Left and Right Alike: Undermining Democracy in New Zealand

Such are the 2020s, the age when no-one, it seems, actually respects the basic underpinnings of democracy. Even in New Zealand. This week, I stumbled across a pair of lengthy and genuinely serious articles, that basically argue that Something is Rotten in the state of New Zealand democracy. One written from a Left perspective. One written from a Right perspective. Both contrive to argue that the very system is systematically rigged in favour of the other team.

It makes one despair. It really does.

To summarise: the Left article thinks local democracy is geared towards the interests of rich, white, racist conservatives. Therefore, we ought to centralise authority in Wellington. Or else just abolish representative local government altogether, and let unelected commissioners do what is necessary – because unaccountable dictators are free to offend people, and so can get on with infrastructure development. The Right article, by contrast, is an extended musing on how democracy encourages the unwashed masses to vote themselves unaffordable social-welfare measures, inevitably bankrupting the state. In its place, the article suggests – in a last-sentence pot-shot – some form of “guided democracy”, a la Singapore.

Now, it is tempting at this point to just shrug. Authoritarianism has been on the rise internationally for some time, and honestly, New Zealand’s predicament is still better than most. We actually get people voting in elections.

(In my gloomier moments, I could even imagine my country eventually evolving into a sort of fossilised remnant of liberal democracy, in a world awash with authoritarian systems. Sort of a politically liberal analogy to present-day Cuba).

But no. I do think democracy worth defending, even if my rants won’t actually make the slightest difference to anyone. So here goes:

(i) https://www.metromag.co.nz/society/the-case-for-abolishing-councils

Cue horror stories about the implicit racism among all those old, rich people.

Now, I am not going to query any reports of rudeness faced by candidates on the campaign trail. But I would point out that the four previous mayoral elections in Auckland were won by a Leftist candidate (insofar as one might call Phil Goff Left). We are hardly talking Tartan Mafia-levels of conservative domination here. Moreover, for all that Collins faced prejudice, he did not exactly preside over a monstrous turnout in Pasifika-dominated South Auckland. He obviously won South Auckland comprehensively, but turnout there was not exactly stellar either. Indeed, rather than the article complaining about how a low-turnout election saw the rich, old, and white stomp all over the Pasifika guy, it might have been better off pondering why so few Pasifika bothered to vote. Surely they cannot be accused of such prejudice?

And that brings us to the so-called structural obstacles:

Oscar Sims, a spokesman for the pro-housing Coalition for More Homes, says local government is perfectly calibrated to exclude people like him or Naera. Its meetings are usually in the middle of the day or early evenings, when younger people are working, studying or putting kids to bed. Agendas and consultation documents are ostentatiously dull; perfect for a retiree to pick over on a rainy day, but inaccessible for people with busier lives. Postal voting favours property owners, who are less likely to move around than renters. So does the rating system, with a yearly bill providing them a powerful democratic incentive. Some homeowners can even vote more than once in local elections, with so-called ratepayer rolls giving them the right to cast a ballot for each house they own in different jurisdictions. “There couldn’t be a clearer example of something designed to entrench the interests of people who own multiple properties,” Sims says. “The system is rigged, and as a result we’re not having our voices heard. We get left out.”

Frankly, I find the listed obstacles hilarious:

  • If a meeting is not held in the middle of the day or in the early evening, one wonders when, exactly, these meetings are supposed to be held. It is not as if these meetings are being scheduled for 3 a.m.
  • The notion that agendas are “dull” is an utterly ludicrous justification for rejecting the legitimacy of democracy. Yes, government can be boring. It’s also important.
  • Postal voting was brought in decades ago to make voting easier, of course. The alternative is going back to the physical ballot box, which would hurt turnout yet further, or moving to online voting, which opens the door for election-hacking.
  • Registering on the electoral roll is both compulsory under New Zealand law, and damned easy to do. If someone is not voting, that’s a symptom of lack of motivation. Not lack of opportunity.
  • The notion that rich people vote more because they have to pay rates is an interesting one. Is the article suggesting that local councils introduce more user-pays services to ensure that the poor have some “skin in the game”?
  • The ratepayer roll system allows people who own property in a jurisdictional area to vote once (and only once) in that jurisdictional area. The underlying justification for that is “no taxation without representation”, so if you are paying rates to a local authority, you get to vote for that authority. Owning multiple properties just means you get to vote once in multiple areas, not that you get to vote multiple times in one area. Now, there is an argument that absentee landlords are to be discouraged for policy reasons, but honestly, it is not as if the existing system is “rigged.”

