Thursday 7 July 2022

How “New” Is Our Democracy?

A Living Democracy - But Not A Tyranny Of The Majority: Wellington voters gather outside The Evening Post newspaper offices to see the results of the 1931 General Election posted.

The face of New Zealand and democracy has changed dramatically in the past few years and we need to reflect New Zealand’s new identity and democracy in our main media entities.
Willie Jackson, NZ Herald, 5 July 2022.

HAS NEW ZEALAND’S DEMOCRACY really “changed dramatically” in the past few years? I suppose it all depends on how you define “democracy”, “dramatically” and “the past few years”. Let’s start from there, and then work on to explore the motivation behind such a bold political assertion.

There are very few countries in the world that can boast a continuous democracy as old as New Zealand’s. Our population became fully enfranchised in 1893 when the Liberal Government extended voting rights to women. The United States would not reach that democratic milestone until 1920, and women would not be fully enfranchised in the United Kingdom until 1930. If one of the key indicators of a democratic nation is the right of its people to vote in fair and regular elections, then New Zealand can hold its head high.

Another feature of a working democratic system is whether the will of the majority of voters is reflected in the character and composition of their government. In this regard, New Zealand’s record is less exemplary. Since the acquisition of self-government in 1852, New Zealand has experimented with a number of electoral systems.

The “Two Round System”, for example, pitted the two highest polling candidates of an initial open round of voting against each other in a second, run-off, ballot. It was designed to ensure that, ultimately, a Member of Parliament represented a true majority of the electors. It lasted from 1908 until 1914. Another, the so-called “Country Quota”, weighted the votes of electors living in rural areas more heavily than those of urban voters. This blatantly anti-socialist measure lasted from 1881 until 1945!

Underpinning both of these measures, however, was the electoral system known as “First-Past-The-Post (FPP). To win an FPP election it was necessary for a candidate to win more votes than any of his/her rivals. Not more than all the votes of his/her competitors combined, you understand, only a simple plurality. The candidate with the most votes (which may, or may not, have constituted a majority of the votes) won.

Obviously, FPP can easily lead to a situation in which the governing party is able to win a majority of parliamentary seats with considerably fewer than half of the votes cast. In an election where three or four parties of roughly equal strength are seeking the electors’ support, the outcome is not Majority Rule, but the rule of the most popular minority. Since it is clearly unhelpful, in terms of preserving political legitimacy, to have a clear majority of voters feeling unrepresented, the grim arithmetical logic of FPP drives the political class inexorably towards a rigid two-party system.

In the 1920s and early-1930s, New Zealand voters had three major parties to choose from: the Reform Party, the Liberal (later the United) Party, and the Labour Party. In no election between 1919 and 1938 did any single political party ever secure more than half the votes cast. FPP notwithstanding, however, New Zealand only boasted a genuine two-party system for five elections (1938, 1943, 1946, 1949, 1951) The Labour/National duopoly was broken in 1954 with the advent of the Social Credit Political League. It would take until 2020 for a single New Zealand political party to, once again, secure more than half of the popular vote.

The switch from FPP to Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) in 1996 was certainly the most dramatic change to New Zealand’s democratic machinery since the National Party abolished the Legislative Council – New Zealand’s unelected (and largely decorative) Upper House of Parliament – in 1950.

New Zealanders voted for MMP in response to what was widely perceived as a lack of democratic political agency. With Labour and National both committed to neoliberal economic and social policies, many New Zealanders felt politically disenfranchised. Voters dreamed of electing Parliaments in which heterogeneous assemblages of genuine representatives would enable the formation of governments much more closely attuned to the people’s will.

Their hopes were not fulfilled. MMP certainly allowed political parties to select candidates more reflective of the gender, ethnicity and sexual-preference makeup of the New Zealand population, but the House of Representatives continued to be dominated by National and Labour. Those smaller parties that did manage to make it into Parliament dutifully lined-up with one or other of the two major parties in coalitions that only very rarely produced anything even remotely challenging of the neoliberal status quo.

Regardless of the drama, or lack of it, it would seem that, over the course of the last 100 years, the more that New Zealand’s democratic rules have been changed, the more its fundamental political impulses have remained the same. It is, however, possible to make one important observation: the larger the winning party’s share of the popular vote (now known as the Party Vote) the more permanent its subsequent alterations to the country’s face tend to be.

The problem, of course, is that the most recent alterations have been executed without a mandate. The last time a political party sought, and got, a decisive electoral mandate to change the face of New Zealand it was 1972. (Some might say 1938!) Certainly, over the past 35 years, the biggest and most alarming instances of facial surgery (Rogernomics, Ruthanasia) have been accomplished without the patient’s informed consent – or an anaesthetist!

It is to be hoped that Willie Jackson’s use of the past tense when describing the dramatic changes to the face of New Zealand democracy is inadvertent. It is certainly difficult to make a case for the will of the majority of New Zealanders being any easier to impose today than it was 30 years ago. The “tyranny of the majority” that Willie complains of finds no confirmation in our political history: neither in the Pakeha world, nor Te Ao Māori.

