Bryce Edwards is a lecturer in Politics at the University of Otago.

Political Roundup: New Zealand's beautiful democracy

Is there a decline in democracy in New Zealand? Or is it as healthy as ever?

The decline of New Zealand's democracy is the subject of a just-released 23-minute online documentary: Beautiful Democracy. Ostensibly the video is about last year's anti-TPP protest movement and the creative ways in which activists sought to have an impact on a decision making process that they felt locked out of. But the focus extends to asking the big questions about just how democratic our democracy really is.

You can read more about the project in Hugh Collins' news article, Kiwi made short film Beautiful Democracy demonstrates the expression of democracy. He explains that "Shot over roughly six months, the film follows three activist groups as they go about unconventional ways of defending their democratic rights." The director, Rose Archer, is quoted saying she really wanted "call out the politicians whose job it is to work for democracy and what they're doing really is exactly the opposite of that."

Archer states "There is a proportion of our generation that I think feel entirely disenfranchised with the political system and really the aim of this film is to show there are other ways to engage." Likewise, producer Sandy Wijetunge says: I just felt that there was no real way of people connecting and people just didn't see the importance of getting involved in a democratic system".

For a more extensive exploration of what the activists and film directors were thinking about democracy, see Hussein Moses' interview: How New Zealanders Are Impacting Democracy Through Art. In this, Archer, explains "The point that I was making with that was not so much to do with the TPPA not going ahead as such, but over the last 40 years we've seen a sort of slow erosion of democratic power and also the kind of culture of democracy and politicians really engaging with populations in a way that's meaningful."

Is New Zealand's democracy really in decline?

Last month the Economist magazine released its annual Democracy Index, which once again put New Zealand near the top - at number four, behind Norway, Iceland and Sweden. The report was notable for downgrading the United States from being categorised as a "full democracy" to a "flawed democracy". You can read the full PDF report here: Democracy Index 2016: Revenge of the "deplorables".

Despite New Zealand's high ranking, the country was marked down in terms of "political participation" and "political culture" - in the sense that the political system here fails to involve the public enough, and it doesn't have a strong "political culture conducive to the thriving of democratic principles".

Last month the Journal of Democracy published a controversial academic article, Signs of Deconsolidation: The Democratic Disconnect (http://bit.ly/2lQMWR6), which argued that youth in countries such as New Zealand are "increasingly critical of liberal democracy".

The information is based on survey evidence collected in a number of developed countries between 2010 and 2014. It is well covered by Henry Cooke in his news report, Young westerners across the world losing faith in democracy - even in New Zealand. According to this, "29.3 percent of Kiwis born in the 1980s say it is 'essential' to live in a democracy. This is a dramatic drop off from those in older cohorts - almost half of those born in the 1970s believe it is essential, while almost two thirds of those born in the 1930s say as much."

However, David Farrar found problems with the methodology, which he elaborates on in his blog post, No young people are not abandoning democracy in droves. He argues that the decline in democratic culture is not as dramatic as the research suggests: "So yes younger people are less likely to say democracy is essential, but I don't think the represents some massive disillusionment that has infected younger generations. I think it just reflects that few younger people vote until they get older, settle down, have a family etc."

But in terms of the trend, researcher Max Rashbrooke discussed the issue in his blog post, Are the youth of today disenchanted with democracy?. He explained the problem: "I suspect this is partly because politics seems simultaneously uninspiring - the narrowing of debate and quasi-consensus around middle of the road policies in the last 30 years must increase the sense that voting changes little - and also out of date, in the sense that standard, once-every-three-years political voting hardly offers the responsiveness and transparency that the internet generation gets elsewhere in its life. For those on lower incomes, inequality must be part of the story too, in the sense that those who feel economically excluded from society are more likely to feel powerless and less likely to be engaged."

TOP's democracy proposals

Last week, Gareth's Morgan's The Opportunities Party (TOP) announced its overall policies relating to the constitutional settings of New Zealand - you can see the proposals here: Democracy Reset.

