The poor state of our democracy

The state of our democracy

As we have a beer by the barbecue, slop on the sunscreen and swim in the surf the last thing most of us want to do is think about politics or politicians. In itself this is a reflection on the poor health of our democracy.

It’s not that most of us don’t care what happens in the country but our ability as citizens to be actively involved in developing and influencing policy and outcomes seems even more remote now than it was a generation ago.  And it is.

Our major political parties once existed as large organisations where policies were proposed and developed through robust debate at party meetings and regional and national conferences. However where policy once emerged from the “bottom up” it is now developed via advertising agencies, spin doctors and focus groups. Democracy has been reduced to a series of products in a political marketplace.

Labour and National Party membership is low with little priority given to recruitment. The party base in the community is needed only to get voter turnout on election day every three years.

Even when it comes to fundraising, party membership has drastically reduced in importance. As in the US and most Western democracies, no party can hope to win power without substantial funds from large companies. The simple truth is that one substantial donation from a single source will easily swamp the income from thousands of cake stalls.

Inevitably the focus of our major political parties has turned to getting these big donations and delivering the policies the donors expect.

And so our democracy is a hollow shell. We feel powerless because we are and this is expressed through a profound, widespread cynicism.

Two recently released books identify the source of the problem. The first is Michael Bassett’s biography of Rod Deane and the second is Nicky Hagar’s Hollow Men.

Bassett’s book describes how a small clique of Labour Party politicians and far-right businessmen hijacked the party’s economic policy in the 1980s and used problems created by the previous Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon, as the pretext for extreme monetarist policies. Our major assets were sold and hundreds of thousands of kiwi families were driven into poverty where they remain trapped today.

The important point is that at no stage did New Zealanders ever give their democratic support to these policies. Quite the opposite in fact. The majority of kiwis strongly opposed the sale of our state assets by Roger Douglas and his small group of anti-democratic plotters.

Hagar’s book covers similar threats to democracy particularly leading up to the 2005 election.

On the one hand it’s no surprise to any of us that political spin dominates the media comments from political parties. But in the world of the then National Party leader Don Brash, his key advisors (most from outside the party) and far-right business connections, democracy appears as merely a nuisance with its subversion being a justified political strategy.

This extended so far as an attempt to set up a separate campaign team for Brash which was to operate outside the National Party. It would be controlled instead by a small number of wealthy businesspeople with fat wallets to bankroll Brash’s election. As with Douglas in the 1980s the aim was to deliver the policies these wealthy clients wanted.

But the most disturbing aspect of the debate around Hagar’s book is that most commentators, uncomfortable and embarrassed by the revelations, have been more interested in attacking the messenger than analysing the lessons from the message.

What Hagar’s book reveals is a democracy in retreat.

It’s important to remember that democracy itself is not a static entity and neither does it mean just five minutes in the ballot box every three years. All aspects of our democracy have only been established through community struggle. When our first government was established in 1852 only relatively wealthy males (owning land) were able to vote. This was extended later to all men and then finally in 1893 to women after well-organised community campaigns.

At every stage of our history, and the British history from which we derive our version of democracy, citizens have had to fight for positive democratic changes against powerful interests. Our last attempt to improve our democracy came with the campaign for MMP which at the time was fiercely resisted by a well-funded business lobby.

Our democracy will either move forward and develop or it will continue to wither.

The first healthy sign will be when our current cynicism turns to anger and significant sections of the community work together to demand the political power which must accompany the right to vote.