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Rankin's Thursday Column: Democracy And The Media

Rankin's Thursday Column: Democracy And The Media

Democracy, MMP and Press Responsibility

5 August 1999

Keith Rankin is an Auckland-based political economist and social commentator. He teaches political economy, economics, public policy and statistics at Unitec Institute of Technology and Massey University (Albany campus).

A worrying theme is emerging in some recent studies; democracy is much less popular than died-in-the-wool democrats such as myself would wish it to be. Further, democracy seems to be less popular with young than with older New Zealanders. Such are the reported (in the Sunday Star-Times) findings of the long-running "New Zealand Study of Values", conducted by Massey University academics Dr Alan Webster and Dr Paul Perry.

This finding complements what we already suspected. We face two referendums that, taken together, represent a referendum on democracy itself. Due to popular pressure, we will have, in 1999, an indicative referendum on whether, for the sake of a few MPs' salaries, we should reduce the number of people who represent us in the central institution of our democracy, parliament. Further, the National Party has promised, if elected to a position of power in the next parliament, to push for a referendum that is likely to promote an electoral system (SM; supplementary member) that entrenches political power in the front benches of two dominant and adversarial parties (presumably National and Labour) while offering tokenism to the remainder.

Thanks to the Massey study's findings, we now know that much of the opposition to our multi-member proportional electoral system is due to a discontent with democracy itself. Many of us would rather be ruled paternally by unelected experts in the mould of, say, Dr Donald Brash.

Others oppose proportional representation due to misunderstandings about the role that political parties play in a representative democracy. Some people feel that they play too dominant a role at present; other people feel that their role is undermined by dissident MPs. Additional discontent arises from both a lack of understanding about the way representative democracy works (reflected in our inability to clearly distinguish the concept of "parliament" from that of "government").

Political parties do not play a stronger role today than they did under the previous "FPP" non-proportional voting system. It is now actually much easier for an independent candidate to get elected as an electorate MP than it was under FPP; the personal vote is now separate from the party vote.

Discontent also arises because some people prefer direct democracy to representative democracy. By and large, such people do not trust politicians to represent the people whose votes got them into parliament. Taken to its logical conclusion, direct democracy would mean that all decisions were made through political polls. We already know that properly conducted polls give an accurate picture of public opinion at any point in time.

What does a society do if its people, due perhaps to misinformation or disinformation, democratically choose to abandon democracy?

The press needs to take care to present both news and opinion in such ways as to minimise the likelihood of democracy being undermined by cynicism. Indeed constitutional lawyer Mai Chen recently reminded the news media (see the Herald of 20 July) of their constitutional duty to safeguard the democracy that they in turn need to maintain their freedom of expression. With rights go responsibilities.

I was therefore alarmed to see the Herald's editorial of 31 July headlined: "Opportunism at its worst" with a less prominent sub-heading "MMP has not brought a more principled style of politics".

The editorial itself is a non-unreasonable discussion pointing out that some of the gains some expected from MMP have not yet come about. While that was fair comment, I think it was quite unreasonable to expect a complete change of political culture so soon. Excessive expectations can do much harm.

The problem was the headline. Many readers, skimming the page, will have got the simple message that MMP represents the worst possible form of opportunism. Others, who ventured to the end of the sub-heading, will have gleaned that other forms of democracy are as bad as a hopelessly opportunistic MMP.

Democracy is not compatible with the quiet life. Democracy means engaging with others with differing interests and worldviews. It is not a "winner takes all" struggle for power.

As a society, we are divided, especially in accordance with our conflicting interests. Life in post-reform New Zealand has become a zero-sum game. A representative Parliament acts as a microcosm of New Zealand society; a place in which we cannot pretend that we don't have differences. Parliament must be a place of conflict, indeed a place of bad behaviour; I would be worried if it were not so. It is the bullring for our contest of interests, and ideas. Ideas, though, are for everyone, not just politicians. We fail our representatives if we leave the creation and contest of ideas to them, as the Herald seems to suggest we do.

The conflict that is integral to any House of Representatives worth its salt is presented to the public as "opportunism". Opportunism undermines the spirit of cooperation.

As a society, we have yet to learn that resolving disagreements is healthy. A parliamentary system that obliges people representing different parties - indeed people who often dislike each other - to form alliances so as to make disinterested policy is a sign of national maturity.

When newspapers and other media make cynical throwaway headlines that reinforce an existing predisposition to undermine the authority of the people we have chosen to represent us, we start to see our representatives as our problem rather than as people we can turn to, to advocate for us, to make policies supportive and protective of us.

Democracy fails when the people fail to support their democratic institutions. In a healthy democracy, people would rather the policies that they favour be rejected by democratic means than have them imposed via an undemocratic process.

Our democracy can be enhanced through our willingness to create and debate ideas, "the very lifeblood of [democratic] politics". Having a parliamentary system that faithfully represents the diversity of our views is only the beginning.

To perpetuate the slur that democracy is opportunism, and that politicians are opportunists, is to regress. Democratically chosen politicians are human, imperfect. But our representatives are the best representatives we can muster. Indeed, finding few better, we re-elect most of them. They busily work for us, while we lazily undermine them. The media are in a better position than most to check this corrosive pattern of distrust.


© 1999 Keith Rankin


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