Representative Democracy

New Zealand operates on a system of representative democracy. We elect members of Parliament (via electorate contests and the overall party vote) for a term of three years, during which they have free reign to do with the country as they please. We rarely hold referenda on defined issues.

During election campaigns, political parties issue manifestos and policy statements. They tell the public what they would do with their three years were they to win the election (or be able to cobble together a majority with other parties). To the public, this is seen as our chance to 'have our say' about what Government policy should be. In a way, elections are treated as a species of omnibus referenda - each party puts forward its suite of proposals for the coming term and we pick the one we like the most.

But that's a terrible basis on which to decide who you will give your vote to on November 26.

First, it is almost cliche to suggest that election promises are commonly broken. What the various parties say they will do is only a very approximate guide to what they actually do once they are elected. Sometimes this is because policy proposals were unrealistic, sometimes it's because of unexpected or changed circumstances, sometimes it's because compromises had to be made to form a majority coalition under MMP, and sometimes it's simply because the promises were never going to be kept in the first place.  As a basis for deciding your vote, election promises aren't worth much.

What election promises are good for though is determining what the core political ideology of the various parties might be. Of course, the traditional right/left, conservative/liberal distinctions are useful for figuring out the fundamental ideology of a particular party, but they are a very blunt and imprecise measure. Traditional political spectra are not a good basis for deciding your vote.

Political parties are made up of people. Those people are leaders, MPs, candidates, political advisers, campaign advisers, media consultants, public relations consultants, polling experts, party leadership, party membership, husbands and wives of all of the above, etcetera. The human composition of political parties is constantly changing, but crucially important. It is the human composition of the party at any one point in time that determines its political ideology. Take the present National party for example: it is fairly widely accepted that a lot of what National have done during their present term in government doesn't fit squarely into the traditional right-wing/conservative/National ideological framework. Compromises have been made, political objectives abandoned, and practicalities considered. I would suggest that those decisions themselves reveal an important aspect of the political ideology of the present National party: a centrist, 'don't rock the boat', practically motivated government. That ideology is a product of the people that make up the National party. People are a good basis for deciding your vote.

The vast majority of Government activity is never noticed by the general public. Most of any Government's legislative programme is not foreshadowed in policies and manifestos published before they were elected. To attempt to plan out an entire three years of Government policy and action (even assuming nothing unexpected occurred during the three years of office) would not only be impossible, it would be pointless: that would be too much information for any individual voter to absorb. Notwithstanding the common understanding as elections as omnibus referenda, this is a representative democracy: we are electing people to be our representatives. People are a good basis for deciding your vote.

When deciding who you are going to vote for, you need to think about who you think will best represent your interests and beliefs in the running of the country. There is a multitude of evidence available that you can consider when deciding who it is that will best represent you. You can start with traditional political spectra: are you generally left or right leaning? Then there's the slightly more specific principles of the various parties. Their policies and manifestos will give you a good idea of what they're about. Their history will give you an indication of what they might believe but not say, or what they might do when faced with an unexpected situation. The personalities, backgrounds, beliefs and principles of the members of the party (particularly leadership) will help you decide. People (and their collective form - political parties) are a good basis for deciding your vote.

To demonstrate what I mean about the way that representative democracy works and why it's important to decide your vote based on people rather than pre-election promises, I have three examples:

The first is the Government response to the 2008 financial crisis. That was a situation completely unforeseen before the election. You wouldn't find a draft response to a financial crisis in any party manifesto. What the Government did was guarantee personal deposits in finance companies, increase public borrowing, lower taxes, hold a jobs summit, and many other smaller actions all in response to the financial crisis and in pursuit of their vision for New Zealand. Now even though you wouldn't find any of those responses (except the lowering taxes, but let's not quibble) in any pre-election publication, there is a lot you could have guessed pre-election about what the Government would do. First, a right-wing party like National was likely to lower taxes no matter what. They were likely to hold a jobs summit in order to find ways of creating more private sector jobs (as opposed to establishing, say, Government work schemes). The particular National party of the day, with John Key as leader, were likely to moderate their response somewhat, compromising to some extent the principles that their party stands for. By thinking about the people who comprised the National party before the 2008 election, it would be possible to make a reasonable guess at what they would do if they faced a financial crisis.

Another example is the Government response to the Canterbury earthquakes in September 2010 and February 2011, particularly the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Act that was passed in March 2011. Think about the kinds of people you have in the National Party: John Key who is big on compromise and practicalities, Steven Joyce who might be the most practical and least principled MP we've had in a long time, and Gerry Brownlee who is a hardened political figure who knows the importance of giving the people what they want. Compare that to, for example, the Green party who have Dr Kennedy Graham and Keith Locke, both big supporters of constitutional principles, due process, and fundamental rights. It would be easy to see, before an election, the direction that these two groups of people would be likely to head in such a situation.

Finally there's the issue of the minute: the proposed legislation to overturn the Supreme Court decision in Hamed v R and retrospectively authorise the illegal collection of covert video surveillance evidence by Police. What is more important to you: allowing evidence that might be necessary to ensure criminals get convicted, or the rule of law, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, Parliamentary process and constitutional integrity? What political party, and what people within that party, share your view? Which would you trust to be your representative next time a similar issue comes up?

It's easy during election time to get caught up trading promises off each other and trying to figure out which party is promising to do the most for you. But it's much more important to step back and think "who do I want to represent me"? The issues of today will barely last the first six months of the new Government's term. After that they have two and a half years to do what the like to the country: who do you trust to do what you would do? Who has a similar ideological position to you? Who has similar priorities to you? Who has the same views on compromise and practicality? Who do you think will listen to a variety of positions before making decisions? It is the people that we elect who run the country. They are the ones who make the decisions, make the rules, and decide the future. People are a good basis for deciding your vote.


Post a Comment