Dame Anne Salmond: Time to defend democratic rights

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The high-handed attitude of Govt over asset sales and charter schools programme poses threat to our society

Those who have a voice need to speak up to ensure a free and prosperous New Zealand. Photo / Supplied
Those who have a voice need to speak up to ensure a free and prosperous New Zealand. Photo / Supplied

As power and wealth flowed upward, short-term profiteering by a small elite became habitual. As Anzac Day approaches, I find myself thinking about democracy in New Zealand, and how it is faring. In my father's time, many New Zealanders were prepared to risk their lives for democratic freedom.

On the day after World War II broke out, an article in the Evening Post drew a sharp contrast between repression in Germany and the freedom of the press in New Zealand. It ended, "Democracy trusts the people, dictatorship does not".

The next day, the Post quoted a speech by the Australian Prime Minister, who said, 'The essence of democracy is to dignify the individual human being, and give him, whether rich or poor, the right to his place in the community and the right to a happy, prosperous, and contented life'.

Afterwards, when the New Zealand Legislative Council signed up for "the fight between democracy and dictatorship", they declared: "We must be prepared to prove on the battlefield loyalty to the principles for which we stand."

These principles included human dignity, freedom of thought and a happy, comfortable life for ordinary people. After the war, such values served New Zealand well. As it happens, they were highly adaptive.

According to recent global studies, the prosperity of nations is strongly associated with participatory democracy. When people from all backgrounds take part in decision-making, individuals spark off each other, creating new ideas and enterprises, and the economy flourishes.

Autocratic, extractive, highly unequal regimes, on the other hand, do not pass the test of longevity. Such nations falter, both economically and socially, and eventually fail. Similar patterns are echoed in the distribution of incomes. After World War II in the US, for instance, the incomes for all citizens rose steadily - the 'Great Prosperity'.

Since the 1980s, however, incomes have diverged dramatically, with those at the top end soaring and those at the bottom end losing ground - the 'Great Regression.' This has been accompanied by financial turbulence and crashes.

What led to these changes? In the 1980s, neo-liberal doctrines were introduced in a number of countries. As the unfettered pursuit of profit took hold, along with the myth of the 'cost-benefit calculating individual', ideas of justice, integrity, generosity and freedom began to seem quaint.

Inspired by neo-liberal thinking, successive governments in New Zealand introduced policies concentrating influence and wealth in the hands of a few, disempowering the many.

As power and wealth flowed upward, short-term profiteering by a small elite became habitual. This is very evident in the first round of asset sales, the collapse of the finance companies, and the Solid Energy debacle, for example.

As the gaps between rich and poor widened, indicators of social distress rocketed - child poverty, third world diseases, youth unemployment, incarceration and suicide, for example. While such suffering is now widespread in New Zealand, however, our leaders seem to be quite unmoved.

Since the 1980s, too, successive Governments have become increasingly high-handed, and ideologically driven. Take the asset sales programme, for instance. According to many commentators, it does not serve the national interest.

Wayne Cartwright, for instance, argued in a recent Herald column that the sale of hydro assets is strategically inept. In a world that is energy-hungry, with limited sustainable, affordable sources of power, the sale of hydro companies shows a lack of economic prudence.

The asset sale programme is also unjust. Benefits from assets that currently flow to all New Zealanders will be diverted to those who can afford to buy shares in these companies, thus further increasing economic inequality in our small society.

Above all, the sales are undemocratic. Forget the spin, and the flash advertising campaign (paid for by taxpayers). These assets do not belong to the National Party, or Act, or the Maori Party for that matter - any more than they belonged to the Labour Party in the 1980s.

In the asset sales programme, the Government is denying ordinary Kiwis the right to decide what happens to their own property. A referendum is the only just way to determine this matter. If the Government cannot persuade its citizens of the wisdom of asset sales, they have no right to proceed.

The charter schools programme is another case in point. It lacks any electoral mandate. Born out of a tawdry, cynical deal between National and Act, it bears all the hallmarks of its conception.

It is anti-democratic to the core, seeking to suspend the rights of parents to be represented on the boards of these schools, and to exempt them from the scrutiny of the Auditor-General and the Ombudsman, despite the flow of taxpayer dollars to their owners.

Local democracy is also in trouble, as the Government puts in its own appointees to run Environment Canterbury and infrastructure bodies in Auckland, and meddles in the affairs of the Super City.

The proposed revision of the Resource Management Act will make matters worse, allowing ministers to instruct councils on provisions in their local plans and amend their decisions, degrading the environment for short-term gain.

While the country is gripped by drought, the work of the Land and Water Forum to protect our waterways has been hijacked. How shortsighted is that?

Attacks on the independence of the civil service are another example. Threats and budget cuts are used to silence dissenting voices, while independent boards and positions that once protected democratic freedoms are cancelled. Witch-hunts for whistle-blowers are carried out, for example in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Right now, democratic conventions are being flouted in New Zealand. The refusal by the leaders of Mighty River Power and Solid Energy last week to answer parliamentary questions is a further example. This is the behaviour of a smug oligarchy. They should be ashamed.

As the international research indicates, a shift towards autocracy is dangerous for our small society. It puts New Zealand's economic future at risk, as well as our reputation for integrity, justice and freedom.

It is time for all Kiwis to stand up for their democratic rights and those of their children and grandchildren. Our communities are full of good-hearted, courageous and inventive people who are trying to care for the vulnerable, save the environment, pass on ancestral legacies and build good relationships with others.

For a healthy democracy, however, this is not enough. Those who have a voice and influence need to speak out. If our fathers and grandfathers were prepared to fight for a free, decent society in New Zealand, the least we can do in our time is to nail our colours to the mast, and hold our leaders to account against these standards.

This is a wonderful country, and there is no place here for arrogant, dictatorial styles of governance. Our leaders need to learn greater humility, to trust the good sense of ordinary citizens and stop dancing to the tune of a selfish, uncaring few. Only then will New Zealand be prosperous, and free.

Dame Anne Salmond is a distinguished professor or Maori Studies and Anthropology at the University of Auckland.

Dialogue: Contributions are welcome and should be 600-800 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

- NZ Herald

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