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Anthony Willy

The State of Democracy in New Zealand

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Until the passing of the Resource Management Amendment Act 2017 the business of territorial local authorities was conducted by the elected representatives of the citizens living in the particular area. That is no longer the case. Henceforth councils will be required to share their statutory powers with self-selected, unelected entities. This marks the end of democratic local government in New Zealand for the obvious reason that the elected members are no longer sovereign but must take account of the wishes of the self-selected group none of whom will be required to submit to the ballot box. Given that the activities of local authorities play an increasingly important role in our lives this has the potential for far reaching consequences. No longer will the contents of the district plans which control all important aspects of; land and water use, and any activities involving discharges to the atmosphere, be arrived at with the consent and input of the occupants of the district but will become subject to the wishes of unelected group.

However, given that there seems to be increasing disinterest in local body elections one may wonder whether this is necessarily such a bad thing. Why not leave it to the professional staff and an unelected pressure group to determine what activities are, and are not allowed to take place within a district. In other words is democracy such a necessary or good thing? To answer this question it is helpful to start with three aphorisms:

  • “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” – Lord Acton 1887. 
  • “Democracy is a psychopathic expression of inferiority” – William Joyce, an American better known as Lord Haw Haw who broadcast defeatist propaganda from Berlin during to the war. He was hung as a traitor by the British at war’s end. 
  • Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…” – Winston Churchill 1947.

Churchill uttered this in the aftermath of the general election in which Clement Attlee’s Labour government swept to power. It was an astonishing affirmation of the place of democracy as a political institution. Having lately been instrumental in salvaging the free world from German hegemony, Churchill was nevertheless comprehensively rejected by the United Kingdom voters. One would have expected some bitterness, or questioning of a political structure which intended to and did demolish much of the existing social norms into which he was born, and which his party represented. Not so – he continued to believe in the common sense and life experiences of the electorate in deciding who should govern the country. What then are some of the other forms about which Churchill spoke? To mention a few:

Dictatorship: This would have been uppermost in the minds of the electors in Britain in 1947. The country, indeed the free world had recently emerged victorious in a life and death struggle with Hitler’s Germany and Japan’s Emperor. To do this it was forced to sup with the devil in the incarnation of Joseph Stalin (every bit as evil as the German dictatorship) – who led the Bolsheviks, a party which since 1917 had revealed itself as implacably opposed to Western democracy. As a form of government in the modern world dictatorships tend to enjoy only a fleeting lease on power. Hitler’s thousand year Reich lasted for twelve years before ending with his suicide and immolation in the garden of the Reich Chancellery in 1945. Stalin’s tenure was 29 years before choking to death alone and unloved at his dacha. Others followed including Chairman Mao, who murdered on an industrial scale which would have made both Hitler and Stalin envious, but by then the West at least was safe in its practice of democratically elected governments, and the risk of another dictator arising in any of the Western countries had reduced to zero. More good news for democracy was to follow as the Eastern European and Baltic countries emerged from the nightmare of the Soviet occupation and embraced democracy. Exhibiting yet again that countries who have enjoyed civilized institutions will, given the chance, opt for democracy as the preferred form of government

Theocracy: Practiced widely throughout the Middle East and expanding its tentacles into Europe, Asia, Southern Russia and some African countries. This system is for all practical purposes restricted to Islam and involves god’s anointed having supreme power over the lives of the citizens – and a veto on laws passed by any popularly elected government. Iran currently is probably the purest form of theocracy. Nobody gets to vote for the Ayatollah and nobody, other than by violent revolution, can remove him. He (it is always a man) is appointed by God and serves throughout his natural life. The Papacy within the confines of the Vatican City is another such example of this political structure. Theocracy always involves intolerance of ideas other than the ruling cabal or the belief system on which it is based. It generally results in an underperforming economy and a lack of any coherent economic settings. It has never really caught on in the Western world – at least since the Enlightenment – and there is no prospect that it will do so in the future.

