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Karl du Fresne

Whatever this is, it’s not democracy

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I’ve always thought democracy is a pretty good sort of system. Not perfect, of course, but as Winston Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

In other words, it’s the best we’ve got until somebody comes up with something better.

Well, it seems someone has. In Masterton, of all places.

You probably thought, like me, that democracy works because it gives us the right to choose our representatives and to get rid of them if they don’t measure up.

But Masterton District Council has decided that’s flawed, or at least not appropriate for Masterton. The council wants to improve democracy by appointing iwi representatives with voting rights to two of its standing committees.

Yes, you read that correctly. They would be appointed, not elected. But like elected councillors they would have the right to vote on matters affecting the rest of us.

Whatever this is, it is not democracy. It’s something else for which we don’t yet have a term. Perhaps we could call it part-democracy or near-democracy or almost-democracy until someone comes up with a better name.

I don’t want to sound alarmist. The appointment of iwi representatives to two council committees isn’t likely to be the end of the world.

The genuine councillors – the ones actually elected by the people of Masterton – would still be in the majority. And it’s possible that iwi representatives would make a sincere attempt to make decisions in the best interests of the entire community. But that’s hardly the point.

Democracy is a package deal. It doesn’t come with optional extras that you discard if they don’t happen to suit you. And the danger is that once you start subverting democratic principles, even with the best of intentions, anything becomes possible.

If there’s no longer a rigid rule that the people who make decisions on our behalf must be elected by us and accountable to us, reformers will soon find other ways to “improve” the system – all in the interests of fairness, of course.

This is how democracy gets undermined – by inches and by degrees. Ultimately someone might decide that voting is a clumsy and inconvenient process and that democracy would be much more efficient if we got rid of it altogether. It’s happened in plenty of other places.

Is it possible that 100 years hence, queues of international visitors will line up outside Masterton Town Hall to gaze admiringly at a plaque that says: “Masterton – the Place Where They Improved Democracy”? Somehow I doubt it.

I understand the worthy intent behind what the Masterton council is doing. In an ideal world there would be more Maori in local government. But it’s fanciful to interpret the Treaty of Waitangi as imposing an obligation on councils to provide seats for unelected iwi representatives.

In any case, democracy already provides the means by which Maori can stand for office. An obvious example is New Plymouth district councillor Howie Tamati, a former rugby league hero.

Tamati is standing down this year. He’s reportedly disenchanted following the defeat (by a referendum) of New Plymouth mayor Andrew Judd’s proposal for a separate Maori ward. But the irony is that Tamati has served 15 years on the council, which demonstrates that voters will support good Maori candidates. He’s a living, breathing rebuttal of his own argument.

In Masterton, where I live, there are no Maori councillors. That’s sad in a town where 16 percent of the population is Maori, but it’s dangerous to say it’s a failure of democracy. There are respected Maori figures in the town whom I would happily support if they put themselves forward for election.

And here’s another thing. If I were Maori, I would regard it as patronising and offensive if councillors thought the only way my people could get a say in governance was by being given a leg-up. That suggests Maori still depend on Pakeha patronage.

And I don’t buy the line that Maori have no chance of being elected because Masterton is a conservative, racist town. This is the electorate that elected Georgina Beyer – the world’s first transsexual MP, a Maori and a former prostitute. So the argument that we’re all unreconstructed rednecks here in the Wairarapa just doesn’t wash.

Perhaps most alarming of all is the urgency with which the deal has been rushed through. A motion that the decision be postponed until after the local government elections in October – surely a reasonable proposition – was overwhelmingly defeated. The council was clearly eager to get the matter over and done with before those pesky voters get a chance to throw a spanner in the works.

The mayor, Lyn Patterson, says the proposal was discussed in last year’s annual plan consultation, as if that discharges the council’s obligation to give the public a chance to object. But hardly anyone reads the annual plan (I certainly don’t) and the council’s decision took most people completely by surprise.

It looks, well, a bit sneaky. But the voters will ultimately have their say – and as Mike Moore famously once observed, in a democracy the voters are always right.

This article was first published in The Dominion Post.