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Maxim Real Issues: No. 158, 26 MAY 2005

Maxim: Real Issues: No. 158, 26 MAY 2005

To Filibuster

The 111 system - can we fix it?

Why an early election?

Levin Change Agent workshop 25 June

To Filibuster

Earlier this week, an agreement was reached between moderate Democrats and Republicans in the US Senate which has put an end to four years of filibustering judicial appointments.

Filibustering (the name derives from a Dutch word for pirate) involves non-stop talking, which either delays, or even prevents altogether, a vote in the Senate from taking place, under the provision for unlimited debate. The tactic can descend into the ridiculous, because to make a filibuster work, Senators must keep talking, often long after they have run out of meaningful arguments.

For the last four years in the US, votes on judicial appointments have been blocked by a minority of Senators extending debate through filibustering. They were able to do this because, according to the rules of the Senate, forcing a vote requires 60 out of 100 Senators to agree - and it is rare that either side has such a substantial majority.

The absurdity of the situation, where no judges could be appointed because of gridlock, arose because of the often deep divide between Republicans and Democrats, and because of the Senate's ability to veto a Presidential nomination.

The American concern for who sits on their judicial benches holds lessons for New Zealand. Even though it hasn't been a significant feature of New Zealand politics in the past, since the creation of a Supreme Court all judicial appointments, including our highest appeal judges, are now by the government of the day.

Historically the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty has ensured that policy in New Zealand is ultimately decided by the directly elected representatives of the people, rather than judges appointed by politicians. If justice rather than politics is to remain the primary concern of judges, and if we are to avoid the circus that accompanies judicial appointments in the US, then we must continue to restrain any attempts to erode Parliament's sovereignty over the courts.

The 111 system - can we fix it?

The government has pledged $45 million to address the concerns over 111 emergency services. The state is obligated to provide for the safety of its citizens. If it can't do that, every other function of government is expensive and difficult. However, a solution doesn't just depend on money.

The money will help, but regaining public confidence is the critical issue. It is not good enough that a 111 call is answered by a centralised controller hundreds of kilometres away. There is no substitute for a real connection with local people and local needs, for example, knowing which roads are best under certain conditions, and the time needed to traverse them.

In a civil society, trust is both essential and normative. We rely on it in relationships, in business dealings, and in the public service. Citizens have a social contract with the state; they pledge to uphold laws and pay taxes, and in return the state maintains their democratic freedom and justly administers law and order. Citizens can then live their lives with a reasonable assurance that their person and property will be protected.

The 18th Century statesman Edmund Burke spoke of the 'little platoons' that underpin social order - the 'glue' that keeps people honest and accountable. They are families, the small voluntary associations, sports clubs, hobby groups, and circles of friends that provide support for each individual. They function like this because people in small communities have to interact with each other all the time. The problem with centralisation and an ever-expanding state is that the dynamic of local communities is either diminished or usurped completely.

Read more about this in an article by Maxim's Dr Michael Reid, published this week in the Otago Daily Times:

Why an early election?

With speculation rife, consideration should be given to the possibility of an early election.

Strictly speaking, the Prime Minister does not have the power to call an election; however, she can advise the Governor-General that the House should be dissolved, the result of which is an election. There is some debate about what constitutes valid grounds for the Prime Minister to request a dissolution. If there is no significant change to the balance of power in Parliament, then a Prime Minister is sometimes accused of being self-serving by calling an early election. Our electoral arrangements assume that elections will be held at the same time every three years other than in exceptional circumstances.

When Rob Muldoon called an early election in 1984, and Helen Clark called an early election in 2002, charges of political opportunism were laid, and both suffered in the final results of the elections.

Levin Change Agent workshop 25 June

If you want to be informed about current issues and challenged to think more deeply about 'hate speech', education and the 2005 election, come along to the Levin Change Agent workshop on 25 June. Understand the legislative process and be equipped with practical tools to engage in public policy and debate.

For details of the event visit:


Our political institutions work remarkably well. They are designed to clang against each other. The noise is democracy at work.

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