Monarchy: This has had a long pedigree in most Western Countries and many others throughout Asia and Africa. Indeed until as recently as 1917 Russia – the country having the largest land mass on the planet – was governed by a monarch, from its inception in the mists of time when the Vikings first explored south along the great European rivers. Nothing much has changed. The brief flirtation with democracy during the Yeltsin years was snuffed out, as was an earlier experiment with the Mensheviks in 1916, and Russia is again ruled by a Tsar – but without the crown. Britain thought to be the home of democracy allowed itself to be governed by a monarch enjoying divine rights until as late as 1649, and was then followed by Oliver Cromwell, a military dictator. All in all no absolute Monarchs have survived and it is now an extinct form of government.

The privileged few-autocracy: Government by a self-selected elite can only take place with the acquiescence of the general populous. A good example was Britain on the eve of the Great Reform Bill of 1832. A rudimentary form of democracy existed which favoured a tiny minority of the citizens but was arranged in such a way that the revolving door of the Tory and Whig governments always ensured that the interests of the landowners and wealthy were protected against the depredations of the majority. In 1832 The Whig government proposed to widen the franchise effectively from about 500,000 to 800,000 by giving votes to some people living in the great Industrial cities. The Duke of Wellington, then leader of the Tory Party, was so outraged that he resigned on the spot. The Bill passed and was the beginning of a process of universal suffrage in the United Kingdom – and the colonies, which was completed in New Zealand in 1893 by the grant of voting rights to women. We have since enjoyed a democracy with the universal right to vote irrespective of class, colour or condition (lunatics and felons excepted but that is another story).

Kleptocracies: A system of government to be found in many societies which have retained tribal institutions as a basis of managing their people. These societies are generally among the most backward economically, irrespective of their natural wealth, because tribal structures often mature into kleptocracies whereby a small group in the society simply steals most of the wealth generated by the work of the many. An aberration of this, which indicates that it is not confined to tribal societies, is The Russian Federation. Blessed with boundless resources and a relatively small population, widespread poverty exists among the many, and obscene wealth is enjoyed by the few.

Communism: Yes it still exists in the world and is alive and well in the Peoples Republic of China, Cuba and North Korea. As in Russia between 1917 and November 1989 when the Berlin wall was demolished by people seeking freedom from political and economic oppression. Communist government is usually said to be by and for the proletariat. This myth was exploded early in the life of the Russian Bolshevik government and the real power became vested in the hands of the gang who survived the fall of the Tsars and the resulting in-fighting. From then on throughout Russia and the iron curtain countries, government was by a balance of terror enforced by the army and the state security apparatchiks. China has designed its own variant. It retains a communist political structure in which only one party is permitted but has opened its economy to western ideals of free trade and the pursuit of profit. How long this uneasy marriage between a command political system and a capitalist economy can last remains to be seen.

Shared Sovereignty: This is rare. It was adopted in the New Hebrides prior to it becoming independent, and involved the Islands being administered by both the British and the French. By and large it worked well. The British looked after the administration and the finances; the French looked after the cooking and tourism. The indigenous population however had little or no say.

Perhaps the best example of shared governance was the South African experiment involving separate but equal exercise of power (apartheid). This received bad press from the liberal left – justifiably so because the power sharing was anything but equal, merely separate. As a political experiment it should stand as a warning to those who imagine that there can ever be a workable subdivision of sovereignty. There cannot. All government be it dictatorship, Monarchy or democracy involves the exercise of sovereign power. Some person or group within society must wield that power to the exclusion of all others. I can think of no circumstances in which an effective settled and peaceful government can involve the sharing of sovereignty between competing sections of society.

These then are “some of Churchill’s others” and they all lurk in waiting if we allow democracy to fail. What Sir Winston cannot have intended to include in “all of the others” is a constitutional monarchy.

