Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Democracy's Disappearing Hand

Our Dysfunctional Democracy: With barely a third of New Zealanders bothering to participate in the recent local government elections, the atrophying of our democratic institutions continues apace. At their current rate of decline, our democratic organs may soon be reduced to useless vestigial remnants, like the human tail-bone. Of interest only to political anatomists.
 
IF THE FUTURE is determined by the “invisible hand” of market forces, then what purpose does the democratic hand serve? With barely a third of New Zealanders bothering to participate in the recent local government elections, the answer would appear to be: “Not much.” At their current rate of decline, our democratic organs may soon be reduced to useless vestigial remnants, like the human tail-bone. Of interest only to political anatomists.
 
For more than 30 years we have been encouraged to look upon “politics” and “politicians” as not quite respectable. From the Reserve Bank Act to the Local Government Act, the ability of elected representatives to “meddle” too closely in the administration and delivery of “public goods” has been steadily whittled away. The setting of monetary policy and the efficient delivery of core civic amenities are matters best left to unelected experts. The days when any old butcher, baker, or candlestick-maker could run a city (let alone a country!) are long gone.
 
This “professionalization” of the formerly rather amateur enterprise of democratic government is what lies behind the explosive growth of what has come to be known as the “political class”. Like any group of specialists, these administrators and managers have been quick to spread the self-serving message that the increasingly complex business of modern “governance” (a word which has very little to do with the art of government by the way) has moved well beyond the competence of the average citizen.
 
Just how pervasive (not to say pernicious) this professionalisation has become is illustrated by the presence in practically every large local authority of a special unit devoted to “democratic services”. Its job? To advise and monitor (some unkind souls might say control) the conduct of their “governing body’s” elected representatives. Newly elected councillors are briefed on the “responsibilities” of their new “job” and familiarised with the Codes of Conduct and myriad legal constraints in which all of them are now well-and-truly entangled.
 
Nor should these responsibilities be taken lightly. Woe betide any council attempting to assert its democratic right to know better than its professional advisors. Just ask the people of Canterbury what happens to an elected body which the political class deems to be conducting its affairs “irresponsibly” or, even worse, “irrationally”. Central Government intervention, the sacking of elected councillors and their replacement by appointed commissioners, cannot be far behind.
 
The public has had little difficulty deciphering these messages. Even before the government sacked Ecan in 2010, it was clear to voters that the ability of their elected representatives to translate election promises into practical policies had been seriously compromised. Councils no longer seemed to own and/or control anything. Services that had once been provided by the Council itself were increasingly being contracted out to the private sector.
 
There was a time when, if the bus you took to work was consistently late, you simply picked up the phone and complained to your local councillor. He or she then raised the matter with the municipal transport manager, who, in turn, had a word in the ear of the route inspector and – ta-da! – the punctuality of your service was restored. Unfortunately, what the travelling public regarded as an eminently sensible and highly accountable public transport system was actually hopelessly inefficient. By contracting-out the service to privately-owned bus operators, said the experts, efficiency would be improved dramatically and the council could save millions of dollars. If your privately-owned service starts running late, however, don’t bother calling your local councillor. It’s no longer his problem.
 
Clearly, any candidate promising to do great things for his or her city in the twenty-first century is either na├»ve or dishonest. “Great things” may well be an excellent description of the achievements of past councils and mayors, but today’s local government politicians would be most unwise to offer the voters anything more than competence and a comprehensive understanding of how the system works. Perspiration counts for much more than inspiration in the neoliberal era. Perspiration and an unwavering adherence to the proposition that local government’s only legitimate role is to hold the ring while self-interested private-sector businesspeople unconsciously, but inevitably, make our cities better places in which to live.
 
That being the case, the argument for mass democratic participation in local elections becomes increasingly difficult to make. When the professionals from “democratic services” are able to transform our democratically-elected representatives into house-trained lap-dogs practically overnight. When even the mildest assertions of local government autonomy are met with central government threats to depose elected councillors and appoint commissioners. And when a council’s only acceptable objective is to facilitate the naked pursuit of commercial self-interest. What possible motivation could voters’ have for treating local government elections as anything other than an increasingly pointless political ritual? A vestigial remnant of the democratic hand that once built nations.
 
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 11 October 2016.

13 comments:

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Not saying you're wrong, but local government has in my living memory at least, always been the preserve of business people. To the extent that very few counsellors these days will actually be upfront about their party affiliation in local body elections. Which is why I vote with great trepidation. Mind you, I was brought up in West Auckland where the buses were private, the owner of the company was barking mad, and the service was terrible.