Really, the arguments, and indeed the entire article, boil down to “people we don’t like won an election. Therefore the entire system must have been rigged.” It’s all nonsense, of course, and the sort of thing one associates with fringes of discourse in the USA. The solution is actually to motivate voters, by giving them something to vote for.

But problem is, the article takes things a step further. Rather than simple sour-grapes, we then get an uncomfortable fetishisation of Tauranga under its Wellington-appointed Commissioner:

Freed from the burden of pandering to those voters, she immediately made moves many local politicians would regard as signing their own death warrants, raising rates by 22% in 2021 and a further 14% this year. The Tauranga Ratepayers’ Alliance responded by marching on the council, chanting “Two, four, six, eight, we want fairer rates”. But the surprise isn’t that Ratepayers’ Alliance founder Jordan Williams and his acolytes are angry, it’s that many Tauranga residents are not. The impact of the commissioners’ extra spending is visible on the city’s streets. The city is awash in road cones. A $303 million civic centre is under construction.

Here’s the thing: Tolley isn’t actually responsible to the voters of Tauranga. She’s a dictator installed by central government in Wellington. And I could not care less about rates and spending, or how benevolent the dictatorship might be. It’s that the voters of Tauranga have a right to actually have a direct say in how their community is run. For good or ill. Since when did the Left fall in love with Plato’s Philosopher Kings?

(ii) https://www.bassettbrashandhide.com/post/don-brash-does-democracy-have-a-future

And speaking of Philosopher Kings, here we have a gentleman who from 1988 to 2002 was New Zealand’s Governor of the Reserve Bank. The fellow who during the 1990s was utterly free from the burden of caring about democratic imperatives in setting monetary policy. It’s the mantra of neoliberalism – wherever possible, the actions of democratic government are to be restrained and marginalised via managerialism. Unelected experts know better than those dirty, dirty politicians – not only can’t democratic government do anything positive, we must alter the entire system so it can’t do anything at all.

Small wonder, of course, Brash cherry-picks Plato with approval in the article (I say cherry-pick, because one suspects he’s not quite on board with the shared-property notion, or the idea that property ownership can corrupt). Brash’s extended point is that democracy creates a built-in incentive for those pesky populists to redistribute the wealth of the state to their own supporters. It’s a rehash of the old Rogernome view that government must never cater to Special Interest Groups, only with the added lament that elections mean that democratic government must do exactly that.

Now, in fairness to Brash, there is actually some empirical evidence that democratic governments are economically “larger” in terms of service provision than non-democratic ones (a tendency that obviously excludes Communist examples). But there is no particular evidence that social welfare systems bring the system crashing down. Indeed, it is worth remembering that social welfare systems were a product of nineteenth century conservatism. Disraeli in Britain and Bismarck in Germany decided that state-directed poverty relief would go a long way to ensuring that the unwashed masses would not reach for their torches and pitchforks. Twentieth century social democracy built on that, of course. Brash is the sort of defender of privilege who would rather walk pure and unrepentant to the guillotine than realise the shaky foundations upon which the elites actually stand.

(That’s exactly why, via his last sentence, he expresses his private dream of authoritarianism).

But since Brash feels the need to cite Plato, I think it only fair to answer him with Aristotle. Now Aristotle was no populist either, of course. Famously so. And monarchy is his preferred form of government. It’s just that in his Politics, Aristotle goes to some lengths in exploring how democracy (a system he does not like) can be made to work. His conclusion is basically that of Disraeli and Bismarck – if you avoid extremes of wealth, you are going to wind up with a much more stable society than if you concentrate wealth within a small number of hands. The unwashed masses only get uppity if there is poverty in the midst of plenty… but for the life of me, I cannot recall Brash ever acknowledging the problems of economic inequality. For him, the problem is that democracy forces those in power to listen to the peasants (those on the receiving end of neoliberalism) at all.

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