While the New Zealand election illustrated a functioning democracy, those elsewhere are moving in the opposite direction.

 

 

A few days ago, the New Zealand elections saw a return of Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party to the centre of power. What we don’t know for sure, despite the landslide, is whether she is going to share the reigns of her government. That is because New Zealand is one of a handful of countries in the world that has a real democracy. If we want to know how (not) to do democracy (and we do, believe me), then this is a good place to start.

In 1996, the Kiwis introduced a new electoral system called MMP, Mixed-Member Proportional. I will spare you the details, but in essence, it means that voters get two votes: one for their district and one for a political party. MMP was first introduced to the world by the Germans, who still use it to great effect. What it does in practice is that it successfully undermines a two-party system. It gives more diverse and smaller parties a voice and because those parties often get to rule with one or more other parties, bipartisanship is absolutely necessary. That is vital in the polarised political climate we’ve got in the world at the moment. It also helps people have more faith in their representatives, which is handy when governments need citizens to (not) do things, like in the case of a pandemic.

This is one of the reasons why New Zealand has done so well with Covid: people were willing to trust that their elected officials really had their best interests at heart. Another benefit was clear after the 2017 elections: more women and Maori MPs were elected than ever before.

 

In the last Budget, the Australia Institute counted 384 incidences of ‘not for publication’ notes next to a policy. It concluded that this was ‘the most secretive ever produced’.

 

Where New Zealand is an example of best practice, the US is a clear case of getting-close-to-dictatorship. That has not always been the case. The Founding Fathers did not want American politics to be partisan, have factions or even political parties. George Washington, the great man himself, was never a member of anything. But a two-party system quickly emerged and since then, elections have always been highly problematic.

For one, the President is not really elected by the people at all, but by the Electoral College. It consists of Senators and representatives of the States, 538 in total. They can, and usually do, vote with the majority of the people of their State, but they don’t have to. So, it is not the popular vote that results in a President; something we saw in the election of the Orange Virus, who lost to Hilary Clinton by 2.87 million votes but was elected by the College anyway. And what goes for the process, also goes for the content.

In 2014, a study done by Princeton University concluded that when the majority in America wants something that the economic elites (corporations, the wealthy) don’t want, the elites almost always win. ‘Even when fairly large majorities of Americans favour policy change, they generally do not get it. The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero impact upon public policy’, Gilens and Page wrote. Even before their research, Nobel Prize winner for Economics Paul Klugman had already called the US ‘a democracy in name only’.

In a scary article in the New York Times with the heading ‘Oligarchy American style’, he wrote that inequality was rising in America and that voters had little power to do anything about that. ‘Extreme concentration of income is incompatible with real democracy. Can anybody seriously deny that our political system is being warped by the influence of big money? The truth is that the whole nature of our society is at stake’.

 

 

That was almost ten years ago. Last week, Republican Senator Mike Lee tweeted that in America, ‘democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace and prosperity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that’. Later he added: ‘We’re not a democracy. Government is the official use of coercive force- nothing more and nothing less’. The Framers would be turning in their grave, but this is what the American election will be about. Is ‘the human condition’ wealth or citizenship? We know what Trump thinks, now let’s see what happens on November 4.

By the way, as Australians, we’re not immune to the undermining of democracy either. In the last Budget, the Australia Institute counted 384 incidences of ‘not for publication’ notes next to a policy. It concluded that this was ‘the most secretive Budget ever produced’. Things that were hidden from our view were mostly costs: oil platforms, inland rail projects, class action settlements, and so on. The Institute rightfully wrote that this ‘erosion of transparency’ was concerning, because the Budget is supposed to be public, and ‘an important part of democracy in Australia’. If we don’t know, we can’t protest. Brilliant.

Personally, I still think we should all listen more to the Kiwis, and Jacinda Ardern in particular. Remember her speech at Buckingham Palace in 2018? ‘What is the most important thing in the world? The people, the people, the people’. 

 

 

 

For this story I have used the following source:

Martin Gilens and Ben Page ‘Testing theories of American politics: Elites, interest groups and average citizens’, Perspectives on Politics, 12, 3, 2014, pp. 564-581

 

 

 

 

 

 

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