have even tried to ban homosexuals from teaching in schools; tried to ban political parties (like the Communist party) or even taxed Chinese immigrants excessively, when they wanted to immigrate to New Zealand. 

The bottom line is that our politicians do not listen to New Zealanders. They have their own agenda. We simply cannot trust them on every decision. Until voters have a political tool to ensure politicians must listen to New Zealanders it would seem logical to me that the only way they have to protest, and demand change, is to abstain from voting. Some people struggle with this concept and feel a huge social guilt if they don’t vote. They also see voting as a civic responsibility and often vote for a party even though they don’t really want to. It takes a strong minded individual to stand up against this kind of social bullying and ridicule. Then there’s the argument that you can’t complain if you don’t vote—as if voting and complaining makes any difference?

There are of course other political options. You could vote for one of the minor parties that offers a political tool like binding referendums. New Zealand First and Winston Peters had their chance to press for such a tool when previously in a coalition government, yet failed to make this a bottom line policy while enjoying the baubles of office. The New Zealand Conservative Party have binding referendums as their party policy and have said it is a bottom line policy in any coalition agreement if they get representation in Parliament. Whether or not they achieve the 5% threshold or obtain an electorate seat is yet to be seen. Perhaps the title of P.J. O’Rourke’s book is worthy of consideration: “Don’t vote, it just encourages the bastard”.


paul scott said...

I mean Cunliffe is not exciting really is he, why would they care, they have lives and they are probably going to Canada next year, I don't think its going to work, the rich prick Cunliffe vote for me we will take you back to micky Savage, Micky who? what is he saying

Unknown said...

While I profess no political sophistication. I share the view of many that an MMP election may deliver a Goverment representative of the vote, but that Government seems inevitably hamstrung by the requirement for support and confidence from the lesser proportion. I too wrestle with the 'must vote/waste of time voting at all' dilemma. I have now decided to discuss the following consideration with anyone I meet: Convince as many people as you may to cast an informal vote as a protest against the MMP electoral system; Tell as many people as you know that the size of the informal vote will be a clear protest against MMP and its faults, and most importantly, Educate yourself with regard to the alternatives. Carry out an internet search for 'Direct Party and Representative Voting' (DPR Voting) for a start.

Phillip Armstrong