Tuesday 6 August 2013

Democracy versus The Majority

Those Ain't The Torches Of Liberty, Springfield! But is it even possible to argue for democracy against the will of the people? What if the majority just isn't that keen on liberty and justice for all?

IT’S EVERYWHERE: coming at you, confusingly, from both the Right and the Left. The former express their views emphatically, as fact: “Nobody gives a damn about the GCSB – or Andrea Vance. It’s a media beat-up!” The Liberal-Left convey their scepticism in question form: “Does the public really care about all this state surveillance and freedom of the press stuff? I mean, seriously? If they did, then surely National would be suffering in the polls? And they’re not.”
How should we respond to these responses? How does one argue against the expansion of the state’s surveillance powers, and the violation of a journalist’s privacy, when the reaction of the overwhelming majority of the population is either bland indifference, or (even more alarmingly) active support for the Government’s position?
Is it even possible to argue for democracy against the will of the people?
It’s a question of particular relevance to New Zealanders because, historically-speaking, we have never, as a people, been particularly interested in either recognising or upholding the civil and political rights of minorities. Majoritarianism is the strongest of our political traditions. Indeed, the idea that the shape and purposes of society can only be legitimately determined by a majority of its population has been the driving force behind the evolution of New Zealand’s informal constitution.
It is worth elaborating on this point a little.
Many, if not most, New Zealanders either do not know (or have forgotten) that their country once had two houses of Parliament. There was the House of Representatives, elected by universal suffrage, and the Legislative Council, whose members were appointed for seven years by the Governor-General on the advice of his ministers (i.e. by the government of the day). The “upper” chamber had the power to amend, review and delay legislation sent up to it from the House of Representatives. Its acknowledged purpose was to act as a check upon the majority derived and driven demands of the “lower” house.
The lower house did not care to be “checked”. In 1950, just three years short of its centenary, The Legislative Council was abolished by the First National Government.
Nothing now stands between the House of Representatives (and the governments drawn from its members) and the individual citizen. In New Zealand, a parliamentary majority cannot be gainsaid by anyone or anything. Lacking the “supreme law” of a written constitution, the legislative acts of Parliament cannot be challenged in the courts or struck down as “unconstitutional” by judicial fiat. About the only force capable of staying the hand of a government in possession of a solid parliamentary majority is the force of public opinion – and, even then, there are limits.
New Zealand parliamentarians – along with just about every other legislator in the world – are driven by one great desire: to be re-elected. This renders them particularly sensitive to shifts in public opinion – especially those shifts strong enough to make people change their electoral allegiances.
Think about the “anti-smacking bill”. The passage of this bill was sufficiently resented by Labour’s core voters to cause a significant number of them to either transfer their support to another party, or abstain. Labour’s failure to understand the mood of its supporters thus contributed materially to its 2008 defeat. National, by contrast, was confident that although a majority of its supporters (and, indeed, of all electors) were opposed to the anti-smacking legislation, they were not opposed enough to vote for National’s enemies.
And this is where I believe New Zealand public opinion currently stands in relation to the GCSB Amendment Bill, and the apparent, state-sanctioned, invasion of journalists Andrea Vance’s and Jon Stephenson’s professional and personal privacy.
If directly challenged on these issues, I suspect most Kiwis will come out unequivocally for the protection of their own personal privacy and, rather less enthusiastically, for the freedom of the press. What they remain to be convinced of, however, is that the GCSB Amendment Bill constitutes a serious threat, either to themselves or people like them.
So, a few political activists will have their “metadata” analysed and their e-mails intercepted. So what? It’s probably prudent to keep a watchful eye on such people. And, as for the rights of journalists? Well, for these exploiters of personal grief and political misadventure, the public has only one question: “How does it feel?”
Labour and the Greens have come out swinging on behalf of the public’s right to privacy and the freedom of the press because their MPs know that the people who vote for them care passionately about such things and expect them to take a strong stand in their defence.
National MPs, by contrast, are quietly confident that the Centre-Left’s concerns are minority concerns. Mr Key’s majority support is not about to abandon his government for left-wing activists, or journalists. At least, not any time soon.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 6 August 2013.


Brendon said...