Constitutional Monarchy: When Churchill spoke of democracy he did not mean the republican model as for example practiced in The United States of America and most of the tinpot dictatorships of Africa, and South America. He was referring to the constitutional monarchy to which he had devoted his political life and the unstinting loyalty to two kings and a queen.

This form of government, which we enjoy in New Zealand, is much derided by the media and the elites. No doubt because it involves the apparent inconsistency that as Sovereignty is inherited by birth and not subject to election by the governed it is a derogation of “true democracy”. The criticism is unanswerable applying strict logic. To the extent that sovereignty is vested in a hereditary King or Queen who performs a constitutional role it subtracts from the powers of the democratically elected Parliament. It is therefore curious that some of the most politically stable societies opt for this form of government: Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Holland Denmark Sweden, Norway and Spain all allow sovereignty to vest in a Monarch while leaving the formulation of policy and administration of the country to a democratically elected Parliament. Spain is a working example of the benefits of hereditary monarch. The disestablishment of the monarch and the exile of King Alfonso XIII in 1939 ushered in the Spanish civil war – a bloody conflict which tore apart Spanish society and heralded the start of World War 11. When the little dictator Francesco Franco, who was responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century died, the people restored the Monarchy in the person of Juan Carlos II and the country has since remained politically stable. 

The academics who do not favour outright abolition of the Monarchy, and there don’t seem to be many tolerate this political structure as being good for trade and tourism but mere window dressing devoid of any authority. That of course is not so. Laws in a constitutional Monarchy are made by the Monarch with advice and consent of Parliament. The need to consult outside of the corridors of Parliament before enacting legislation does in practice provide a fetter on the tendency of all democratically elected parliaments to become autocratic between the electoral reviews. Without a revolution the Monarch cannot be compelled to sign into law any bill presented by the executive. Of course this reserve power is rarely used and a wise Monarch recognises that a democratically elected Parliament must be free to enact its legislative programme, hence the Queen’s speech outlining a legislative programme to which she as Monarch is committed.

That is not to say however that that the Monarch, or in our case her representative the Governor General, is a mere rubber stamp. She is not. In the early nineteen seventies in New Zealand the Labour government emptied the coffers so carefully husbanded by the governments of Sir Keith Holyoake and Sir John Marshall. Sir Robert Muldoon inherited this parlous state of affairs and with his undoubted socialist tendencies he decided that the only way out of the mess was to impose strict government controls on the economy including caps on all wages and incomes. He did this using the Stabilisation of Remuneration Regulations which had been enacted during the war as an emergency measure necessary to put the economy on a war footing – legislation which nobody thought to repeal when the war ended. The result of the Muldoon initiatives was that Labour could no longer bargain with capital for a market return on its services and this caused widespread discontent. Sir Robert went further though and sought to impose similar restrictions on what the self-employed could charge for their services. When these regulations were presented to the Governor General Sir David Beattie they were quietly dropped. It was said at the time because Sir David, an experienced and principled former Judge, regarded them as a naked attack on the individual liberty to provide a service and earn a living and he refused to give the Royal Assent. Similar forces were at work in Australia when the Governor General Sir John Kerr exercised the royal prerogative and sacked the Prime Minister Goff Whitlam. In both cases the intervention of the Queen’s representative avoided a constitutional crisis and acted as a fetter on the unbridled power of the executive.

Although academically messy and logically flawed in theory, constitutional monarchy works in practice and that has always been the genius of the political structures which the Commonwealth countries inherited from Britain. Among its several virtues is that it avoids the increasingly bitter presidential elections required in a Republic. The Monarch is there for life, the President for a fixed term. The recent American experience which elevated a President to office to whom his opponents, the media and the elites are viscerally opposed, has all but paralysed American governance. No such crisis occurs in the case of a hereditary sitting Monarch. At its best a Monarchy is the living expression of Cicero’s thoughtful description of the Roman statesman as one who: “by identifying one’s personal interests with those of the state gain the respect goodwill and admiration of the whole community.” The present Queen is the living embodiment of this aphorism.

