A taste of economic democracy

I had my first taste of economic democracy in the late 1970s when I attended the annual general meeting of the New Zealand Insurance Company.

The company had investments in South Africa which were helping prop up the apartheid regime. Nelson Mandela was in jail, the ANC (African National Congress) and other black groups were banned and the black leadership asked the world for help through an international campaign to isolate the regime.

New Zealand’s anti-apartheid movement joined in and one tactic was to purchase small blocks of shares in companies which had investments in South Africa and attend the annual general meetings to ask questions about the support they gave to apartheid.

And so in the plushest of places we raised the issue and were booed and abused for having the temerity to question that anything other than the bottom line should be of the slightest concern to those whose income was earned from the efforts of others.

When it came to voting at these meetings, economic democracy was put to work. Instead of one person-one vote it was one dollar-one vote. We represented about 5 per cent of the people at the meeting but less than .001% of the votes.

We don’t have this money-based voting system for general elections but I don’t think we are as far from it as we’d like to think. Nominally each person has an equal vote but before we arrive at the ballot box the practical realities mean those with wealth have the opportunity for much greater influence than the nominal single vote they cast.

The Electoral Finance Bill being debated in Parliament seeks to redress some of the balance but it has been a shambles.

Labour deserves condemnation for the process it has followed and National deserves ridicule for striving to protect the interests of those with the money to buy elections.

Labour says it wants to stop the likes of the Exclusive Brethren who worked with National Party politicians and officials to spend up to $1 million in anonymous attacks on the Greens and the Labour Party during the 2005 election campaign. Fair enough. But so ham-fisted has been their process that it has been the very travesty of democracy they claim to uphold. Initially, they put the focus on clamping down only on third parties while exempting political parties and government agencies from the same scrutiny. Democracy it seems was too precious for people and must be rationed among political parties.

Under pressure they have now extended their brief to limit the amounts which can be donated secretly to political parties. This will be a problem for Labour but a greater problem for National. Instead of laundering political donations through secret trusts, National will now be required to reveal them. This move is unlikely to succeed, however, because those keen to disguise their political preferences could simply arrange for family and friends to front with anonymous donations just under the limit and we are back to square one.

National’s role has been scurrilous. They have fought the bill tooth and nail in the name of defending democracy, human rights and freedom of speech. This is the same party which worked behind the scenes at the last election to encourage and co-ordinate various wealthy lobbies to boost National’s election chances.

Nicky Hager’s book The Hollow Men reveals the extent of the deception. Big business backers of National bankrolled a biography of National leader Don Brash. Racing industry heavyweights, the Maxim Institute, and a host of the usual suspects in the conservative business community were involved.

It’s worth remembering that democracy and freedom of speech to the extent we have them were never granted freely to anyone. People have only gained these civil rights after bitter, violent struggles within societies to wrest power from wealthy elites who believed they were born to rule.

Even now these same interests have undue influence on the political process. Turning cash into political power is the natural instinct of those who have run campaigns such as that mounted against the extension of democracy via MMP.

In the current debate the near hysterical reaction of some at the thought their wealth may not be able to buy unlimited election advertising is a reminder that democracy is more fragile than we think.

We should have had an independent commission developing these electoral law reform proposals, hearing public submissions and drafting legislation. Instead, the rules for running our elections are being made by the very people and parties who have vested interests in power rather than the health of our democracy. It’s our democracy – not the politicians’ democracy.

The debate on the Electoral Finance Bill should remind us that the bumper sticker “Don’t vote! Business always wins!” is more truth than cynicism.