I wrote this reply in response to a comment on another website but I think it is relevant to this discussion too.

Re: this crisis neatly sums up nz's problems. A Small undiversified economy, dominated by monopolies or near monopolies,and a crony culture. Matt in Auckland http://www.interest.co.nz/rural-news/65719/longer-term-economic-ramifications-latest-fonterra-scare-may-be-relatively-slight-f#comment-746518

Can anybody else see another way? What if we diversified our public institutions to attacked the monopolies, unravelled the crony culture and encouraged the diversification of our economy.

What if after every crisis, terrrorism, GCSB, earthquakes, housing affordability instead of centralising more power to 'cronies' around the Prime Minister we did the reverse?

New Zealand has all the trappings of Western democracies -free and fair elections, independent media, neutral public service, seperation of the executive and judiciary, local government and institutions like a Commerce Commission and an independent Reserve Bank. But the reality is these institutions are being undermined and more power is being centralised to behind doors meetings with the Prime Minister. This is not a specific attack on John Key, Helen Clark was as bad and Muldoon was probably worse. It seems all long serving Prime Ministers in New Zealand succumb to the same temptation of centralising too much power to themselves.

I see three key areas where diversifying power would have beneficial effects for New Zealand.

1. Enact a law that the Speaker is elected by a majority or near majority in Parliament. Then make the Speaker responsible for appointing key public servants and judges, thereby ensuring a neutral public service and judiciary. Further strengthen laws around regulating monopolies and the balance between public interest and privacy. Thus a neutral and empowered public service can attack monopolies and the crony culture, while the media can oversee this and report safely back to the public.

2. For Local government to be responsible transport and vocational education -the polytechnics. Importantly taxation power is transfered to them so they can achieve this.

3. For a new body -MUDs to be created to encourage new affordable, innovative, community controlled and owned residential developments.

The last two addresses the recent crisises of the Christchurch earthquake and housing affordability. While hopefully supporting new industries that grow in the more competitive environment , thereby New Zealand can move on from being dependent on the 'white powder'.

alwyn said...

One of the problems I have with the sanctimonious claims the the privacy of journalists must be respected is that they see no reason at all to extend the same privilege to members of the public.
About 10 days ago TV3 ran a story on the apparent family problems of Trevor, the chap who won a very large Lotto prize last year.
What on earth was the reason to run that story except to satisfy the TV networks to satisfy the prurient interests of the reporters for the channel.
There is no doubt that a few of the public may have been interested in the story but there was certainly no Public Interest in running it.
When I, and I think many other people see this sort of behaviour I find it very hard to have that much sympathy with the members of the Fourth Estate.

Anonymous said...

Most people realise the press only support privacy where and when it suits them. There's a lot of pompous talk about press freedom and about the role of the press as a public watchdog,(usually from newspaper editors) but basically it is there to sell papers or advertising. If covering something up would help them make money, or of exposing something would make money – they'd make the decision on that basis I suspect, and that basis alone.

Anonymous said...

there is no democracy in NZ anymore. There are merely elections every three years, then a dictatorship has the helm
From the gay marriage bill through to the GSCB fiasco is the same, the majority never gets asked and our freedoms are slowly chipped away.
John Key is far more deaf than any previous PM, I am surprised at how egotistical and power hungry the guy is, not laid back at all, that is only a front.

Anonymous said...

So you have discovered that the only things that eventually prevent liberal democracy from morphing into authoritarian democracy are measures enacted against the will of the people?

Well, of course.

Have you ever thought it might be best just to ignore politics as best you can, and do whatever you want as much as you can get away with it? You'll end up much happier... honest.

Kat said...

The electorate needs to vote as close to 100% as possible for a near true democratic outcome.


Scouser said...

It's difficult to equate the various noble statements of purpose from the 4th estate, "how they exist as a check and balance, their role is scrutinise and make transparent the actions of the high and mighty who control our country" etc with their actual behaviour. The amount of worthwhile, studied and objective analysis of political (or franky any serious) events in the media is miniscule. The media really do exist to sell advertising and make money (mostly lose nowadays). It's all about the headlines and the eyes thus the extravagence and frequent nonsense of their reporting.

