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Jackson v Williams: Is it worth voting?

By Richard Jackson, Mike Williams

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It is six months until the General Election. Is there really any point in voting? Richard Jackson argues not but Mike Williams says that is wrong and if you want to see change, then participate in the democratic process

Voters will be exercising their democratic right and heading to the polling booths in September - or perhaps not. Photo / APN
Voters will be exercising their democratic right and heading to the polling booths in September - or perhaps not. Photo / APN

Richard Jackson - No

Last year, British comedian Russell Brand caused something of a stir when he publicly admitted that he never voted because he believed that politicians were unrepresentative of the ordinary people who elected them, and the political system was woefully unresponsive to the needs of the poor and disenfranchised. He brazenly suggested that voting simply legitimised a deeply unequal society and we therefore ought not to do it.

Whatever we think of his outrageous media persona, his well-articulated arguments are worth considering, particularly now that we have a firm date for the next general election. I would argue that in his own inimitable way, Russell Brand hit the nail on the head and articulated a widely known but largely unacknowledged truth: the political system is no longer representative of, or responsive to, the majority of people, and voting is a largely symbolic act that means very little to individual voters.

Once upon a time, parliament was full of teachers, farmers, unionists, community activists, and the like. Today, it is mainly made up of lawyers, business professionals and career politicians, the vast majority of whom are significantly wealthier than the ordinary voter. And because they are well-off, they generally hold to the conviction that the current system needs little more than fine-tuning to keep it running smoothly.

In this context, the voter's choice of candidates is largely limited to different colours of rich professional politicians whose only minor differences lie in the way they plan to iron out some of the kinks in the system.

Brand's other claim that the system is unresponsive is only partly correct: the system often is highly responsive, but only to certain special interests. This is directly due to the way that successive governments, particularly since the 1980s, have ceded sovereignty away from parliament and the executive to private, corporate interests. Among other problems, this has created what political scientists call a democratic deficit: large swathes of the economy and welfare system are now in the hands of the so-called market, which means that elected politicians have less room to manoeuvre.

At the same time, the past few decades have seen the growing power of special interests in politics - lobbyists, public-private partnerships, and the like - to the point where only those with serious money can now wield real political influence. The end result is that elected officials cannot go backwards to greater welfare provision and higher taxes for the rich or forwards to any kind of alternative, post-capitalist system.

This means that the present political system is largely incapable of meeting the two greatest challenges currently facing the world: growing and unsustainable levels of inequality, and global warming. Meeting both of these challenges will require restricting corporate interests, re-regulation, tax rises on the rich, massive wealth redistribution and getting beyond the profit motive as the primary principle of economic activity.

In the end, your only electoral choices are between parties who want to race faster towards the total domination of profit-driven capitalism over all areas of life, and parties who think we ought to go a little more slowly. It's a Faustian choice which illustrates the meaninglessness of a democratic system based on a single vote every few years.

Brand's third argument - that voting simply legitimises the current system and sustains the illusion that voting equals democracy - is certainly true. The sorry fact is that voting enables the status quo to continue unchallenged and the system to remain unreformed, despite occasional adjustments such as the move to MMP.

I know that voting was a hard-won right, and once upon a time it might have made a meaningful difference to ordinary people. However, it was never meant to be the pinnacle of democratic participation, merely the first step towards fuller, more meaningful forms of political participation. The problem is that the system has since ossified and lost its relevance. Today, it is simply a way for politicians to claim legitimacy for their programmes of benefiting special, mainly corporate, interests.

This is why I too refuse to vote: I am not prepared to "give them a mandate" to continue a set of policies which benefit the few at the expense of the many, and which will exploit resources and the environment for the profits of corporations who pay little tax. Not voting for this reason is a political act of protest, and a gesture of dissent.

My intuition is that if enough of us don't vote, this could send a signal that we want a more responsive and genuinely democratic system. The other option is to change the electoral system to include a no confidence option, and have mandatory referendums on all issues of national importance, such as asset sales, environmental planning, and the like.

In the end, if you are content to participate in a largely symbolic gesture which will result in maintaining the current class of professional politicians and little-to-no change in the status quo, then by all means head to a voting booth on September 20. However, if you want to engage in meaningful democratic participation and real politics, then forget voting. Join an activist community; start a reading and discussion group; plant vegetables on unused council land; initiate a recycling exchange; start an art co-operative; go and help insulate the houses of the poor; organise a creative protest.