The only caveat to this is how much a successful constitutional monarchy depends on the wisdom and experience of the sitting Monarch. We know that the present Queen more than any other living statesman has had exposure to the great political events and personalities, good and evil of the last seventy years. We know that her experience and wisdom has been sought and weighed by every Prime Ministers from the beginning of her reign in 1952 to the present day and that some of this must rub off on her representatives. We know that she does not interfere in day to day politics or take a public a stand on any issue of the day. What we don’t know is how her successor will perform should he succeed to the throne. If in place of the Queen’s sage reticence – and that of her father and grandfather before her – we end up with somebody who espouses the fashionable causes of the day such as: The elevation of care of the environment (which every sensible gardener and farmer does instinctively) to a religion, writes children’s books on global warming, and sails into modern architects about the standard of their work, then the future of constitutional monarchy may be in jeopardy. I do hope not. With the right person at the helm embodying Cicero’s virtues it is a proven success.

The advantages of democracy

Because we have grown so used to democratic governments and as inevitably familiarity breeds contempt, it is necessary to summarise the benefits of democracy compared to the other forms of governance. Before doing so one must emphasise that democracy has fathered a notion of equal importance and that is the “Rule of Law.” This is a lawyer’s construct and little discussed or even understood by the general public. It involves the simple imperative that laws enacted by our democratically elected government will be applied equally to all irrespective of creed, colour or social circumstance. The combination of democratic government and the rule of law are the twin pillars on which all of our freedoms rest. Without the support of both pillars the house cannot stand. Absent either of these foundations the liberties  we hold dear cannot survive and one of the competing forms of government will come back to haunt us. What then are the benefits of democracy, why is it better than all of the others? Most people are not generally interested in politics other than the three year outing to the polls. When faced with the question why democracy rather than some other form of government many would answer: The chief benefit of democracy is that the incumbent government can be removed if the majority dislike the way that the country is being run. And they are right. The peaceful removal of a government and transition to another is a priceless guardian of our liberties and something which is entirely missing from all of the alternatives. Dictators and autocrats do not go gently into their last good night. For them, the transfer of power is always violent, and bloody, and what emerges from the confusion is often worse than what it replaces:  The French revolution of 1789 and Russian revolution of 1917 both ushered in reigns of terror which long outlasted those who initiated them. Similar depressing examples are to be found daily throughout The Middle East, Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean.

A second benefit of a democracy is that members of Parliament and local body councillors are answerable on a daily basis not only to those who voted for them but those who did not. It is a sobering experience for them to have to sit and listen to a constituent recount the circumstances of a life with all of its setbacks and insecurities, family problems and frustrating dealings with bureaucrats. No Member of Parliament or local councillor can remain immune to this exposure to life as it is lived by many, and the experience humanises those who wield power over the lives of others.

A third benefit is that because governing parties have to face the music every three (or five years in some cases), they cannot ignore the wishes of interest groups or the pressure exerted on them by the media. The downside of this of course is that the media must never forget that facts are sacred, only opinions are free, and not succumb to pushing any barrow that comes along in order to sell more media time. If this becomes entrenched, the media is counterproductive, causing the waste of valuable Parliamentary resources which would be better applied to important and pressing issues.  

A fourth benefit is that democracy is open at the bottom and enables a range of people to offer themselves for office. In securing a candidacy, it is not only about who you know, although that element is certainly present in choosing list candidates. For most would be candidates – certainly in the National Party  – it is necessary to persuade a selection committee of his or her suitability for the job. In the Labour Party, Head Office has most of the say in candidate selection. Obviously allowing all and sundry to offer for parliament can be a mixed blessing as some of those who end up there are unsuited to the job. In practice this doesn’t matter much because such people do not last very long and, with one or two glaring current exceptions, rarely get their hands on the levers of power. It has become a feature of the great democratically elected parties that they are utterly ruthless in pruning dead wood, no matter where it is found on the Party tree. The Conservatives in Britain have been described as “an autocracy tempered by assassination”, and there is no reason to suppose that it is much different in the antipodes given the recent events in Australia, where the revolving door of Prime Ministers continues to rotate, or the manner in which the current New Zealand Leader of the National Party was deposed last time he held that position.