David Stone said...

Hi Chris
As the quality of candidates comes more and more to reflect the pointlessness of that pursuit; Just like in the U S presidential election .
Cheers D J S

Jens Meder said...

Perhaps low interest in local body elections is reflected by ratepayers realizing, that big promises may cost them more, and substantial reductions in rates may also have undesirable consequences ?

In other words - that there is too much unknown risk in change ?

Polly said...

All the local body candidates say one thing before the elections and then find other matters to say another thing after they are elected.
In National elections it is much the same pattern particularly amongst smaller parties.
Sometimes I really do wonder why I bother to vote especially in local elections.
I hold most of local body and parliamentarians in absolute disdain and disgust.
However I do take a active interest in both, am I mad??????????? are we all mad?????????????????????????.

Dennis Frank said...

You're not mad, Polly, but there's some truth in the idea that believers in democracy are delusional. Our culture indoctrinates us according to the prescription made famous by Winston Churchill: yes, democracy is seriously flawed - but all other political systems are worse.

So we grow up always hoping for the best. Are humans capable of thinking outside that Churchill square? Yes: the Greens have long advocated participatory as well as parliamentary democracy, and developed policies to move us toward that hybrid. At the local level the mix is essential, but it could be further developed at the national level. It requires a combination of collective enterprise, lateral-thinking and creativity that mainstream culture in Aotearoa has always suppressed.

Watch for the size of the non-vote in the looming US presidential election. I'm expecting the selection of two unpalatable contenders to induce significantly more voters to abandon their support of the system. Both republicans & democrats are likely to subside into minority status compared to the centrists giving both the thumb-down.

greywarbler said...

Dennis Frank
Like the points of your comment. Is there a blog somewhere devoted to discussing different ways of having a participatory democracy that brings respect and agency to the thinking citizen, and attempts to control the excesses humans are inclined to? There are ones around, and if anyone can recommend a couple I will take note and read. Don't what too much USA drivel though, (showing my prejudice there).

I have an idea that would help to increase the number of thinking NZ citizens who can analyse, practice rational decision making, and offer leadership and be advocates for others who are yet not so developed. When I finish with my current project I will be advancing this one.

I think that we have to go back to Square One - two-party Westminster systems are not good enough. And MMP was a brave effort on our part and has been helpful but it is not participatory. We all need lessons in how to make a good working model, and then how to work on our own minds so that when we participate we have something of real value to all to offer.

And the USA circus keeps reminding me of the film "Brewers Millions", slogan for voters 'None of the Above'. A silly fanciful spoof? Or has truth with Trump triumphed over fiction?

Alan said...


There is certainly a place for the expert in a complex society, indeed there is plethora of experts at every level, and the trend is growing.

Expertise is worshipped. We had our own Roger Douglas, as well as Thatcher and Reagan worshipping the economic expertise of the Chicago School of Economics, Milton Friedman, who worked out that the simple Law of the Jungle, applied to economics, was the path to the future. Thirty years on and the social fallout is visible everywhere; unemployment, homelessness, bitterness, criminality…. but not of course to the Minister of Police. Architectural expertise has given us ‘The Beehive’ with its reception hall curving away so that the ‘front’ is out of sight of the ’back’, and if national art is our bequest to the future, then the whole building should be rolled into the harbour and used usefully as a crayfish hatchery. Locally we have roading experts who have designed un-signalled crossings for rail and road intersections that are so complex that they are in fact safe, simply because motorists have to slow to a crawl or stop, to unscramble their neurons and get a bearing. Screams and yells and pleads from the Boondocks are ignored, if blood doesn’t spill. Experts don’t have ears for non-experts.

Yes, there are experts on everything, getting well paid for everything. They know better than the rest of the Great Unwashed, and their passport to exalted status is a university degree, which will finally be needed to operate the digger at the tip face.

You know when you are on a collision course with experts. Your emails or letters go unanswered. You try to reach upper levels of redress in power hierarchies that patronisingly ‘welcome’ your inquiry before playing Snakes and Ladders with you on a numerical push-button maze interspersed with reassurances as to the importance of your call, punctuated with nerve-jangling music, all of course designed to get rid of you. The growth of creativity in the service of power and expertise in the last three decades has been exponential.

What of Democracy? Well, what of it, with the country in the safe hands of powerful bureaucracies and the experts serving them in the prevailing Law of the Jungle ideology. Experts don’t have ideologies…. do they?