They are also particularly good at very loudly deploring in a manner that comes across as self-centred and full of outrage anything that they think affects them personally. Of course, this is completely removing any real debate on the GSCB related laws currently in Parliament getting close to the general public but why are we surprised? All of this deservedly leads to the generally low opinion of the media, which is as bad as that of politicians. If the media actually did significantly contribute to public education and discussion then people might actually know and care that a privacy line was crossed in the recent Henry Inquiry and that we need to ensure that there are the correct checks and balances in the new legislation.

People don't care because they know the media don't really do the job they claim to do.

Isn't that a bit sad?

Anonymous said...

"Lacking the “supreme law” of a written constitution, the legislative acts of Parliament cannot be challenged in the courts or struck down as “unconstitutional” by judicial fiat. About the only force capable of staying the hand of a government in possession of a solid parliamentary majority is the force of public opinion – and, even then, there are limits."

The lack of a second house and a constitution are truly a threat to the democracy in this country.

As for the media, my observation is that most journalists do not even use the freedom they should have. Well, they are not really free and independent, are they, when the salaries or wages they earn are ultimately paid by the advertisers that fund the media outlets, that is most of the ones in this country. The public media in New Zealand is amongst the most reduced, marginal and powerless in the "western" or developed world.

You do not bite the hand that feeds you, that is what they seem to learn very quickly.

Re Andrea Vance, I ask, what revealing stories has she ever written? Nothing much comes to mind, I must say, same for most journalists in New Zealand, with the exception of a few well-known, respectable investigative journalists there is a blandness, a "head ram following fold" of media persons here, it is a disgrace.

Not even the media reports much on the GCSB bill, and what is behind it, it was rather some social, alternative media that dug into the nitty gritty of the bill and what it may mean.

The apathy of the New Zealand public is shocking, and one day they will pay for this. Already now we are also seeing other signs of the consequence of New Zealander's blinkered views and actions. The much hailed economic advantages of "free trade" with Mainland China are becoming obvious. All New Zealand can export to there with some success, is basically agricultural primary products, as the Chinese make whatever they need there themselves.

Now Xinhua lashed out and cracked the whip, reminding Fonterra, New Zealand government and business, better shape up, deliver what we want, or else!

Now did the Motherland ever crack the whip like that? With such developments goes your damned freedom. I dread to see the future of this land and people!

Anonymous said...

All I saw and heard on TV One News tonight was, that they said the opposition would do all to drag out the passing of the GCSB bill. A mention was made how question time had also already been dragged out to over 2 hours.

And to give the "public" a taste of what Parliament is about, they picked just a few seconds of video and audio capture to present, where PM Key was insulting one of the Labour opposition as "muppet" during question time. Then Parker got up to challenge the Speaker to rule that out.

A week or so ago, Peter Dunne was shown making his few sentence comments about a "deal" between a "buyer" and a "seller" of a "vote". Nothing much else was reported or explained.

Now that is the crap media we have here, and such is the "information" they tell and show the public, who are also the voting public. If the public, most of whom work, study and do other chores each day, see and hear this kind of "news" at night, no wonder they get a dim view of politics, Parliament and what else is connected.

Listen to the nonsense that talk-back hosts spread and drivel out each day. It is shocking. Then you get little Johnny and Mary phone in and rant on with little silly tirades, getting complimented for that, or if not to the liking of the moderator, get lectured.

Such is what is presented, and then the media expect to be taken serious in this country?

I am not surprised the public is not informed and interested, because they get no substantial information, and apart from being enticed to vote every 3 years, their involvement is a joke, often abused.

So no wonder the GCSB bill will pass and be turned into law. We live in a virtual majority by one vote dictatorship in this country, and you all better wake up to it.

It seems New Zealanders are quite comfortable with that, otherwise they would be out on the streets. Ahem, well, that is what people do in many other places, I just forgot, we do not do such naughty things in lulled into slumber NZ.

Yoza said...

I can't remember whether it was something I read by Chomsky or some talk he was giving somewhere, but the general idea was that in dictatorships the general population became immune to propaganda. If the national media was banging on about criminal activity, state triumphs, the diabolical nature of official enemies and the like, people pretty much assumed the exact opposite was the case. Propaganda does not need to be very sophisticated when the local state sanctioned death-squad will happily torture you to death if you question the official line loudly enough.

