Democ­racy more than just tick­ing boxes ev­ery three years

Manawatu Guardian - - NEWS - From CHAR­LIE PEAR­SON

We live in a time where the vast ma­jor­ity, when asked what style of govern­ment they sup­port, will tell you: “democ­racy”, although the utopia that the word con­jures up is far from its lived ex­pe­ri­ence here and across the world.

Democ­racy comes from the Greek word demokra­tia; de­mos mean­ing ‘the peo­ple’ and kratos, ‘con­trol’ or ‘power’. Born in Athens 2500 years ago, all cit­i­zens were given a weighted voice in govern­ment and di­rect in­flu­ence on leg­is­la­tion. To­day this is known as ‘di­rect democ­racy’ and the clos­est you come to see­ing it to­day is in Switzer­land. Democ­racy as we are all fa­mil­iar with, is ‘rep­re­sen­ta­tive’: we vote for the politi­cians we want rep­re­sent­ing us in Par­lia­ment. The push­ing of leg­is­la­tion and pro­mo­tion of be­liefs is largely left to those stern look­ing men and women in their ties and crisply ironed blaz­ers. The ex­pec­ta­tion is that our MPs act in the pub­lic’s best in­ter­ests, but who gets to de­cide what they are? And are ev­ery­one’s best in­ter­ests re­ally the same? Sure, you can con­tact your lo­cal MP to voice your be­liefs, make a pe­ti­tion, join a protest and so on but in the end it’s all about con­vinc­ing. If you’re not ar­tic­u­late enough, com­pelling enough or as­sertive enough it’s un­likely they will fight for your corner if they didn’t al­ready agree with you in the first place. And even then, if you do con­vince an MP, they’re un­der no ju­ris­dic­tion to lobby your cause.

This style of govern­ment has been around since any­one alive can re­mem­ber and it’s breed­ing po­lit­i­cal dis­in­ter­est. Stats NZ in 2016 found 30 per cent of peo­ple had a high level of trust in Par­lia­ment, but the same amount rated their trust as low. More than 38 per cent be­lieved they had lit­tle in­flu­ence over govern­ment de­ci­sion-mak­ing. Th­ese num­bers are not alarm­ing; New Zealand’s con­sis­tent rank­ings as a fair and un­cor­rupt na­tion speaks to that (for the third year run­ning, we’ve been named the least cor­rupt na­tion, by Trans­parency In­ter­na­tional). How­ever, things will not stay the same and with the younger gen­er­a­tions con­tin­u­ally vot­ing in much smaller vol­umes than other age groups, there is rea­son to be con­cerned. Democ­racy is much more than tick­ing two boxes on a vot­ing bal­lot once ev­ery three years, but for many, that’s all they see.

Democ­racy should be a con­tin­ual and on­go­ing process where cit­i­zens feel em­pow­ered and en­gaged. How can we achieve that? It’s un­clear. One idea is to in­tro­duce more (bind­ing) na­tion­wide ref­er­en­dums (how­ever, ex­am­ples like the 2015-16 Flag Ref­er­en­dum sug­gest they are costly and some­times not worth­while), im­ple­ment­ing more Cit­i­zens’ Ini­ti­ated Ref­er­en­dums and creat­ing more spa­ces — phys­i­cal or on­line — for de­bate be­tween the peo­ple (de­mos) and leg­is­la­tors. Or, maybe the an­swer can be found in Switzer­land’s unique po­lit­i­cal sys­tem?

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