Democracy more than just ticking boxes every three years
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?