The propaganda oiling the engines of Western democracies is, by comparison, far superior. Out of necessity people are trained how to think and also corralled into subjects that are acceptable to think about. The real brilliance of the Western propaganda system is its invisibility, it is both insidious and ubiquitous, for over a century it has been refined into an exact science.

John Pilger's summary explains this well, “During the Cold War, a group of Russian journalists toured the United States. On the final day of their visit, they were asked by their hosts for their impressions. “I have to tell you,” said their spokesman, “that we were astonished to find, after reading all the newspapers and watching TV, that all the opinions on all the vital issues were, by and large, the same. To get that result in our country, we imprison people, we tear out their fingernails. Here, you don't have that. What's the secret? How do you do it?”

Terms like 'public opinion' or 'the will of the people' tend to be vague constructs. The Western model pretty much conditions its subjects to accept some fairly dubious constraints in the name of defending 'freedom'. In democracies, as in any totalitarian state, the greatest enemy is the public. Chomsky makes such a point in The Guardian, “...governments will use whatever technology is available to them to combat their primary enemy – which is their own population,"

The necessary illusion that the public are in control through the democratic process will become more difficult to promote as social, economic and environmental conditions continue to worsen for a growing majority.

I don't think it is that necessary anymore for activists and dissidents to teach people the state regards them as the enemy, in the not too distant future the state itself will be teaching them that.

Brendon said...

In my above post I meant unanimous or near unanimous vote for the speaker. Not majority vote which is what we have now. The fact that nobody commented on this shows how interesting my post was. Sad...

Patricia said...

Most people in New Zealand think we have presidential elections. The fact that we don't actually vote for a particular person as PM seems to be irrelevant to them. I have heard people say "who else could we have to lead us". (Into the wilderness?). When i say what about policy? there is a blank look. So my tuppence happeny worth is no member of Parliament should be able to be seen or heard on the media. A frog should represent (the same frog) each party and an actor, the same actor, should make statements from each party. The announcement of which party would be at the end of the speech. Maybe then people would listen to policy.

Victor said...


Aren't you confusing democracy with other (historically related) values such as the freedom of the media, the right to privacy and the sovereignty of the legislature vis-a-vis the executive it appoints?

I happen to believe that Ms Vance has been badly treated by a heavy handed administration that is not to be trusted with the enhanced powers of lawful surveillance it is seeking. I am either right or wrong in this belief, irrespective of whether a majority of my fellow citizens agree with me.

Similarly I'm either right or wrong in believing that skateboards should be banned from the public highway, irrespective of the level of approval this apparently eccentric view enjoys amongst the populace at large. I'm under no obligation (legal, ethical or whatever) to change my mind because others disagree.

Neither of these examples constitutes a conflict between (as you put it) democracy and the will of the people. However, the former but not the latter example might nevertheless involve issues that are vital to the survival of democracy.

There's a lot of evidence for the view that democracy has functioned best in countries (or the one-time colonies of countries)which had well-established traditions of law, personal and political liberty, government by discussion and institutional pluralism before they became fully democratic.

Personally, I doubt whether democracy can long survive without these bolsters. And, when I heard that Ms. Vance's swipecard records had been commandeered, I had a sudden mental picture of Charles I's halberdiers on their way to arrest the "five members".

Anonymous said...