Alan Rhodes

Guerilla Surgeon said...

" Experts don’t have ideologies…. do they?"

Sorry to use the 'no true Scotsman' defence, but proper experts leave their ideologies at the door when they advise. What we are served up with is bureaucrats masquerading as experts. And experts in the very narrow field of government usually. I studied local government once, and I'm pretty sure there ain't no such thing.

Dennis Frank said...

No, greywarbler, I'm not aware of any such blog. Remember that bloggers are merely commentators - and social media is merely for socialising. Intellectuals prefer to analyse rather than synthesise. Everyone seems to assume that working together for the common good is way too hard.

You can readily sympathise with them: life's a struggle to survive, and the hours each day left over from that are taken up with leisure & recreation for good therapeutic reasons. Leviathan requires its members to play their part in the current social organism: nonconformists working to create a better kind of social organism are likely to be detected as cancer cells triggering the auto-immune response.

As a young adult in '71, having rejected the political left & right, I celebrated the yippies as the wave of the future. Their ethic of politics as fun & performance art seemed suitably anti-establishment and appropriately grounded in mass psychology. But my generation's aversion to politics was too extensive, and the yippie role-models were too enmeshed in leftist thought to transcend it anyway, so we all headed off into the culture of narcissism instead - which the younger generations then happily embraced too.

I still think pan-generational altpolitics is possible via social media liaison, but only if folks get sufficiently alienated by the status quo, and since the gfc failed to catalyse that shift, we must accept that complacency is more powerful than any other social force.

greywarbler said...

I think Alan Rhodes feels that democracy is now a bit like the real looking models of restaurant dishes put on display. Enticing looking but fake. only to be looked at in anticipation of the real, to be served up tomorrow. Which as we know never comes.

This is a not unexpected outcome of the drive for smaller government that can be fitted into a thimble, and which cannot be seen, only heard and only after a long enough wait to run down the batteries of the cellphone the ordinary citizen has been forced to buy because they are a more efficient communication method than paper, and as quick for the masters of government and business as snapping their fingers to summon the 'grunts'. This is not true of all interactions between government bodies and business and the citizen but has become common. And I have put this all in one sentence because it is more efficient than having spaces breaking up the flow of communication! Everything can be rationalised these days.

@ Dennis Franks
I am sure that there are blogs that discuss different methods of public decision making. It just has to be watched that they are not Right think tanks under cover. There is so much subterfuge going on that one hardly knows who to believe, and the lengths that some will allow themselves to go to in order to supply information on people who talk different.

You say "But my generation's aversion to politics was too extensive" and I agree. Where did that come from? When did we decide we didn't have to guard or participate in our democracies fully? When did we take the role of consumers choosing our goods of government services with apparent freedom, while our goods were actually manufacturing and manipulating us? Now public servants are being lessened. And services must be bought from your local entrepreneur.

I don't know whether the creative arts haven't fashioned us a good analogy in The Little Shop of Horrors, or perhaps we should study Terry Pratchett's Discworld to get a more realistic, practical worldly view of the governance and society we should aim for. Try dropping all pretence of the idea that clean streets and nice cottages and gardens are a true sign of well-functioning citizens as in The Truman Show, which was a human-chimpanzee's tea party for the tv watchers. Perhaps that is the leitmotif running through the minds of those in power over us.

Charles E said...

I think what is missing currently in some democratic forums is a good cause, a good debate, a good contest. We like that. Note for example how many now wish the ABs had better opposition. It attracts us. Our democracies are a bit bland these days although we should not wish for real fights, real trouble.

There also needs to be clear differences between the two sides as well as substance in both. For example the disarray in oppositions here & in the UK and in the US means people lose interest. Or in other countries both sides are much the same: Same result. You may see then a descent to one party states like Russia now where not enough people care enough about democracy. But we are still far from such disaster I believe, since they are profoundly corrupt societies which for generations have been run by criminals so people expect no better. We expect better and so must keep agitating for better democracy, better debates. More politics and leadership from the elected and less management from officials.

schmoepooh said...

I have very recently moved from Dunedin to
Balmy Parmy. It's been an interesting experience. It didn't take long for the Waitaki District Council to send me a rates invoice but it took 5 phone calls and a visit to Oamaru to complete my local body voting on time.

jh said...

Interesting case study here. Warren Cooper vs Sam Neil. WC claimed market forces would prevent Queenstown from becoming a shit hole. He was wrong
https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/pavlova-paradise-episode-one