Better Democracy NZ is a non-partisan, non-profit organisation.

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

Veto, Citizens' Initiated and Recall referendum.


Saturday, 19 June 2010

Anti Democratic Elitist Thought

By Steve Baron

One of my first university lecturers suggested the best advice he could offer was to challenge everything he said, and to come to my own conclusions. In other words,

don't believe everything you are told, even by an esteemed university professor. These words flooded back to me when I heard Raymond Miller, an Auckland University political scientist and media commentator, calling for the 1993 Citizens Initiated Referenda Act, to be repealed on the Paul Holmes Q&A television show. Former Prime Minister and law professor, Sir Geoffrey Palmer, has often suggested the same. In his 1997 book Bridled Power he said, “the Act should be repealed. It appears to offer a chance for citizens to influence policy, but in substance that opportunity is like a mirage in the desert. Referenda should be reserved for those few and important issues of constitution and conscience that should be bound by the people's voice.”

Given the huge number of conscience votes in Parliament over the last decade on extremely polarizing issues, I for one would have loved to hear Sir Geoffrey calling for citizens to decide these outcomes in a referendum... where were you when we needed you Sir Geoffrey? If referendums are a mirage, then what of representative democracy? Does it not also give citizens the illusion they can influence policy, because they get to vote once every three years at an election? Yet the day after an election a government can break every promise it has made, and often has. Perhaps we could also repeal representative democracy?

The weakness of representative democracy is that once a government is elected, there are few checks and balances between elections. The public is basically excluded. While proportional representation and coalition governments may have slowed Cabinet government to some extent, voters generally have to accept whatever the government decides it wants, even if the majority of citizens disagree as they did in the 2009 smacking referendum and even if the government of the day represent only 36.78% of those illegible to vote, as was the case with the 2008 National/Act Party government. Yet they rule 100% of the people.

It would seem strange that academics like these would be making calls to repeal the CIR Act. Surely what New Zealanders seek is a strong and robust society, where there is a true exchange of information between the elected and the electorate, not the “thin” representative democracy that Benjamin Barber refers to in his book Strong Democracy. A democracy controlled by political elitists and influenced by academic elitists who have little respect for the will and collective wisdom of voters is surely undesirable.

There is no doubt that the CIR Act needs to be made more robust to ensure referendum questions are not bias, misleading or ambiguous. More effort also needs to be placed on supplying voters with balanced information, giving the pros and cons of the referendum in question via an official referendum pamphlet and website.

US President Thomas Jefferson said it best when he said, “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves”. Words that our visiting Chinese officials might indeed heed when faced with Russell Norman, Co-Leader of the Green Party, protesting against China's treatment of Tibet.

Steve Baron is an author, Founder of Better Democracy NZ, and a regular contributor to publications throughout New Zealand.



Alan said...

Very well said.

I remember another comment made by some Pols lecturer of mine: "The first use to which power is put is always to preserve the privileges and prerogatives of the power holder."

The greatest indictment of our 'democracy 'is the shallow uninvolvement of the masses in its operation, both at local and national level.It is the behaviour of shoulder-shrugging victims, not of involved citizens....
Alan Rhodes

Kevthefarmer said...

One thing that politicians, political scientists and civil servants have in common is that, in the main, they believe that the modern state is far too complex and interconnected with global political and economic forces to function in an autonomous way. That is to say, they believe that sovereignty has to be subservient to these forces. Thus the processes of government become a task of administration within the framework defined by non- democratic institutions such as the United Nations, World Trade Organisation and trans-national corporate businesses.
In order to maintain the credibility of their offices, the political establishment have to give the impression that they are functioning within the remit of democratic government. Thus we have the window-dressing of endless tinkering with minutiae of the law eg. the anti-smacking bill or the new seabed and foreshore act which the commentators say will make very little difference in practice. The proposed referendum on changing the voting system still leaves the same clique in power, albeit in slightly different proportions.
The greatest travesty against democracy in recent times- the suspension of elected Ecan councillors by the Minister for the Environment using his statutory powers shows the true colours of the political class- anti-democratic when is comes to the service of a couple of hundred fat-cat cow-cockies versus the democratic right of 300 000 Cantabrians- because of their slavish belief that the income to the nation of increased milk sales overseas is more important than democracy itself. As Steve Baron says tongue-in-cheek- "Perhaps we could also repeal representative democracy"- well here you see that repeal in action.

improvingourworld said...

Do we need a Referendum For A New Democracy?

Are you concerned about the future of democracy? Do you feel democracy is under attack by extreme greed in countries around the world? Are you sick and tired of: living in fear, corporate greed, growing police state, government for the rich, working more but having less?

Can we use both elections and random selection (in the way we select government officials) to rid democracy of undue influence by extreme wealth and wealth-dominated mass media campaigns?

The world's first democracy (Athenian democracy, 600 B.C.) used both elections and random selection. Even Aristotle (the cofounder of Western thought) promoted the use random selection as the best way to protect democracy. The idea of randomly selecting (after screening) juries remains from Athenian democracy, but not randomly selecting (after screening) government officials. Why is it used only for individual justice and not also for social justice? Who wins from that? ...the extremely wealthy?

What is the best way to combine elections and random selection to protect democracy in today's world? Can we use elections as the way to screen candidates, and random selection as the way to do the final selection? Who wins from that? ...the people?