Water and Grass: The economic value of productive pastures is deemed by the National Government to be more important than popular political control over the water that keeps them green. In Canterbury this has led to a third delay in the return of full democracy to the region.
THE GREAT CANTABRIAN RIGHTS ROBBERY continues. With six of the thirteen Regional councillors set to be appointed, until at least 2019, by the Environment Minister, Dr Nick Smith, Canterbury’s long-promised return to democracy has, once again, been delayed.
And still the streets are empty.
That the people of Christchurch have been a little preoccupied since 2010 is acknowledged. But the same high-handedness that prompted the elimination of Cantabrians’ regional democracy has also been a frustrating feature of their city’s rebuild.
And still the streets are silent.
Large sums of money continue to be extracted from the people of Canterbury by “Commissioners” for whom no one has voted. Practically without a murmur, the oldest principle of democratic governance – that taxes may only be levied by representatives chosen by the people themselves – has been cast aside.
“No taxation without representation!”: the principle for which seventeenth century Englishmen were ready to execute their King, and in the name of which eighteenth century Americans proclaimed a revolution; has stirred New Zealanders hardly at all.
Where are our John Hampdens? Our John Pyms? Why have we yet to produce an Antipodean version of John Adams? John Hancock? Thomas Jefferson? All of these champions of representative government – the farmers, merchants and lawyers who challenged King Charles I and King George III – were men of substance. They dared to win, even though to lose meant death. But New Zealand’s men of substance; our farmers, merchants and lawyers; what have they dared?
Precious little has been risked by those whose screams would, undoubtedly, be among the loudest were Cantabrians rights being abrogated by a left-wing government. Indeed, one could argue that the destruction of regional democracy in Canterbury was undertaken at the behest of farmers, merchants and lawyers. For isn’t it these latter groups that have the gained the most from the elimination of their fellow citizens’ democratic rights? While ordinary Cantabrians retained the capacity to thwart their grand plans for Canterbury’s precious water, how could the region’s farmers, merchants and lawyers possibly have attracted the level of investment required to bring them to fruition?
Dr Smith dismisses all such claims as cynical. Rather than a case of careful political engineering, erected in the interests of the farmers, merchants and lawyers who vote National, the destruction of Canterbury’s regional democracy is presented by the Minister as some sort of glorified water conservation measure. Any return to normal democratic governance, argues Dr Smith, would inflict irreparable damage on a process which he clearly believes to be beyond the capabilities of elected citizens.
“The fear would be that you’ve got this population divide pretty even between rural and urban, and rather than those commissioners being able to look for the middle way through, that you end up where we were – a highly polarised council not making any progress on these very important issues.”
Dr Smith refuses to accept that, by silencing the voice of urban conservationists, he has, in effect, facilitated the water exploitation schemes of rural Cantabrians. His justification hinges on what he considers to be the superiority of technocratic over democratic decision-making.
But this justification works equally well for any and all attempts to limit the scope of democratic decision-making. The notion that society would be morally and materially improved if all the important decisions were left to a self-replenishing caste of “philosopher kings” is as old as Plato’s Republic. That every attempt to put Plato’s ideas into practice has very quickly resulted in the decisions of the wise becoming practically indistinguishable from the interests of the wealthy, has always been one of the strongest arguments in favour of democracy.
Nor is it reasonable to suppose that Dr Smith’s technocratic problem-solving will remain quarantined in Canterbury. In October 2016 it is likely that the balance of power on the Hawkes Bay Regional Council will shift decisively against the proposed Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme. But, after what happened in Canterbury, the region’s voters are surely justified in wondering whether their democratic judgement will simply be over-ruled by Dr Smith, and a group of Commissioners installed to make certain that “progress on these very important issues” continues.
Would this be enough to see the people’s pitchforks lifted up and their flaming torches lit? One hopes so, but all the evidence so far suggests otherwise. New Zealanders definition of democracy appears to embrace a sort of plebiscitary oligarchy, under which a group of politicians are given the right to govern exactly as they please – subject only to a triennial vote of confidence.
But this definition of democracy condemns us all to live under an elected dictatorship where politicians are free to impose decisions of ever-increasing mendacity: ceasing only when a decision of such outrageous awfulness pushes the population beyond its collective pain threshold; and the people remember that they have rights.
This essay was originally published by The Press of Tuesday, 24 March 2015.