Sunday 20 November 2022

If It Ain’t Broke, Why Fix It?

Still Going Strong: Why has the Minister of Justice cobbled together a group of “progressive” academics, most of whom subscribe to the core beliefs of Māori nationalism, “decolonisation”, and te Tiriti revisionism, to “review” our political system? In the absence of any convincing evidence that our electoral machinery is “broke”, why is the Labour Government so determined to “fix” it?

DEBORAH HART is sceptical about democracy’s effectiveness. Or, at the very least, she believes it can be improved. “We should never take for granted that our electoral system, or indeed our democracy, will work effectively”, says the Chair of the Independent Electoral Review Panel.

It’s a rather curious comment for the person charged with giving our electoral system the once-over to toss – almost randomly – into the “conversation” about New Zealand’s democracy. After all, New Zealand boasts one of the oldest, continuously operating, democracies in the world. Countries much larger and more powerful than our own cannot point to an uninterrupted stretch of free and fair elections of nearly 130 years. Neither the French nor the Italians could make such a boast, and certainly not the Germans or the Russians.

Not only were New Zealand women the first to be enfranchised, but its indigenous people, the Māori, have enjoyed permanent parliamentary representation since 1867. Indeed, Māori were exercising their right to vote years before their Pakeha brethren. The citizens of very few nations have had the benefits of universal adult suffrage for as long as Kiwis. Certainly not the British or Americans. (The women of the United States won the federal franchise in 1920, and British women were not fully enfranchised until 1928!)

What’s more, our Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system, in operation since 1996, has successfully rid our democracy of the unedifying spectacles of yesteryear, when individual political parties receiving considerably less than 50 percent of the votes cast, somehow ended up commanding a majority of the seats won. MMP has also allowed political parties to use their “Party Lists” to more accurately reflect the rich diversity of the New Zealand people. Our House of Representatives, formerly a chamber dominated by old, white, men, is, at last, what it says on the tin.

There are some who lament New Zealand’s lack of a written constitution – on the model of America’s and Australia’s. Others criticise our unicameral parliament, arguing that we would be better served by restoring its second chamber, abolished by National’s first prime minister, Sid Holland, in 1950.

The problem with written constitutions is that the inevitable conflicts over their interpretation are resolved by unelected lawyers in judges’ robes. And, as anyone who’s been paying attention to US politics recently knows, allowing judges to determine what should and shouldn’t be included among the fundamental rights of citizens, can throw up some very disturbing results.

With their single house of Parliament, their unwritten – and hence flexible and adaptable – constitution, and their highly efficient electoral machinery, New Zealanders are the masters of their own destiny to a degree unencountered among many peoples. Our courts cannot strike down legislation passed by the House of Representatives, nor can one Parliament bind another – both prohibitions guaranteeing a radically majoritarian mode of government. If the essence of democracy consists of giving effect to the will of the majority, then New Zealand must rank as one of the most democratic nations on Earth.

Why then did the Minister of Justice see fit to cobble together a group of “progressive” academics, most of whom subscribe to the core beliefs of Māori nationalism, “decolonisation”, and te Tiriti revisionism, to “review” our political system? In the absence of any convincing evidence that it is “broke”, why is the Labour Government so obviously keen to “fix” our electoral machinery?

Some idea of the expectations raised by the formation of the Independent Panel may be gleaned from “advocate and political commentator” Te Matahiapo Safari Hynes, who told Radio New Zealand’s Pokere Paewai:

There’s only a certain level that we can exist as Māori within this system that’s currently here in terms of central and local government. There’s only a certain amount of things that we can achieve […..] We cannot achieve our full potential as a self-determining people within this political system. However this is what we have and we have to be a part of it.

This is, indeed, “what we have”, but one senses that Mr Hynes’s intention to be “a part of it” is the same as the Lion’s intention to be “part of” the herd of wildebeest he is tracking. One also gets the uneasy feeling that the members of the Independent Electoral Review Panel are committed to doing everything within their power to help him.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 18 November 2022.


greywarbler said...

Labour can not be trusted to change anything important in the proper way and get it right. We need proper, not right-based thinking and doing. 'Hey, teacher, leave them kids alone, All in all, it's just another brick in the wall'.

Labour are like the Christchurch CTV engineer - rising in a noble profession on fake credentials and then resiling from his duties supposedly controlling and monitoring a project more complex than his appointed site engineer could handle, so needing a constant watching brief on methods and progress. We know what happened to CTV; family of those killed know deep feelings of loss of their people.

Labour is like this, bare-faced artful dodgers who probably can't, don't want to try to, fix the devastation they have already caused. But they can be trusted to remain true to their commitment to essay boldly like The Charge of the Light Brigade, and when they fail similarly blame someone else. National wouldn't be the same; the results would be as bad, but they would follow a different route to destruction of the country; with the same nonchalance though.

Patricia said...

I don’t think that the question is “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. The question is how to make democracy better. I would like to see all other parties NOT joining up with either National or Labour. Whether that is possible in the existing political system I don’t know but it would give us a functioning democracy instead of three more years of an elected dictatorship.

David George said...

The (il)logical corollary of the moronic "Let's do this" is "If it ain't broke, fix it till it is"
Thanks Jacinda.

oneblokesview said...

Interesting comment Chris.

Being of the older generation, I do reflect on MMP and the call for diversity.
Has it given us better government and a better life for NZers???

Unfortunately I don't believe it has!!

What it has done is vastly increase the Government bureaucracy and slow decision making to a crawl.

Are women/Maori/LGBT lead governments/organisations/companies any better than now than those lead by best available people?

