If You Can Keep It: Framer of the US Constitution, Benjamin Franklin, understood what many New Zealanders seem to have forgotten: that democracy is not, and must never become, someone else's game; a spectator sport. If Cantabrians wish to keep their democratic institutions - they must fight for them.
CANTABRIANS, why aren’t you on the streets? This National-led Government has overturned your democratic rights for a second time – to barely a murmur of protest. In the face of such political passivity, what’s to prevent the politicians responsible for cancelling two regional council elections from cancelling twenty?
There is a cautionary (and possibly apocryphal) tale which describes Benjamin Franklin emerging from the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia and being accosted by a local woman who demanded to know what form of government he and his fellow delegates had given her. “A republic, madam,” Franklin is supposed to have replied, “if you can keep it.”
A Republic, if you can keep it. Roughly translated from the Latin, res publica means “this thing of ours”. Franklin knew what many New Zealanders appear to have forgotten, that democracy is not, and must never become, someone else’s game; a spectator sport.
This thing of ours. This arrangement we have worked out among ourselves. This set of rules we have devised to keep us free, and to prevent the high and mighty from traducing our rights, making off with our property and turning us into slaves. This is the most valuable thing we, as ordinary New Zealanders, possess. And if we allow “this thing of ours” to become “that thing of theirs”, then all our constitutional guarantees and safeguards are rendered useless – and we are lost.
Apart from the passivity of Canterbury’s people, there is another indicator that the province is in danger of relinquishing its grip on res publica. It is contained in the joint declaration from Local Government Minister, David Carter, and Environment Minister, Amy Adams. Right here, in this sentence:
“In the interests of Canterbury’s progress, and to protect the gains the Commissioners have made, the Government has decided the best option is to continue with the current governance arrangement.”
Note, particularly, David Carter’s use of the word “governance”. Over the course of the past quarter-century this word has slithered, unbidden and almost unremarked, into our leaders’ political vocabulary. Most people assume that “governance” is simply a dandified version of “government”. An expression used by politicians and bureaucrats in order to sound more knowledgeable than the average citizen.
But, most people would be wrong. “Governance” is the word used by those who seek to curb and control the naturally obstreperous and decidedly messy processes of democratic government. Why? Because “government of the people, by the people, for the people” – as Abraham Lincoln so succinctly defined the democratic impulse – cannot be relied upon to deliver the “right” results. “Governance” is all about delivering the outcomes that “government” cannot deliver. The outcomes which unfairly benefit minorities and/or vested interests. The private designs and schemes which the open and unfettered transaction of public business inevitably expose to the scorn and sanction of an outraged electorate.
Canterbury’s current “Governance” has, therefore, some very important questions to answer.
What, precisely, is the nature of “the gains” that its Government-appointed Commissioners have made? Cantabrians might well ask. They might also ask which individuals and groups have benefited most from the “progress” Canterbury’s appointed rulers have (allegedly) been making? And by what right Central Government continues to deny the citizens of the Canterbury region access to the machinery of self-government, and the democratic authority to determine their own future?
The answers to these (and many more) questions are certainly not to be found in the Ministers’ Joint Statement. Neither, I might add, is the word “democracy”.
That these constitutional and political burdens should be laid upon a city and a province already groaning beneath the weight of natural disasters and a stuttering economic recovery rubs additional salt into already-painful wounds. It’s almost as if, perceiving the region’s capacity for resistance to be dangerously compromised, the Government has seized the opportunity to conduct a malign constitutional experiment upon its exhausted population.
For its appointed Regional Council is not Canterbury’s only instance of elite “governance” supplanting local and democratic “government”. The Christchurch Earthquake Recovery Authority and its all-powerful Minister, Gerry Brownlee, are further expressions of the Government’s determination to be presented with only the “right” results. Cantabrians might also contemplate how frequently the word “governance” trips off the tongues of Christchurch City Council bureaucrats, and how often City Councillors determined to do their democratic duty are charged with making the city council “dysfunctional” – the very same charge which condemned their regional council to death.
Cantabrians, the love you bear for your region, along with your determination to shape its destiny, is being tested. The promise you were given, that regional democracy would be restored in 2013, has been broken. This National-led Government now waits to see how far you, the people of Canterbury, will go to keep your res publica. Every New Zealander who still believes in democracy waits with them.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 11 September 2012.