Friday 5 September 2014

Democracy As Self Defence

The Shot Heard Round The World: The Battle of Lexington, 19 April 1775, marked the opening of hostilities between the American colonies and the British Crown. Looking back through history, it is clear that the impulse to distribute political power more widely through society has almost always been defensive. People seldom risk life, limb or livelihood when none of these precious things are in any way endangered.

THERE ARE HOARDINGS EVERYWHERE at the moment, some intact, others bearing the evidence of anonymous electors’ wit – or lack of it. A great many commercial billboards are also being turned to political purposes.
A number of these have recently begun to carry the messages of a group calling themselves The Opinion Partnership. To date, only three members of the OP have publicly identified themselves. The first is Wellington businessman, John Third. The second, Owen Jennings, is a former President of Federated Farmers who, between 1996 and 2002, sat in the Act Party caucus. The third man (if I may borrow Graham Greene’s famous characterisation) is propaganda maestro, John Ansell, whose in/famous Iwi/Kiwi billboards very nearly won Dr Don Brash the 2005 General Election.
Like the Exclusive Brethren Church before them, The Opinion Partnership hopes to secure a National Party victory by undermining public support for the Greens and Labour. Their repeated claim, that 30 percent of a Labour-led Cabinet will be made up of Green Party ministers, is intended to frighten all those otherwise conservative voters thinking of giving the Greens their Party Vote into thinking again.
Though entirely negative in its conception, and in spite of the fact that many of the Partnership’s claims concerning the Greens are as outlandish as they are false, no one possessing the slightest commitment to democracy would deny their right to design and display these scarifying political messages. Indeed, the Opinion Partnership offers us an excellent example of the democratic impulse at work.
Looking back through history, it is clear that the impulse to distribute political power more widely through society has almost always been defensive. People seldom risk life, limb or livelihood when none of these precious things are in any way endangered. It is only when, in the words of the American Declaration of Independence, “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism”, that it becomes their right, and their duty, “to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
The wealthy Virginia planter, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote those words, was no doubt thinking of the efforts of the British Crown to render more efficient and self-supporting the colonial operation it had just expended vast quantities of blood and treasure defending against the depredations of the French and their Native American allies.
There are other examples.
The Peasants Revolt of 1381, which still, 633 years after it began, remains the greatest uprising of the common people of England against their social, economic and political masters, was kindled by the imposition of a crippling “Poll Tax”. Only after the crowds of angry tenant farmers began to gather did the defrocked priest, John Ball, confront them with the revolutionary question: “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?”

The Peasants Revolt of 1381: The greatest uprising of the common people of England.
Like so many who have come before them, Messrs Third, Jennings and Ansell are responding to what they regard as a threat to their rights and freedoms. In the manner of the American colonists (and their present-day imitators in the US Tea Party movement) they are asking their fellow citizens to “provide new Guards for their future security”. No matter how misplaced their fears of a Labour-Green Government may be, it is their right to do so.
Much more to be feared are those within whom the democratic impulse no longer stirs. I am referring here to those New Zealanders whose comfortable stake in the status quo impels them to risk nothing at all. They will cast their votes on Election Day without the slightest regard to the growing body of evidence pointing to “a long train of abuses and usurpations”. Like the loyal subjects of King George III, whom the rebellious colonists labelled “Tories”, they have no interest in overthrowing anybody. That’s because they understand, as did the King and his lords in 1381, that poverty and profit cannot be separated except at great cost to themselves.
To those Kiwis living in poverty, The Opinion Partnership also has a message – although not, perhaps, the one they intended. Yes, Mr Ansell’s billboards are an appeal to the judgement of his fellow citizens, but they are also a reminder that the citizens’ judgement possesses power. That, in the end, democracy is about defending ourselves – by voting.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 September 2014.


Mark Unsworth said...

Hi Chris
You talk about a repeated claim aimed to frighten voters.Here is what Green Co-leader Russel Norman has stated more than once.He expects
"Cabinet seats should be roughly proportional to the relationship between the different parties involved in it."
That makes total sense.If we look at the poll of polls at the moment Labour are averaging around 26% and the Greens 13% .Obviously to form a Government more support is needed but a figure of a third of Cabinet could be roughly accurate.I don't actually think this should scare people at all .

Kat said...

Democracy will be defended only if anyone who wants to change the present corrupt govt votes tactically.

Party vote Labour where you can. Hold your nose and electorate vote for Goldsmith in Epsom.

Its no point taking a club to a gunfight.

Brendan McNeill said...


I see how this works now – Hagar’s book has been good for National, the virtually invisible ‘Opinion Partnership’ have been good for the Greens – both have recently risen in the polls, and this may explain it?

Chris Trotter said...

If you want to be taken seriously, Brendan, may I suggest you learn to spell people's names correctly.

It's Nicky Hager (rhymes with Lager) - not Hagar.

pat said... miss the big picture...or do you?Surely you realise there is a tipping point. Stable effective democracy only works when the vast majority feel it serves their to consider the alternative?

Mark Unsworth said...

