Tuesday 11 September 2012

A Democratic Canterbury - If You Can Keep It

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.


newsworthy said...

Loved this article Chris. As an ex-Cantabrian I could add that Cantabrians seem to find it difficult to come to an agreement on matters. A functioning democracy requires that people have to concede that the majority view prevails. Cantabrians frequently prefer to bicker than concede. Does the current acceptance regarding the regional council reflect an acceptance that they are better off being told what to do rather than squabbling among themselves?

Anonymous said...

It's a hard lesson to learn, Chris, but democracy doesn't really work as advertised. What's happening in Canterbury is a miniature version of what happens regularly in marginal democracies like Pakistan. Democracy is not a system that solves our underlying problems, it's a system that gets adopted once our problems have mostly been solved. When this is no longer the case, democracy goes.

It can't be fixed. This country is run for the benefit of farmers and financiers, and there is nothing that you or I can do about that other than stop pretending that it isn't so.

Chris Trotter said...

No, no, no, no! That is the counsel of despair.

Remember Churchill's dogged determination to fight on, and his stern injunction to "never, never, never give up".

Kat said...

And Churchill also said: "The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter".

guerilla surgeon said...

Thing of ours would be more properly applied to the appointees. Only spelled 'cosa nostra'

Anonymous said...

What can be said except, bahhhhhh.

Today in Parliament Labour proposed a snap debate on this issue, it was lost in favour of a snap debate on why the slow down in asset sales,a topic less toxic to the government, yet still a affront to their asset sales plans, than what some would term totalitarian dictatorship in their decision to suspend democracy in the Canterbury region untill 2016.

It seems of little concern to the voters of Canterbury, that their right to democracy and their right to vote in their local body elections by government dictate, replacing the peoples right of choice with a government selected directorate.Possibly to be kind, that the people are inured by two years of political posturing and administrative bungling that democracy is the last thing on their minds.

Tiger Mountain said...

Jim Anderton might be rather relieved to have not become Mayor during all of this. But maybe he would have risen to the challenge, saddled up for one last time and CERA and the ECAN sacking would have been nobbled via public action.

The good tories of Canterbury are learning a hard lesson on disaster capitalism and the tender mercies of re-insurers.

Michael Herman said...

Thanks for yet another thoughtful article.

To Anonymous @ 9:54 AM, there really are only two options: democracy or aristocracy. Democracy does work as advertised: it is frequently messy and often at least as frustrating but it is an infinitely better option than rule by a privileged elite.

Your reminder of Churchill's injunction to prioritise the defense of liberty is timely and echoes diplomat and writer Stéphane Hessel's exhortation to defend the social values of modern democracy.

Having survived World War II against the odds - he was a French resistance fighter and twice escaped concentration camp internment - Hessel contributed to the drafting of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. He has never given up and at 95 continues to travel the world with his message of outrage, a living treasure for the democracy movement and an exemplar of Churchill's spirit of defiance.

To Kat @ 12:00 PM, Churchill also said: "Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

Anonymous said...

"There really are only two options: democracy or aristocracy."

Well, I wouldn't say that is true. There are oligarchies, tyrannies, etc. These are all different.

"Democracy does work as advertised: it is frequently messy and often at least as frustrating but it is an infinitely better option than rule by a privileged elite."

Democracy is a fig leaf for rule by a privileged elite. Were it to stop being so, it would be abolished, just as it has been in Canterbury. Entry to the elite is difficult, but can be achieved. The rest of us are bystanders.

It just so happens that we recently lived through a time where the privileged elite lived in terror that the rest of us might remove them and take up communism. On that basis they were prepared to make limited concessions. They are obviously no longer afraid and normal service has been resumed.

The norm of mass human organisation (to which it inevitably returns) is not democracy or oligarchy: it is kleptocracy (along with sufficient bribes to a sufficient number of underlings to allow it to sustain itself). It gets various different names depending upon who is doing the stealing, but it amounts to the same thing in the end.

It's a shame, but then again, we are a pretty hopeless species.

Brendon said...

I believe Canterbury's loss of democracy illustrates the key ideological battleground in New Zealand. Firstly these being the old Right wing arguments that government actions do not create wealth, only the private sector creates wealth. That government is the problem not the solution. A similar argument is that authoritarian governments can be effective but democracy is not because it is too slow and messy. The Left wing parties need to argue and prove why this is wrong, in Ecans case they need to argue why Canterbury should have democratically run councils. If they don't they give the moral high ground to the Right.

Secondly is that National propaganda might be all about how wonderful the free market is blah, blah blah. But their actions indicate they secretly believe differently. That they are willing to use or misuse the institutions of the state to give economic opportunities to a select few. In Canterbury that would be farmers getting irrigation from Ecan, the dairy industry, big property developers who are the major beneficiary of the inner city rebuild plan, major corporations like Fletchers who are given sweet heart contracts by National and the multinational insurance industry that cannot be forced to do what they promised. I call this crony capitalism because it is about giving opportunities to its wealthy mates. John Mc Crone of the Press describes National's NZ Inc agenda here http://www.stuff.co.nz/the-press/news/christchurch-earthquake-2011/7637382/The-business-of-NZ-Inc. I would further argue that because National is focusing on farming and a few non-innovative companies that New Zealand is forgoing the chance to diversify its economy. This means only a few New Zealanders benefit from government action.

I believe that if Canterbury was given back its democratic freedom and given more power over tax and spending matters it could not only recover faster from the earthquakes but also foster many innovative companies. Christchurch has an educated workforce, it's an attractive place to live and with a few tweaks to improve liveability, like improving the transport infrastructure and making more housing available to decrease house prices then the province would boom. I think this approach could work for many regions in New Zealand. We just have to believe in democracy and make sure it works for us.