There are a thousand ways to participate in democracy and make real changes in society, and most of them are more important and more meaningful than voting once every few years for the same, tired old parties and policies. As the old joke goes, if voting really changed anything, the government would probably make it illegal.

Richard Jackson is deputy director of the National Centre for Peace Conflict Studies, University of Otago.

Mike Williams - Yes

Professor Jackson's advocacy of non-voting relies on three arguments which together add up to a fourth.

None of these arguments survives even superficial scrutiny.

His first argument in favour of abstention is that politicians are no longer representative of voters. He evokes a past where "parliament was full of teachers, farmers, unionists and community activists" but these have now been displaced by "lawyers, business and career politicians".

As Labour Party president I chaired three selection rounds for electorate seats and the Labour Party list, and I can confidently write that Professor Jackson is talking good old-fashioned nonsense.

He would only have to look in his own Otago backyard to discover MPs Claire Curran, a unionist, Dave Clark, a Presbyterian Minister, Bill English whose background is farming and Jacqui Dean, a former actress and teacher.

The only lawyer/businessman Labour put up in Professor Jackson's neck of the woods in recent times is David Parker, and having failed to get a winnable place on Labour's list, (elbowed aside by unionists, teachers and community do-gooders) he entered Parliament via an unprecedented Labour victory in the Otago electorate.

What Professor Jackson writes may well apply in the United States, but to characterise New Zealand Parliament in the way he does is twaddle.

Jackson's second argument is that "the system" responds only to special interests which he characterises as "private, corporate interests" and that "only those with serious money can wield real political influence".

He says greater welfare provision and higher taxes for the rich are unlikely, if not impossible.

With National's $30 million corporate donation to the aluminium smelter, Professor Jackson's argument may seem to have some validity, but to sustain his line of reasoning he'd have to explain significant recent reforms which were not the result of "private, corporate interests", and which may have been counter to those interests.

These include paid parental leave, an extra week's holiday, tightened health and safety regulations and even the vastly increased tax on tobacco.

Working for Families is an example of the redistribution from the wealthy to the less well-off via the tax system, as are interest-free student loans and in 2000 the incoming Labour-led government did indeed bring in higher taxes for the rich.

It was twice re-elected.

That which Professor Jackson tells us is impossible has been happening repeatedly and under both National and Labour-led governments.

Jackson's third argument is peculiar to say the least.

He explains his refusal to vote not by reason but by "intuition", surely an odd stance for an academic.

His intuition tells him that if enough of us don't vote, politicians would understand this as a demand to reform "the system" and do so.

That is just plain ridiculous.

In the 2011 election, abstention reached a record 25 per cent of the enrolled electorate.

We haven't seen a wholesale questioning of "the system" as a result.

Politicians, at least from the left side, have reacted by seeking ways of improving voters' engagement.

No one, at least in Parliament, is challenging the fundamentals of New Zealand democracy as Professor Jackson seems to expect.

The three arguments he offers amount to a fourth which summarised is: "Don't vote, it doesn't change anything."

Sorry, Professor Jackson, you're wrong.

The professor's academic speciality is terrorism, and his curriculum vitae includes a stint at a Spanish University.

With that background, you might have expected him to be aware of a reasonably recent occasion when heavy participation in a democratic process made a very big and immediate difference.

The year is 2004 and on March 14, Spain faces a general election.

On March 7, two polls have the conservative People's Party of Mariano Rajoy cruising to victory with a 10-point lead over Rodriguez Zapatero's Socialists.

On March 11, a terrorist bombing attack was made against Madrid's public transport system. Ten bombs exploded and 191 people were killed.

Spain had troops in Iraq and the bombings were quickly linked to Islamist terrorists.

Three days later, against expectations, the conservatives lost heavily to the Socialist Party.

Zapatero was quickly recognised as the victor and on March 15 announced the withdrawal of the Spanish force from Iraq.

How this happened should be a lesson to anyone, anywhere, advocating abstention from voting as a route to political change.

Roughly two-and-a-half million electors who had not bothered to vote in the previous Spanish general election cast a ballot in 2004.

The message here is that if you want to see change, then participate in the democratic process and vote.

Professor Jackson writes learned dissertations about terrorism, and fiction on the same theme. His arguments in support of non-voting fall into the latter category.

Mike Williams was the president of the Labour Party between 2000 and 2009.

- NZ Herald

Featured comments

"Include a no confidence option and I and a huge part of non-voting NZers would vote."

Jon Hunt
griffonrl

"Make voting compulsory. This is our lives we are talking about. Too important to let people that do not represent our interests to lead."

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