Thank you for forcing me back into re-reading the blog Debbie.I like Chris' style( even when i disagree with the argument ) which is to use an historic reference to reinforce a theory based on something happening here in NZ,or sometimes his spin on that event .In this case I simply pointed out that Chris was wrong .The claims were not "outlandish " or "false" .This was proved again on the minor party TV debate when Norman again noted the expectation that the Greens would want a proportional number of Cabinet seats.
Leaving that aside and getting to the wider point as you note,the concepts raised here are quite wide and varied and cover the rationale for voting,and the implication,which I really doubt,that many or perhaps ,any NZ voters are actually in some type of " revolutionary " mood .
Unlike Chris I believe that people vote in a certain manner for a wide variety of reasons ,and the concept of distributing political power may be just a very minor issue to most .Chris doesn't mention the need to have confidence in the alternative option.The polls indicate that may be an issue in NZ at the moment .Romantic and lofty notions of uprisings and "new guards" need to be tempered by reality .Even those with true feelings for those living in poverty have to ask themselves,will the economy be in a better or worse shape with an alternative to the status quo and do the alternative options fill me with confidence that they can actually put together a team to run a stable Government? Despite Chris wishing it to be, there has been absolutely no widespread national mood for a change at all that the polls have picked up.Chris talks of democracy being about defending ourselves.I think that is a narrow and negative view.I believe that many voters think about what policies are the best for the country as a whole.It just seems that ( according to the polls at least) ,not enough of them believe that his favoured team are their choice to make those calls .

Chris Trotter said...

A very measured comment, Mark, and one in which I find very little to seriously dispute.

My posting was not intended to suggest that New Zealand is in a revolutionary mood - quite the reverse.

What I intended to show was that democracy, or at least the sharp end of democracy, is only brought into play when people believe they are about to lose their lives, liberties and/or livelihoods - i.e. that it is defensive in motivation.

My fear is that this election will be about too many voting in defence of rights they, mistakenly, believe to be under attack, or, more worryingly, in complacent affirmation of the status quo.

Hence my appeal to the poor to also vote defensively - which now appears to be the only (very thin) hope of changing the government on 20 September.

pat said...

Chris and Mark..didnt think there was any portent of revolution in the article but it certainly reiterates how the electorate is becoming increasingly polarised...there is not even agreement as to what the issues are..if the issues discussed at all.
The consequent disconnect from democratic engagement is only exacerbated by the revelations in Nicky Hagers book and the subsequent whaledump is one thing to believe our political system operates this way and quite another to have to dirty details placed right in front of ones nose.
If the manipulation of the system continues to disaffect increasing numbers of society then I would suggest that history shows that such a society cannot continue to function...the question is what will replace it and how will it be formed?
This is the same argument not being had over climate change which strangely (or perhaps not) has polarised along similar lines...the need for change....revolutionary change, not necessarily "Revolution"

Mark Wilson said...

It isn't as straight forward as you say.
1 - Hager's book contains a huge amount of supposition on his part without proof to back it up.
2 - He cannot be considered a journalist as he never gives his subjects a chance to reply before publication.
3 - Consequently he is guilty of smearing people.
4 - Not only are the emails available because of a crime but the book assumes people are guilty without trial.
5 - Who guards the guardians - who made Hager judge and jury.
What if the various enquires find Collins and co not guilty?
6 - His whole career is based on ambushing his victims, throwing so much dirt that no one can possibly defend themselves and because a small amount may be true they end up considred guilty of it all.
7 - None of this suggests that when and if guilt of poor or criminal behaviour is proven thse persons should not be held responsible.
8 - If we were going into an election with a Labour Government and a right wing political operative produced a book in the last few weeks which was almost all based on the authors supposition and which the worst possible light was put on the contents of stolen emails the left would be up in arms.
9 - If Hager was truly a man of honour he would have put out an short article soem tiem ago with the serious and reasonably supported accusations not a book full of carefully worded smears so he cannot be sued.

pat said...

Nicky Hagers book is but a small piece of the puzzle. Even so, consider...
Nicky Hager is acting as a prosecuting attorney.He presents the facts, the defendants have the opportunity to put their case (oddly they appear unable or unwilling), the public are the jury.
The sentencing Judge will be determined by the election...the sentence should any be found to be necessary (or unavoidable) will likely be as appropriate as are the sentences for most white collar crimes.
Would the case be any weaker or stronger if the evidence was not the result of illegal activity? and if you were the victim of a serious crime and a case could not be bought against the perpetrator(s) as all the evidence was inadmissible due to its provenance I would suggest you may feel vigilantism is a worthwhile tradition.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

1. The proof seems to be in the emails.
2. I don't know if he "never" gives his subjects a chance to reply, but in this case if he had – the book never would have been published because of injunctions. I notice your friend Slater is suing to prevent the publication of any more of his stolen emails, while at the same time being sued for stealing other people's :-). – Sorry a bit of a non sequitur but I couldn't resist it.
3. That sort of takes care of 3 and 4. Anyway, this isn't a court of law, and he can always be sued if incorrect.
4. No one made him judge and jury, but if we decide that no one can be judge and jury then no investigative journalism would ever take place. Including the stuff by that awful Deborah Coddington.
5. If he throws up so much dirt, it's probably because there is quite a bit to throw. Again condemned from the emails.
6. Yes the left would be up in arms, just as they were up in arms when he did the same thing to them in 2002, something you guys keep forgetting.
7. If Hager had given anyone a hint of what he was about to publish, he would have been hit with so many injunctions we wouldn't have been able to read anything. Even now, he's never been successfully sued as far as I remember. Truth is a defence remember.
8. Admittedly it's dying down a bit now, but I'm still loving the right running round in circles screaming about this :-).