I cant see that in General.

But my aged bias would say that wouldn't I. :-)

Keep up the good work, but please don't fall under the workerism spell

Odysseus said...

Labour's vision for "Decolonisation" appears to be all about destroying universal and equal suffrage and installing tribal rule in its place. Perversely, democracy will be replaced by oligarchy. This has been tried before at other times, in other places. But even the Spartans had their hands full keeping the far more numerous helot population down, a feat they achieved only through severe oppression and world-beating cruelty while remaining constantly on war-footing.

Gary Peters said...

Remember the old National Party campaign slogan, "New Zealand, the way you want it"?

Well, this is obviously going to lead to New Zealand, the way "someone" wants it .....

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I have absolutely no idea what the commission is supposed to do, but I do know that we need to keep an eye on our democracy, because the extreme right and some of the not so extreme right – aided by various billionaires tech bros, are determined to subvert it, because they don't believe in democracy at all.
Hence the common expression amongst the right in the US "America is not a democracy but a republic." One thing they could look at is perhaps the financing of political parties, which isn't nearly as bad in NZ as it is in the US, but there still seems to be a certain amount of "dark money" sloshing around.
If we get complacent about our democracy that apparently "works" and doesn't need fixing, me way well lose it.

Don Franks said...

One signifigant problem I see with our existing parliamentary system is its distance from the poor. Participation by low paid and unemployed workers has diminished over the years, reflected in low voter turnout. A large component of this abstentia is Maori. I suspect this phenomenum will be used by the upcoming fixers to advance their cause. Their cause, not the interests of the poor, which will not be improved one whit by yet another top level card shuffle.

Anonymous said...

Our democracy can be improved by switching to a Liquid Democracy. This will occur naturally over time with the event of online voting.

The controlling parties will fight against Liquid Democracy - as it will significantly diminish their ability to enforce Trojan Horse policies such as Three Waters, or other Asset Sales (Mighty River).

There will need to be some basic constitution with inbuilt flexibility to prevent both 'Tyranny of the Majority' and 'Tyranny of the Minority'.

Any government which has to use riot police to enforce its policies - has most likely failed to find an ethical balance.

- Micky

Anonymous said...

Indeed, Chris. And what of the Supreme Court's decision that 16 year olds should have the right to vote.

Archduke Piccolo said...

Of course our electoral machinery is broke. It is but a caricature of democracy, but like all good caricatures, what the image represents is - if only laughably - recognisable as 'the will of the people'. And THAT we can easily imagine sticks in the craw of our 'lords and masters', and so can not be borne. Anything that even remotely expresses the 'will of the people' is by definition 'broke', in more ways than one, and has to be fixed - in much the same manner as one 'fixes' a yet-to-be-neutered cat.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

There are a couple of things we could look at with regards to our democracy. One is the ability of right-wing parties to use the rules of democracy that we hurriedly adopted after 9/11 to undermine it.
And the other is the ability of right-wing dictators and other authoritarians to interfere in it, not necessarily to bring about the appointment of a sympathetic fascist government as such but sometimes simply to cause chaos, they can then take advantage of.
Russia has had a ministry of dezinformatsiya since 1923. Saudi Arabia funnels money to people like George Bush, and there are claims that the Chinese gave money to certain candidates in the Canadian elections.
Incidentally, I suspect that many people who criticise our present electoral system would love to replace it with something more authoritarian, or at least revert to the first past the post system.
I'd really love an explanation of what a "real" democracy is supposed to look like. :)

Max Ritchie said...

Another thing we could look at is the way left wing parties and commentators subvert democracy by actions and comments. For example look no further than Labour ignoring the will of the people regarding Five Waters. Or a far left commentator inaccurately describing the nature of the US structure, a republic composed of fifty democracies. Extremism, left or right, is incompatible with democracy.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"For example look no further than Labour ignoring the will of the people regarding Five Waters."

The will of the people? The will of the chattering classes perhaps. And the will of those who don't want to relinquish the modicum of power they have over our water.

It's always been the case that governments in New Zealand having been elected by the majority of the population have pretty much done what they want by way of legislation. And according to our Constitution are perfectly entitled to. Just as anyone who disagrees with them is perfectly entitled to vote against them at the next election.

There is no comparison between a government legitimately introducing policies – whether you like them or not, or whether they are popular or not – and the subversion of democracy by members of the far right in Europe and the US by suppressing the people's right to vote, by putting journalists in jail, and by killing people who disagree with them. And funnily enough, not a peep out of those supposed free speech advocates about any of it. Because as usual with most of them it's "free speech for me but not for thee".Equating the two is somewhat disingenuous in my view.

And going on about the "far left" – seriously? The far left in New Zealand can pretty much be counted on the fingers of two hands. The far right on the other hand ... perhaps the National Socialists are few in number, but just a tiny bit to the left of them are a very large number of people.

And I suspect that most of them are only a tiny bit to the left, because they don't like being associated with the name Nazi or fascist. In fact you can see in both Europe and the US that they try to distance themselves from those actual names while having similar policies. Perhaps absent the virulent and overt anti-Semitism, but there's still plenty of other undisguised racism in there, and plenty of disdain for democracy, not to mention ordinary people.

And my major point, which I do tend to have to make a lot, is that no one on the right, seems to acknowledge the danger from their fellow travellers, either because they refuse to admit to themselves that it's a danger or that they are sympathetic with the aims of the authoritarians. That's pretty much the only conclusion I can draw from the fact that when danger to democracy is acknowledged by conservatives, they are always point to the extreme left which is non-existent these days. Fascism on the other hand seems to be on the rise.