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
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:
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.”
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
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.
current “Governance” has, therefore, some very important questions to answer.
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
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”.
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.
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.
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.