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Our mission is to foster the improvement of New Zealand's democratic system and encourage the use of direct democracy through the

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Friday, 15 July 2011

Steve Baron: New Zealand's democratic deficit

Democracy is a much-used word that few give much serious thought to. It can mean many things to different people. The word democracy derives from
ancient Greece and means 'rule by the people'. Many have come to accept that whenever this word is used it must be a good thing, and as New Zealand is considered a democracy by international standards, this too must be a good thing.

While most may be familiar with the above description of democracy, many would be less familiar with the term democratic deficit. British political scientist David Marquand first used the term when discussing the politics of the European Union. Since then many people have written about democratic deficits, even though the term has not been clearly defined. Sanford Levinson has attempted to define what it is: 'A democratic deficit occurs when ostensibly democratic organizations or institutions in fact fall short of fulfilling what are believed to be the principles of democracy.' The difficulty here is deciding what aspects of government to measure both terms against, and exactly how much influence citizens should have in the process.

New Zealand certainly has free and fair elections every three years and individual rights are well protected under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, although this Act is not entrenched. The whole political process is all relatively transparent with little corruption according to the Corruption Perceptions Index. Citizens have easy access to their local MPs, and they can present petitions to parliament and make submissions to government select committees and other authorities. There is strong competition at elections between numerous political parties, although this is dominated by the National and Labour parties—all signs of a strong, inclusive society. However, there are many reasons for concern—the power the Cabinet holds in New Zealand politics, the lack of a codified constitution, the persistent abuse of 'urgency' in parliament, no Upper House, as well as the growing stature and influence of international laws and international agreements, suggests a growing democratic deficit in New Zealand.

New Zealand democracy operates under what is termed parliamentary sovereignty. New Zealand's leading exponent of constitutional and administrative law, Prof. Philip Joseph states that 'Parliament's word can be neither judicially invalidated nor controlled by earlier enactment'. However, the concept of parliamentary sovereignty is rather misleading. What New Zealand has, in effect, is Cabinet sovereignty or Cabinet government, because the Prime Minister and his or her Cabinet are so very dominant and this diminishes the power of parliament.

The domination of a governing party is a major concern because party membership in New Zealand has fallen 20% from 1960 to 2000. This means the links between party members and governments are weak at best, due to such a small membership representing a small proportion of society. This also indicates that the policies of political parties are being formed by a smaller group of people and are more likely to represent those of an elite few who dominate power within the political party, rather than those of a more broader base.

An additional concern about New Zealand democracy is falling voter turnout. In New Zealand voting has dropped from 93.5% in 1946 to 79.5% in 2008. Given the preceding facts and given the power that the Prime Minister and Cabinet wields, is the government politically representative of New Zealand citizens? In a Radio bFM interview former Prime Minister Helen Clarke was asked about a genetic engineering (GE) march that attracted 20,000 citizens. Her response was, 'I don't care if every New Zealander marches, we campaigned for GE in the election and won, end of story.' This in itself highlights the dictatorial nature of New Zealand politics and the problem with political parties and bundled policies. Because a citizen votes for a particular political party in an election, this does not mean that he or she agrees with everything that political party stands for. When a government, or a coalition government is elected, a bundled package of policies results and citizens are unable to pick and choose which they agree with. As societies grow and develop, citizens are becoming more educated than they ever were before. It is a logical step, then, that they would want more say in issues that may affect their lives and to unbundle these policy packages. This view highlights a perceived need for more 'checks and balances' (i.e., accountability) as well as more relevant tools and methods for citizens to have input and influence on the democratic process.

As the philosopher Rousseau once said, 'the moment a people gives itself representatives, it is no longer free. It ceases to exist'. Should New Zealanders be concerned and how can we reduce this democratic deficit?



Mike Waring said...

This is a succinct statement of why we urgently need Binding Citizens Initiated Referenda incorporated into parliamentary governance, especially in relation to, as Steve indicates, the growing obligation to adhere to International law enacted in secret under the guise of trade treaties etc. See Citizens are wakening!

Anonymous said...

Good article.
So has MMP worked?