It was rather astutely observed some years ago that a huge oak tree was once just a nut that held its ground. The birth and struggle of democracy in Greece was also a fragile concept that managed to hold on and grow to epic proportions throughout the world yet today our democratic traditions are under threat as never before.
Even the very word democratic is reprehensively misused in that wretched country - the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea”. There is nothing remotely democratic or republican about North Korea yet the desire to use democratic in their name shows that even they understand the importance of a democratic pretense. The major difference (in part) is that corrupt politicians within a democratic system get caught. The socialist /communists leaders get rich.
We are however in NZ moving towards authoritarian, top down politics where the public's expectation of the democratic processes is viewed as an inconvenience to be subverted. The French President Charles de Gaulle once infamously said, “basically the republic is me.” President Trump shows glimmerings of a similar attitude as do so many of the political elite. The EU political elite are fighting for dear life to ensure their privilege and survival endures. European politics has faced down challenges before but for how long in the face of continual unrest? France sees the “yellow vests” battling the police on the streets every weekend. Greece, the home of democracy itself suffered a military coup in 1967. Cyprus was held to ransom in 2013 by the banks and the International Monitory Fund – both of whom are forces far removed from democracy. Italian politics has a long-established tradition of political chaos. Spain continues its attempts to unite an increasingly disparate electorate. New Zealand too is turning its back on true representative democracy.
David Runciman (Professor of Politics Cambridge University) in his book ‘How Democracy Ends’ states – “contemporary representative democracy is tired, vindictive, paranoid, self-deceiving, clumsy, and frequently ineffectual”. The description is fair. Here in NZ we allow our own representatives to chip away at the very foundations of democracy with impunity. Representative Democracy is a really simple human construct and as such can easily re -created, destroyed or paid lip service to, simply by retaining or inserting the word democracy into the title by the party-political machines. Had Bill English as PM at the last general election refused to accept the now cobbled together coalition of the left (as he led the party with the most votes) - our representatives’ democracy could easily have broken down. Integrity and convention are therefore very important in politics, or more correctly - were important. The inexorable movement towards “negotiated” big government under MMP is when and where our freedoms will go to die, as they are traded off for the right to exercise power. Something over 5% of the popular vote is now enough in NZ to be able to trade off limited acceptance for substantial influence.
Many years ago, political representation was thought of as a temporary interruption to one’s career or profession. Not so today where a job for life within a political party structure is all too common. A lifetime in politics does not allow the truth to breath any easier as our political masters learn to scramble or mask unpalatable realities. Most of the heroic promises made before an election under MMP are now traded away for a Ministerial position around the cabinet table as they play pass the promised parcel. Even the ubiquitous promises to hold referendums are meaningless as the wording of any such referendum is carefully chosen to better ensure the desired /correct outcome.
The essential oils of trust, integrity and respect for one another’s opinion, which may well be challenging, smooths the way for meaningful debate - in all forms of Government, but are now all but gone. Recent examples abound here in Dunedin. It is unfortunate that retiring Dunedin City Councilor Kate Wilson will probably be best remembered for her denial (as a committee chair) to allow a debate council had agreed to, due to personality issues. Another was the attempt of chair of the Otago Regional Council Stephen Woodhead to bury a report critical of the ORC's water management policy in a publicly excluded session of the council. These are all examples of representative democracy on the way out. It is however the decision to allow non-elected people (Ngai Tahu representatives) to sit and vote on the crucial policy committee of the ORC that really condemns our local democratic system to the scrap heap of political expediency. The system of local government now becomes one of selected democracy as integrity and principle depart from their essential position within council or Government. Acceptance of - one person one vote principle - are rarely if ever openly challenged. The ORC has now even manipulated away the public’s legal right to demand a referendum on the issue of unelected appointees to vote on the important policy committee.
There has never been any kind of protection under the Consumers Guarantee Act with representative democracy. Its future is solely reliant on our representatives’ understanding of how dependent representative democracy is on councilors understanding of first principles. Our local government representatives in Otago have shown (with feet of clay) they practice the dance of political subterfuge – with impunity.
Gerry Eckhoff is a former MP and councillor on the Otago Regional Council.