Don Robertson said...


Don Robertson said...

Lets start by getting rid of Brownlee http://www.facebook.com/LiberateIlam

Jigsaw said...

Every New Zealander who believes in democracy wants to see an end to the Maori seats and race based laws-now there's a cause will a bit more worth and a lot more applicable to all! Lets have a colour blind New Zealand!!

Victor said...

A good piece. But I don't agree that 'governance' is never anything more more than a means of frustrating democratic sovereignty. All systems require rules, conventions and standards. Sometimes these enhance democracy. For example, in the 1990s, New Zealand changed its system of governance by replacing FPP with MMP, becoming more democratic in the process. Or have I misunderstood you?

guerilla surgeon said...

Jigsaw as I have said before. NZ had race based laws until well into the 1980s. Where were you then?

Chris Trotter said...

Name them, Guerilla Surgeon. Give us the references to these "race-based" Acts of Parliament.

Chris Trotter said...

Yes, you have misunderstood me, Victor. When we adopted MMP we changed the law setting forth the method for electing our Parliament.

We didn't change the way we were governed. We remained a parliamentary democracy.

Government and governance are very different things. The former draws its authority from below. The latter imposes its authority from above.

guerilla surgeon said...

Chris, I don't know why I bother, you have a mindset very much like Don Brash's, in that you feel that there should be one law for all and anything else is discriminatory. You don't want to recognise any evidence to the contrary. You have also consistently misinterpreted my argument, which is..... There has been consistent legal discrimination against Maori since the treaty, into the 1980s. And Pakeha have been quite content to go along with it out of ignorance or disinterest. But as soon as Maori start gaining some sort of economic advantage, then 'discrimination' is sheltered from the rooftops, and the one law for all race card is played. Sorry but I'm disappointed that you remotely associate yourself with this sort of thing.

To be honest I can't remember, and I can't be arsed figuring out whether it was 1983 or 1987 the last discriminatory land laws were abolished, you know so much, you should be able to pick it out of your head. Of course, many regard Labours, foreshore and seabed legislation is discriminatory to, but you wouldn't acknowledge that, so I've left it out. Here's a short list, and perhaps you could broaden your horizons by reading this. "Do Maori rights racially discriminate against non-Maori?" By Claire Charters. It might broaden your horizons and lift you out of that stubborn hole you have dug for yourself.

1907 Native Land Settlement Act

Relief payments during the depression.

The Maori Affairs Act 1953

The Māori Affairs Amendment Act 1967

Victor said...

'Governance' is obviously a slippery term, which means different things to different people.

The website 'Loosely Coupled' (of which I know nothing)..... http://looselycoupled.com/glossary/governance.....provides a definition which reflects how I've always understood the term:

"....Governance describes the mechanisms an organization uses to ensure that its constituents follow its established processes and policies. It is the primary means of maintaining oversight and accountability in a loosely coupled organizational structure. A proper governance strategy implements systems to monitor and record what is going on, takes steps to ensure compliance with agreed policies, and provides for corrective action in cases where the rules have been ignored or misconstrued"

It surely follows from this definition that governance can either hinder or boost the exercise of democratic sovereignty. It depends on circumstances, people and prevailing ideologies.

Does deep seated constitutional change such as the introduction of MMP falls outside this definition.

Perhaps. However, the UK Government’s July 2007 Green Paper, 'The Governance of Britain' made a number of proposals for
constitutional reform which, it claimed, were intended to "shift power from the executive to Parliament and the public, to make
the executive more accountable and to reinvigorate

So a slippery term it remains.

Jigsaw said...

Chris -maybe you should investigate so called democracy in local bodies generally. Our rural council stopped having public meetings because they found them too embarassing(not that they would say that!) So now they have democracy -the sort that they define not as defined or asked for by the ratepayers. I have tried to change this but they are quite happy with the way things are. According to the mayor-the reason we pay more than $2000 a year and get no services save an unsealed road is because we are paying for democracy-as defined by the council.

Anonymous said...

A wonderfully thoughtful article Chris. I know that the frustration I feel towards this National government's dismissal of the education priorities of Christchurch communities is shared by many. This government's obsession with cost-cutting to meet a needless surplus target hurts everyone, especially the most vulnerable. That's why I agree, we must take back the democratic imperative and it seems to be happening to an extent in Christchurch. I think that something as catastrophic as the Canterbury earthquakes can help to unite a community and although it may not be visible (in the form of rallies) Christchurch's residents are quietly mobilising in frustration at the lack of progress and democracy.

Jeremy Bowen said...

Let's all forget politics and take the world into our own hands. Not madly by force but through the spirit of change for the earth. Benjamin Franklin, David Carter farmers, financiers, the Prime Minsters of this world will always do what they think best. Start a program of greening this earth of ours. We don't want a war or pump-priming or whatever to make us economically viable again we just need a cause, a cause that slowly at first but with momentum captures the hearts and minds of humanity for decades to come. Imagine what would happen if a large intensive dairy farm in the Waikato was purchased, the buildings ripped out, a pest proof fence built around it, swamps re-established and native trees planted and then purchase another and do the same. What would Benjamin think of that in today's world? Would he laud it, would he see it as the free choice of the owners or would he see it as a potential threat to the economy and suggest laws to prevent such activity on productive land.

guerilla surgeon said...

Benjamin - like most others of his time - probably believed in taming the wilderness. So he'd think you were mad :-).