A Slap in the Face for Democracy

Can You and I Trust the Government to do the Right Thing, Most of the Time? I Wonder.

by James Heard

Political Opinion, Democracy, Labour Government, Jacinda Adern, regions, regional, spending, James Heard

Leaky homes! Housing shortages. House prices! The cost of energy: electricity and petroleum. Monopoly and duopoly markets operating with little effective control over pricing models.

A billion dollars, annually, for the regions without any identified spending plan. 100,000 new homes in 10 years. A billion trees will be planted. Aspirational, non-specific, lacking specific measurable goals. Having all the hall marks of Napoleon’s intention to seize Moscow.

Income gaps accelerating so that the top 1% earn at least 10 times the earnings of those in the middle-income stream. Inequality increasing. Static wages. Farm subsidies are gone, instead we now subsidise low to middle income working families and students.

Intergenerational welfare dependency. More prisoners, more police, more jails. Over representation by Maori and Polynesians.

Referendum results, and yes, they are not binding, are almost invariably ignored and contrary decisions taken by Parliament. Politicians with personal security screens, unfortunately a prudent precaution, while the real screening is affected by the multitude of media managers.

The question: “Can you and I trust the Government to do the right thing, most of the time,” implicitly assumes that we are mostly agreed on what it is that we want the Government to delivery, now and in the future. Arguably, although we are mostly agreed on the need for central government, we are definitely not agreed on what the key jobs of government are. Nor are we agreed on the underpinning principles of government let alone how it should be shaped and act. There are also a fair few of us so indifferent to the shades of political policy and media releases (propaganda) we don’t bother to vote or are so contented that we see no point in voting. For the past 6 general elections 19.1 % to 25.8% of those eligible to vote didn’t.

NZ’s governance model is a modified Westminster model, lacking an Upper House (House of Lords / Senate equivalent). The ‘first past the post electorate model’, which was overlaid with Maori Electorates, was abandoned for a ‘mixed member proportional model’ implemented in 1996. An election model which retained a variable number of Maori Electorates. The direct consequence being that a general election now only serves to define the relative strengths of the parties. Parties who now negotiate privately variously retaining and surrendering manifesto promises they each campaigned on. The resulting government of the day, as is the position of the present Coalition / Labour Lead Government can, conceal or disclose all, some or none of the bargains they have struck in order to secure the privilege of governing us, the people of NZ. The privilege and the right to change and implement policies that shape our immediate and long term prospects.

It is a governance model that does not provide transparency of intention let alone transparency at the implementation level. Accountability inevitably blurs.

Can failures such as those listed above be sheeted home to any particular political party? Mostly no, for while politicians have a particular devotion to the ‘partisan two step’: step one, blame the preceding government; step two, reorganise variously cabinet, the budget, the troublesome agency or ministry: most if not all of these delivery failures are systemic. These are failures that span the tenure of multiple prime ministers. Botch ups that are arguably are also rooted in: a failure to troll available data, a failure to research and plan outside the economic and social dogmas prevailing in the dominant political parties.

Individual political parties have also lost connection both with those who vote and with those who could vote but choose not to. Party Central effectively rules, within the philosophy and dogma of each party. The arrival of ‘presidential style electioneering’ with the most media groomed winning the ‘battle of sound bites’ killed off Town Hall politics. That local venue where candidates presented their views, beliefs and credentials seeking the trust and eliciting the loyalty of one and all. A process of withdrawal supported by the loose regulation of party donations and the Governments’ funding of Party Election Campaigns, proportionally gerrymandered to the existing MP numbers. Donations to political parties, nominally transparent, made under a system which, by design or otherwise, allows donations to be fragmented and political obligations concealed. A funding system that was shown in 2005 to have been systemically rorted by at least the two major parties. (Andrew Geddis published in the Policy Quarterly in Nov 2007). A funding model not supportive of MMP that inevitably entrenches the parties already represented in Parliament.

The demise of grass roots party membership leaves Party Central in control, with Party Central exposed to lobbying and the influence of key donors. MMP for all its virtues does not produce a ‘what you see is what you get’ governance model. It is not transparent and allows for any number of back door deals to be formed in addition to party policies that the voter is not privy to. A slap in the face for our democratic system. There is a preoccupation with the urgent not the important and the urgent is driven at least in part by the need to be in favour in 3 years when the next election arrives. And when that election rolls around each politician should reap the reward due for their efforts. But do we check what they have done and evaluate what they offer?

How have they delivered on the most basic levels of: shelter, food, and water? How did they get on in the areas of personal safety, health, education, self-sufficiency, and security? Any failure to provide these diminishes confidence, self-respect and compromises the capacity or even the willingness of an individual to participate let alone contribute. True for families, true for work places, communities, businesses and equally true for our grandchildren, for New Zealand. MPs have a particular responsibility to make sure that things are at least as good as when first elected in the short term and much better in the long term. List MPs are however sheltered by Party Central. And regardless of how good your local MP is unless they are favourably shaping party action both need to go. Give them their due.

As my Dad, a farmer, said, while reading the NZ Herald one Saturday morning some 40 years ago, “Have you seen what those buggers are doing down in Wellington? They’re like a mob of cattle. Keep a good eye on them or they’ll be into the winter feed before you know it”.

James Heard, Exec MBA (Auck), psc (AS), g (UK)