Finally the crucial hallmark of democratic government is that it serves at the behest of the majority of the ordinary people who make up society. What Jeremy Bentham referred to as the greatest good for the greatest number. These voters overwhelmingly comprise those who have no voice in policy making or management of the nation’s affairs and who have no particular expertise in the science (if it is) of government. What they do have in abundance is a collective common sense perception of right and wrong on the big issues which confront society. As for the nuts and bolts of managing the economy, or social policy, they are prepared to leave it to the “experts” much as in the ordinary way, not many of us attempt our own dentistry or brain surgery.

This collective common sense has been nowhere more conclusively demonstrated than in the recent Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister of the day Mr Cameron committed the Conservative government to a binding referendum on whether or not Great Britain should end its membership of the European Union. In the run up to the referendum the great and the good who control every aspect of British life, (and of course the pollsters who get most things wrong) were unanimously of the view that Britain would stay in the Union and predicted dire consequences if it did not. This scare mongering was lost on the voters. They opted for “out” and none of the dire predictions of the “experts” came to pass. Britain has left the Union and there remains only the squabbling over the terms of the future relationship with the member states. What is so impressive about this exercise in democracy is that collectively the “little people” got it right and the university educated experts who make careers out of telling other people how to live their lives got it laughably wrong. The British experience puts squarely in issue the question of resort to binding referenda as an exercise in democracy. It is not unknown internationally. The Swiss and to a lesser extent the state of California routinely submit questions of great public importance to the wishes of the majority expressed in binding referenda. In New Zealand for the second time in recent memory (the last related to compulsory superannuation) one of the political parties has committed itself to binding referenda on two matters of crucial public importance should it be elected to power, or hold the balance of power. The issues are: The retention of the race based seats in Parliament and; the number of Parliamentarians necessary to deliver effective government. Contrary to what some commentators think – see for example the editorial in the Marlborough Express of the 19th July – the outcome of these appeals to the common sense of the electorate are not a foregone conclusion. It is pathetic to base such a conclusion on the assumption that most people hate all parliamentarians (as does the author of that editorial) and will therefore vote to get rid of as many as possible. No such childish premise exists among the general public. If the numbers of members of parliament are to be reduced it is more likely that the general public considers that we do not need the current number to carry out the business of government.

On the issue of the retention of race based seats the overwhelming consideration is likely to be that as all New Zealanders are entitled to vote in all general elections irrespective of ethnicity or creed there is no reason why one group should have exclusive rights based solely on a single strand in their ethnic makeup. A recent poll puts those in favour of the abolition of these seats at over 90%. On the other hand some voters will no doubt consider that as people of all races may enrol for these seats retention of them does little damage to our democracy and if retaining them is necessary to ensure domestic harmony then so be it. Whatever the outcome, in a democracy these are both issues on which the public and not only those in power are entitled to have their say. Indeed as the outcome affects the lives of all New Zealanders the decision should be made by the public to the exclusion of the parliamentarians and the “experts.” Given that it is in the nature of things that a party once elected to power becomes effectively an autocracy deciding matters of social importance as it sees fit, the existence of the binding referendum is an important fetter on the arrogance of office. Significantly such referenda rarely result in an outcome preferred by the governing party and that alone speaks volumes for the need for such a safety valve.

So with the death of local body democracy we move a little further away from the Churchillian order of public life and closer to that of Lord Haw Haw. The spectre of Lord Acton’s warning hovers ever closer. Thanks however to the plebiscite initiative of the New Zealand First Party at the forthcoming election this silent erosion of our democracy may be arrested. Whatever the outcome the September election promises to mark a watershed in our political history and for better or worse I doubt the country will ever be the same again.