The truly scary thought is that Willie sees the obstacles to achieving effective democratic majorities as a feature, not a bug, of our present system. If his idea of a new and improved New Zealand democracy is one in which, once again, the most determined minorities get to rule, then the change he is describing is not so much an uplifting electoral drama, as a political sucker-punch to the face.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 7 July 2022.


John Hurley said...

Willie is only 20% Polynesian DNA (I think). He took part in that TV program were they check ancestry. Initially he wasn't going to let on.

Underlying all this is the belief in the plasticity of human behaviour -whether there is a primoidial factor in ethnic group formation. Check out Eric Kaufmann first 15min

If you listen to these speeches., what do symbols (Geoffrey Palmer) have to do with the price of fish? Symbols are what bind ethnic groups (John key was innocently(?) involved with the flag debate plus he gave Ngai tahu co-governance of CERA).
Gisselle Byrnes deconstructs Pakeha ethnicity (she finds Bob Jones farming family statue problematic). The hero Belich ("I'll teach those curs!") also gets a kick in.
The two Maori speakers are less radical than the honkies.

Tiger Mountain said...

A cursory look at NZ society through a class left lens explains a lot. There is a large self employed, tiny business, SME and of course farming/horticulture sector. Comprador capitalists rule here, and Australian Banks. We are in various post colonial fallout dilemmas, but with so many sitting on stolen or dubiously acquired land and in denial as strong as an Israeli settler, there is no quick solution.

As MBIE says online…
“New Zealand is a nation of small and micro business – including self-employed. Defined as those with fewer than 20 employees, there are approximately 530,000 small businesses in New Zealand representing 97% of all firms. They account for 28 per cent of employment and contribute over a quarter of New Zealand’s gross domestic product (GDP). (Data source: Stats NZ.)”

Much of the traditional minimally skilled working class was essentially sacked and alienated from 1984 onwards with the downgrading of manufacturing and major Govt. employment such as local authorities and Forestry and Ministry of Works. There are now various layers of workers, precarious, contract, interns etc. The central Labour organisation–NZCTU–dropped its bundle at the first jump, National’s union busting ECA in 1991.

So we will be in a right old mess until the new gens step up in an anti capitalist manner. Willie Jackson is the least of our problems.

The Barron said...

I am increasingly reminded of the quote of Thomas Jefferson -

"The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

I struggle to think of what injury that Maori involvement in asset governance or service delivery has done me. My pocket remains unpicked, my legs unbroken.

I do know what generations of exclusion of Maori from decision making has done and what stripping of assets has done. The injury is apparent in all statistics in health, criminal justice, education, self-harm and poverty. Pockets picked, a people not broken, but bloody and unbowed.

Democracy is enhanced by the guiding view that an injury to one group is an injury to all. Democracy is enhanced by participation of those that have been excluded from the decisions. Democracy is enhanced by power not imposed but shared.
Democracy is enhanced by acknowledgement that Maori had consensus democracy long before colonization, and obtaining consensus with Tangata Whenua goes some way into mending the injured, and ensuring pockets are not empty but have enough to sustain.

Odysseus said...

I think the word Willie is searching for to describe our new, "changed" democracy is "oligarchy", in this case one based on race. "Co-governance" requires the overthrow of equal suffrage, a fundamental principle of democracy to which New Zealand is bound by international human rights law such as the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Furthermore the requirement for a supermajority in decision-making, as in the case of the 3 Waters governance arrangements, gives interests representing a fraction of the population a veto over the great majority. By any definition that is not democracy.

David George said...

God help us if Willie's ideas about what constitutes a democracy comes to pass.

Breaking News:
Live Not By Lies, Jordan Peterson and Rod Dreher sit down to discuss totalitarianism and our troubling slide in that direction.

David George said...

The Barron, the obvious problem, one you've chosen to overlook in your attempted justification, is that there is far more variation (of pretty much every metric you care to measure) between people, individuals, than there is between ethnic groups. Arbitrary allocation (or reallocation as you suggest) based on groups is fatally flawed, worse than that it's incredibly dangerous. The whole idea of Tangata Whenua, as presented, is absurd.

The Barron said...

Statistics show overall patterns. That there is variation is calculated in statistics. Undeniably these statistics identify disadvantage. In the areas I listed.

Next we look at the political situation when the disadvantage occurred. Maori were largely disempowered and not in control of services and resources impacting upon them.

We look at the situation through international law, this includes the Treaty, but also customary ownership and practice, finally factoring in the international rights of the indigenous people.

We should not forget, Maori are tax payers, indeed, Ngai Tahu the largest corporation in the South Island. We then remember that wage taxation was deferred in NZ because the government resale of Maori land, and mineral stripping from what were indigenous resources paid for the 19th century foundation of NZ.

We return to the power structure under which Maori became statistically disempowered. It is not a difficult conclusion that the call by Maori for greater say in the services and asset effecting Maori seems to have merit, not simply for countering disadvantage but building for a future. These aspirations are in line with legal obligations.