The policies are very focused on the "democratic deficit" in which fewer New Zealanders have confidence in the political system, especially in terms of young people voting at the last election: "for those under 50, only 70% of registered (or 51% of that total cohort) voted and it gets a lot lower for those under 30. For this cohort - weighed down by student debt and the prohibitive cost of getting on the first rung of the property ladder - only 62% of the registered (45% of the number of under 30's) bothered to vote."

Morgan's party therefore proposes constitutional fixes such as an upper house in Parliament, civics education in schools, and more "deliberative democracy" - giving the public greater say in political decisions. For the best discussion of the proposals, see Max Rashbrooke's TOP's democracy reset: good princples, rushed execution. Rashbrooke concludes: "while I don't disagree with much of the above, it all feels very rushed and piecemeal, most of the key questions are ducked, and the fundamental problems of our democracy - disengagement and the lack of genuine decision-making power for most citizens - aren't going to be changed by such policies.

Debates over parliamentary engagement

Recently I argued that we need a full range of age groups in Parliament, including young and old, and that a younger parliament has not translated into increased youth participation - see: The need for age diversity in Parliament. Green MP Julie Anne Genter took issue with my diversity argument, and re-emphasised the importance of getting young people in Parliament to solve the problem of voter disengagement - see her blog post, The kids are all right - youth engagement is great for politics.

Genter admits there's nothing stopping older politicians from appealing to youth and representing their issues, but insists focusing on getting young people into power is "a good start". After all, "Young people are our future".

She doesn't actually have any solutions to the fact that her party - along with the others - is not making the system work for young people or indeed any others turned off parliamentary politics. Instead, she offers the usual technocratic and vague solutions: "We get political parties to have robust youth engagement methods. We teach young people how to participate in decision-making processes. We make civics education part of the core curriculum. We have candidates that represent them and their interests. We discuss the unique set of issues that are important to them, and we make it easy for them to enrol and vote".

There is no mention in her post of reducing the voting age to 16 years - something former Green MP Sue Bradford championed. For a discussion on this from earlier in the week, listen to the 10-minute RadioLive interview: Should the voting age be lowered in New Zealand? Ryan asks Professor Andrew Geddis.

And there is certainly no consideration given by Genter to the need to actually re-invent politics, make it less elitist and top-down, and make it meaningful to those that are disillusioned with her "profession".

In fact, parliamentarians seem to be a big part of the problem with contemporary democracy. And today, Richard Harman reports on the scathing views of the New Zealand Law Society about Parliament - see: What's wrong with Parliament.

The New Zealand Law Society told MPs yesterday, via its representative Geoffrey Palmer, that it's doing a poor job in its legislative function. According to Palmer "too much legislation was rushed", and MPs spend far too much time in their electorates instead of scrutinising the Executive - no doubt, because they're focused more on campaigning and popularity than the public good.

The article also quotes Palmer saying "A lot of that time is being spent in political debate, not in scrutiny... And scrutiny is what the constitutional function is and it's not being carried out adequately... Part of that problem lies with the Members of Parliament themselves who are more interested in the political gains they can make rather than the quality of the legislation that they produce."

For an in-depth discussion about the state of democracy, it's well worth listening to the 28-minute RNZ panel discussion involving unionist Morgan Godfery, and Victoria University of Wellington's Chris Eichbaum and Maria Bargh: Outspoken: Democracy (http://bit.ly/2kvHQcv). For a summary of this debate, see Brent Edwards' Voter participation on decline despite MMP.

Finally, voting numbers seem to be up so far in the current Mt Albert by-election - see Martyn Bradbury's How should we interpret the huge spike in Mt Albert early voting?. But are politicians going too far in attempting to get the voting numbers up? For more on this, see today's news report, Act Party says TOP's offer of free bus rides to voters breaks the law.

- NZ Herald

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