The expansion of the GCSB, Echelon and new programes like Prism are simply stretching the net wider to trawl for electronic intelligence potential Russian and Chinese agents and espionage activites and of other rising Asian powers, Japan etc.
In some ways the Cold War never stopped, particularly with a more assertive China and Russia restoring a degree of global naval capability for the moment with oil money and old KGB man Putin at the helm. The vast data base storage in the US is a byproduct and really provided to able comprehensive research on potential KGB and GRU agents, ( Russian military intelligence for the specific needs of Navy, Air Force, Army, Strategic and Special forces). According to recent reports in the serious UK Press not just the Telegraph the GRU and KGB efforts in Britain are not all that much less than in the 1970's.
The issue is not with our need to support Western defence and intelligence from my point of view. THe problem is that the local agencies now allowed official access the S1S, Military and Police may be data researching and accessing on issues raised by say local government. Possibly half our Mayors are already batty with weird obsessions about booze and raunch culture the sex industry and porn etc. Mayor Brown in Auckland to me Len has a taste of Ken Livingstone about him and ken had his own nest of vipers and salamanders at pets in his garden shed. Celia is now aiming to supervise the drinking of those traditional Newtown bars, Tramway etc- the ones you always took a shortcut to avoid or waited to morning to go back to the flat rather than past. Nevertheless they were the cultural centre for many Newtown residents and even some of the medical interns in the 1970s.
Mayor Hardacker and kiwi airliner Ewen Wilson seem even wackier than Marriot. And Mayor Dalziel anyone. A moral fundamentalist and equalist or the fanatical feminist school in her old age, I always thought that Lianne and her Christchurch mates had a lifestyle not all that different from the London and LA Collins sisters. I forget whether it the was Bitch or the Stud where the sisters are massaged at the hairdressers while discussing the powess of their dates. We may all be experiencing a Tamihire or Dalziel administration within a decade directed by spirits and conducting witchcraft inquistions and data info obtained indirectly from Prism by the Army or other authority and rather innocently forwarded on false information.

Anonymous said...

"I am either right or wrong in this belief, irrespective of whether a majority of my fellow citizens agree with me."

Right with regard to facts but both examples are a matter of political opinion :-).

Jigsaw said...

Scouser has it exactly right-if only the media were as keen to do some investigative journalism as they say they are it would be terrific. I read the other day that Helen Clark made some comments in support of the general idea of the GCSB -do you see them reported? Not likely! Then you get comments from the co-leader of the Maori party condeming the 'tyranny of the majority'...what would she really like 'the tyranny of the minority? I believe so-scary stuff.But most people are more interested in the X-factor.......

David said...

To put it more succinctly, National relies on people who are too stupid to realise why they should be against the spy bill.

PS didn't realise that the upper house stayed around so long. I thought it got dumped around 1900.

Anonymous said...

The debate was very interesting in Parliament. The opposition parties did a great job of debating the main points of the legislation and proposing alternatives.

Well done Labour and Russell Norman. I especially liked how the vote on the 2003 legislation was remarked on. It's a shame better legislation wasn't implemented then.
Perhaps everyone was more concerned with stopping 'terrorists' than 'accused criminal copyright infringers'?

That the media wants to protect their own privacy without affecting the privacy of other citizens is unfortunate.

In regards to China's response to NZ, good on them I reckon.
The previous food scandals resulted in a lot of sick and dead children.
Their government is at least showing how encouraging whistleblowers can reduce corruption.
Good on Fonterra for revealing what was going on, when the risk of anyone being affected was so low. No-one was affected and my bet is the reputation for safety can only benefit from this in the long term.

Clarebear said...

Interesting these comments on democracy - however the one I have been thinking of is how long can Sovereignty last.

The impact on the world environment from one nation to another, the speed and power of communication, the fact that we are seeing organisations becoming more powerful than many nations, the massive speed of technological advancement - I wonder whether Sovereignty can last 100 years? may be 200 years max!!

Yes I will be gone. But the speed of change is so fantastic. I work in IT, I have been married 38 years, 28 years ago I was writing Flood forecasting systems at the MOW for the Clutha Dam on 56k machines with no hard disk only an 8 inch floppy, to hold code and data. Now my phone has a 64GB disk the size of my finger nail and I write code (a couple of years ago) on my 8GB pc with a .5 TB solid state disk and up load my programmes to run on 60 processor computer blades configured in a MPP Shared nothing grid system to chunk through all the telephone calls of people who use Telstra in Australia. I think if I used the whole grid in had closer to 300 processors - Talk about personal privacy - we drop our pants for anyone now to get our technology fix. I think many people have just excepted that to do the things they do nowadays their personal privacy is only protected in much the way that little fish group into a big fish ball when predators come in the belief that thou some will be hit and eaten others will not. I.e. hide within the crowd - the same way as the bad people do.