Doing What The People Say: If Jacinda Ardern’s Government is to be branded “near dictatorial” for doing everything New Zealanders expect of it, then: “Long live the people’s dictatorship!” is the only democratic response.
DEMOCRACY AND DICTATORSHIP have always been curiously intertwined. I say “curiously” because, contrary to the generally accepted view, they are not opposites. If democracy reposes power in the people, then dictatorship provides an answer to the questions: Who should give expression to the people’s power? Who guarantees that what the people say is done? A dictator may also be a protector. Someone to whom the people voluntarily entrust their safety and security in times of dire emergency.
At moments of extreme peril to the state, the Senate and People of the ancient Roman Republic would confer upon a trusted citizen the extraordinary office of ‘dictator’. For a limited period of time that citizen was permitted to exercise all political and military authority single-handedly.
The most famous Roman dictator was Cincinnatus. According to legend, this conservative aristocrat was called away from his plough by a delegation of the Republic’s leading citizens to defend Rome from its enemies the Aequi. Having fulfilled this mission, Cincinnatus dutifully relinquished his power and returned to his estate.
Kings and dictators also have a lot in common. A strong king was able to defend his subjects from the depredations of his nobles. The “King’s Justices” overruled the functionaries of the local aristocrat against whom humble folk ordinarily found themselves powerless. A “good” king was one who protected the bodies and property of his subjects. A “bad” king allowed his barons to run riot with both.
It is not the unimpeded exercise of executive power that is in-and-of-itself evil; but the purposes to which such power may be put.
Those who protest the “undemocratic” and “near dictatorial” emergency regime set in place to combat the spread of the Covid-19 virus in New Zealand are guilty of seriously mischaracterising the present Lockdown and the necessarily comprehensive restrictions required to give it force.
The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, along with her ministers and public officials were vouchsafed emergency powers by the House of Representatives in the name of the New Zealand people. It is in our name that she is waging the campaign to eliminate Covid-19. We have the right to demand that she protect us, and she has the duty to do exactly that. What could be more democratic than a political leader armed with all the power necessary to carry out the people’s will? If she stops doing what we have asked her to do, then we have plenty of ways of letting her know. (Anyone who doubts the power of the people to make their displeasure felt should take a look at Simon Bridges’ Facebook page!)
No, those raising all these “democratic” objections to the Covid-19 Emergency Regime do not strike me as having the people’s interests at heart. Quite the reverse in fact. Like the robber barons of old, they resent the power of the Prime Minister to protect our bodies at the expense of their property.
For thirty-five years, those same robber barons have steadily stripped the state of the power to intervene on behalf of its people. They are terrified that the Covid-19 Pandemic is exposing the enormous risks imposed on ordinary people by this deliberate policy of disempowering the state. They are even more frightened of the example our Prime Minister is providing of how beneficial the power of the state can be when applied conscientiously. The world looks at the egregious failures of Donald Trump and shudders; it observes the astonishing successes of Jacinda Ardern and cheers.
But surely, as a defender of Free Speech, I must uphold the rights of “non conformists and dissenters” to question authority? Questioning authority in good faith and without the dishonourable intentions of “Gotcha! Journalism” is one thing; shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre is another.
But if the theatre really is on fire? What then?
Well, then you do your best to assist the theatre staff evacuate the building swiftly and safely. You certainly don’t stand up and start telling the terrified patrons that they’re being led in the wrong direction; that the exit is actually over here; and, anyway, the staff of the burning theatre across the street are doing a much better job!
If Jacinda Ardern’s Government is to be branded “near dictatorial” for doing everything New Zealanders expect of it, then: “Long live the people’s dictatorship!” is the only democratic response.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 April 2020.