There is nothing arbitrary, David. It certainly does not seem fatally flawed, or incredibly dangerous. Absurd? A view from afar may well suggest that continuing a model that has created disadvantage is aburd

David George said...

Thank you Barron.
The whole idea of protection of a distinctive indigenous race and culture is a good one; in it's place - say a people cut off from the rest of humanity and the modern world. I just wonder if Maori qualify as sufficiently and identifiably distinct to justify the dangers inherent in implementing ethno nationalism. Their interests and occupations, their individual lives aren't different, in any substantial way, to the rest of the population.

The actual racial distinctiveness has also long since disappeared, in order to swell the numbers (?) we now have this nebulous and misleading "identify with" criterion for establishing ethnicity. The MOH, if you have any Maori ancestry or "identity" at all, arbitrarily consider you as Maori. That's how I'm classified even though I'm not, in any realistic sense, a Maori.

The entire basis for institutionalised separatism, in present day New Zealand is, essentially, fraudulent.

Sorry but Ngai Tahu, and presumably the other commercial iwi entities, have tax exempt status.

"The phenomenal rate of growth of their empire has been achieved through the significant acquisition of many previously income-tax paying for-profit entities which overnight, because of the income tax exempt status of Ngai Tahu Charitable Trust as the sole shareholder, also claims that fiscal privilege – yet those activities are unrelated to the charitable purposes of the trustee. Over the past 20 years, there have been, at one time or another, 70 limited liability companies, 18 joint ventures and 3 associate companies under Ngai Tahu control. Currently Ngai Tahu has 39 trading entities that are registered as tax charities"

Another issue: Ngai Tahu have huge commercial interests: farming, forestry, fisheries, tourism, commercial and residential property among them. There are some very significant conflict of interest issues in giving outfits like Ngai Tahu outsized influence in, and control over, the considerable resources they, and their competitors use. The 50:50 co governance structure would see their hand picked representatives, plus a useful idiot or two, in complete control. Good luck trying to untangle the opaque familial, tribal, communal, cultural and commercial obligations; untouchable corruption and nepotism are to be expected.

David George said...

A little clarification on the arbitrary nature of the attempts to address disadvantage.

When you look at the statistics there is a correlation between ethnicity and some of the life success measures, true. There are also massive disparities within ethnic groups, the differences within groups are far greater than the differences between group averages. Why would that be? Why are some people failing and others not? Why are some Maori wealthy, powerful and privileged or some non-Maori poor, sick and disillusioned? Perhaps the problems, and challenges and rewards of life are more universal, more deserving of attention on the basis of our shared humanity than the arbitrary assumptions required of a race based approach.

That's why I think it's a bad idea, a dangerous lie that's doomed to fail and capable of causing a lot of harm in the process.

The Barron said...

Thank you David, I was unaware of the Ngai Tahu tax situation. It appears that the sole shareholder is the Ngai Tahu Charitable Trust, under which any profits are reinvested or distributed into the communities. Sanitarium has a similar status with the 7th Day Adventist Church.

I think it was the 1970s that NZ changed from blood quota definition for Maori or other ethnicity to one which had a two pronged approach. The first is descent (are you descended from a NZ Maori?), the second is identity (do you identify as a NZ Maori?). The previous blood quota was a hung over of out dated race orientated views, the change tied to descent but also did not force ethnic identity. Once again, I am confused by your use of the term 'arbitrary.' It is defined legally which seems to reflect social and personal views. There is reason, consensus and system involved. Arbitrary would have none of this. It should be noted that this does not prevent multiple identity in most cases. A number of years ago the Ministry of Education would automatically decide that a student who was both Maori and Pasifika would only be classified as Maori for their stats. That was arbitrary by the exclusion of the other identity. I understand that may have been addressed.

As to "if Maori qualify as sufficiently and identifiably distinct", the Blue Mink theorem, I think I can eject and move on. I will ask you to note, David, Treaty Rights are those of decent. Customary Rights are those held and not relinquished, therefore passed on to descendants. Neither are dependent on 'ethno nationalism'.

Disparities within groups should not be dwelt on. We should avoid circular arguments preventing solutions. That statistically Maori health is shown as behind the average in NZ. The numbers of Maori health professional is disproportionately low. Studies have shown that Maori health is improved with access to, and contribution from, Maori health professionals. That there are a few Maori health professionals does not become an argument against any of this need or solution.

Anonymous said...

Thank you David George and Chris Trotter. Your intellectual analysis and guardianship of democratic ideals is much appreciated.

Mark Simpson said...

I would like to thank and tautoko David George and the Barron for their logical, reasoned and articulate debate with each other. Neither resorted to ad hominem which is the default setting for anything contentious these days. Oh, that we could have this sort of exchange of views on MSM but there is more likelihood of Trump saying mea culpa for the Capitol invasion.
As an aside to the Barron; people would respect the validity of your views even more if you dispensed with your pseudonym - a point often made on this site.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Mark, not a pseudonym but a surname

The Barron said...

Ironically, I think I failed to sign off the last comment

Guerilla Surgeon said...

And Mark, people often have perfectly legitimate reasons for using a pseudonym – a point often made on the site.