John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Lasting damage when democracy gets it wrong

America is not just divided, it is devastated. Photo / AP
America is not just divided, it is devastated. Photo / AP

The amazing thing about democracy, when you stop to think about, is that it makes the right decision far more often than not. When you consider how slender the margin is, usually, between millions of votes on both sides, it is remarkable that the result does not go the wrong way more often.

When it does, the sun comes up next morning, stockmarkets bounce back, life goes on and soon it becomes hard to imagine history could have taken any other course. But damage is being done, a deteriorating economy is not suddenly apparent on stock or currency markets. So long as they see where things are heading traders can make money whether the direction is upward or downward for the country.

The damage done by the voters' decision is more immediately apparent in the change that comes over the spirit and soul of a nation. The dark and ugly underside of public opinion comes to the fore, righteous and newly confident that it speaks for the country.

Liberalism takes a battering and, in its liberalism, tries to understand and respect the views now prevailing, or at least attribute them to social inequities.

Watching the US election results, I realised, as I did after Brexit, that western democracies, including our own, have been so right for so long that it had become hard to believe they can be wrong. Yet my generation of New Zealand voters should not be surprised when it happens. For we were impressionable fledglings when the New Zealand electorate gave us a blunt, brutal demonstration of how wrong democracy can be.

My first vote was in 1972 and it helped replace the old men who had been in government through the 1960s with a smart, young set who put New Zealand in step with the times.

They ended conscription, pulled us out of Vietnam, stopped a rugby tour of South Africa, made Waitangi Day a national holiday. Their shirts were not white and their suits not grey.

Then Norman Kirk died and the first oil shock arrived. Even so, as the 1975 election approached I felt sure they'd get another term. The previous Government had four terms and this one had come in with a landslide. University political studies said the pendulum didn't swing quickly.

True, National's new leader was pulling big crowds everywhere he went. I covered one of them for the Auckland Star. The audience overflowed the hall and some had to listen on speakers outside. But all the old wiseheads in the media were predicting that, while it might be close, the Government would be returned.

They too, didn't want to believe that a belligerent, thoroughly unpleasant character like Rob Muldoon would win. He had an enthusiastic following who loved the way he bruised opponents and abused the media but "Rob's mob" couldn't amount to a majority of New Zealanders, could they?

Until I watched the US returns come in on Wednesday, I had forgotten what it had felt like on election night, 1975. Dejection hardly begins to describe it.

It undermines your faith in your fellow countryman. I don't remember people crying as some in America were on this election night but I understand it. As Hillary Clinton had said in every speech: "This election is about the kind of people we are."

The first thing Muldoon did was dismantle a superannuation fund newly set up for my generation to save for its pension. It had been an election promise. Voters knew he would do it. It took two decades for us to realise how much damage that decision had did to the country's savings and politics. We still live with it. Winston Peters has sustained a regressive career on it, though, to his credit, he once tried to introduce a compulsory savings scheme himself by referendum. Democracy got that one wrong too.

Many of my generation went overseas during the Muldoon years. It was not a proud or invigorating time to be in New Zealand. African nations boycotted an Olympic Games over us and few here noticed or cared.

But there were no demonstrations in the streets against the election result. Young, liberal and educated people were not as distraught as they are today in America and the world over.

We have never seen politics take a turn like this before, never seen voters elect someone like this whose entertaining bluster and ignorance belongs in a bar or a radio station, not power. America is not just divided, it is devastated. Like Brexit, this wasn't supposed to happen. There is madness afoot. For the sake of sanity people we will need to remember over the next four years, Hillary got more votes.

• By happy coincidence I'm taking leave to have a look at South America. I'll be back in December.

- NZ Herald

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John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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