Bryan Gould: Ignore the will of the people at your peril

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Democracy demands that governments keep listening to the voters who brought them into power

US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel put the case for military intervention in Syria. Photo / AP
US Secretary of State John Kerry, left, with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel put the case for military intervention in Syria. Photo / AP

Electing a government is only the beginning. What matters to a properly functioning democracy is whether the government, however decisive its election-day mandate, continues to consult and reflect public opinion throughout its term and whether it exercises power in the interests of the whole country and not just a sectional interest. If it does not, we struggle with what businessman and philanthropist Quintin Hogg once famously described as "an elective dictatorship".

We have had in the last few days a significant reminder of this principle. When the British Prime Minister wished to make the case for a strike on Syria, he did have the sense to seek a mandate from Parliament. When the House of Commons declined to vote for military action, reflecting its sense of betrayal over what is now seen as Tony Blair's false prospectus for the Iraq invasion, David Cameron had to abandon his plans.

This was a prime example of democracy in action - of the elected representatives of the people, mindful that they were accountable for their decisions to those who elected them, exercising their judgment in such a way as to represent the will of the people.

The embarrassment caused to David Cameron was enough to give President Obama pause as well - and, though he is not constitutionally obliged to do so (under a different system of government), he too has decided that it would be prudent to seek the support of Congress before authorising an act of war.

We need to look further afield for a significant instance of the difficulty caused when the forms of democracy are complied with but the substance is not. There has quite rightly been considerable anxiety in the West at the overthrow of President Morsi by the Egyptian Army only a year after he won what was by most accounts a reasonably fair election.

No democracy can justify a military coup, particularly in a country which has suffered an army-backed dictatorship for so long and where hopes for democracy were so high; but President Morsi came unstuck because he and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters believed the whole meaning of democracy had been expressed on election day and beyond that nothing could restrain them from imposing their will without regard for anyone else.

The Muslim Brotherhood's will was to impose a religious state on the country. Not surprisingly, the large numbers who had voted in different directions and to whom a secular state was important were less than thrilled. President Morsi may not, in other words, have been quite as democratic as he seemed.

These varied instances from across the globe of how democracy should and should not work may seem to have little directly to do with us.

However, we should not be so complacent. We have several recent instances of our Government asserting that its mandate on election day means it can now do what it pleases. John Key is keen to show that he is a "strong" leader who - having been elected with a (barely) working majority - is now not only entitled to do what he pleases, whatever the country thinks, but should be congratulated for doing so.

It is not enough that opinion polls show, for example, that asset sales have been opposed since day one by a large majority of New Zealanders and that an impressive number have succeeded in demanding a referendum on the issue.

John Key has made it clear he will not act on any decision by the people that they want the asset sale programme halted. We are presumably meant to overlook the fact we have a Government that pays no regard to us.

But there is an even more significant instance when the Government is proceeding on an issue without even bothering to let us into the secret of what it intends.

The innocuous-sounding Trans-Pacific Partnership may not be quite a matter of life and death, comparable to a decision to go to war; but its long-term consequences for this country could be almost as serious. The deal being negotiated in secret and due to be finalised soon will represent a significant further step in the absorption of this country and its economy into a global economy dominated by big players.

Overseas corporations will have greater legal rights against our government than does any New Zealand individual or company; and future New Zealand governments will not be able to change that position even if they are elected to do so.

By the time this secret deal is done, it will be too late for us to have any say. Does that sound like democracy to you?

Bryan Gould is a former UK Labour MP and former vice-chancellor of Waikato University.

- NZ Herald

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