The big theme of this year’s general election could turn out to be disinterest and disengagement in democracy. Can our low voter turnout be solved? Or is there a deeper problem with our democracy?

All over the world there's said to be a "crisis of democracy". Discontent with politics and the status quo is rising, and it's being expressed in all sorts of ways - in particular, voting for populists and radicals, increased protest, and people choosing not to vote at all.

Here in New Zealand we have been relatively immune from some of the more dramatic backlashes against politicians and elites, and there's been no comparable leap in support for populism. But there are plenty of signs of discontent, and recently there has been some colourful and meaningful debate about the health of New Zealand's democracy, as well as some proposed solutions put forward.

Democracy's discontents

In the last few weeks there have been three opinion pieces published expressing some sort of discontent and critique of contemporary representative democracy. All three articles come from quite different points of view, but all express strong reservations about the health of democracy and a lack of faith in how well representative elections are working for society.

The first - and most damning - was Herald columnist Rachel Stewart's Are we in the dying days of democracy?

In this, Stewart channelled the sort of leftwing anger about the state of democracy and politics normally seen from the likes of Russell Brand and Bernie Sanders. She declares that "In a world gone mad - or, at least, out and proudly neo-liberal - democratic values appear to have entered the ever-tightening circles of the death spiral."

Stewart says that she will cast a vote this year, but: "I also know, in the rational part of my brain, that voting is now about as pointless as rooting for your favourite rugby team to win. It's fleeting, ultimately quite meaningless, and changes nothing much in the overall scheme of things. It's essentially just tribalism. If I thought that most politicians were serving the folks who put them there, and not the powerful money grubbers who both run the world while destroying it, I'd likely enjoy giving their box a tick. As it stands, I'm leaning more towards giving them all the great, big flick."

It's not only opinion columnists expressing such dissenting views - Leonid Sirota, a lecturer in constitutional law at AUT Law School, then published an equally-provocative, and very well-argued opinion piece to say, As a way to express one's views about public affairs, a vote is remarkably ineffective.

Although ostensibly an argument against proposals to introduce compulsory voting, this piece also makes the case that voting is over-rated as a component of democracy: "Assuming that citizens have a duty to care about public affairs (which is doubtful), voting is only one way among many to do so. One can discuss politics with one's friends; go to protests and meetings; write letters to the editor to condemn the politicians' misdeeds; or one can vote. Voting hardly contributes more to the community than any of the other things an active citizen might do. No one believes that we have a duty to write a prescribed number of letters to the editor in each electoral cycle. Is voting different?"

On compulsory voting, Sirota argues "there are no compelling arguments for, and some serious ones against it." One of these arguments is that it would force those who are uninterested in politics - which he defends as a rational choice - and this might have unintended consequences on how politicians operate: "In attempting to reach out to the least interested, and thus often the least knowledgeable, voters, politicians are likely to adopt campaign tactics and policies that could well harm democracy more than they would help it. Instead of a more deliberative and inclusive political climate, they would foster a more populist one, in which sloganeering and simplistic appeals would be even more important than they already are. The supporters of compulsory voting should be careful what they wish for."

The whole concept of elections themselves are the problem, according to University of Canterbury political scientist Nicholas Ross Smith who advocates an improvement to democracy entailing "real systemic change. Bluntly, any system of government which has elections as the centrepiece of its popular participation is inherently flawed. Elections reward candidates with power, status, and money while also enabling interest groups to influence candidates" - see: The problem with elections.


Ross Smith is a fan of citizens' juries and assemblies that involve ordinary people randomly selected, based on an ancient model that he argues is a superior form of democracy: "The Athenians used a lottery system called sortition to randomly select citizens". By this method, political decisions would be made by such groups of citizens, somewhat in the way the jury trials currently work in the justice system.

He proposes that "sortition" is a radical means of reinvigorating democracy: "In an age where democracy is seemingly dying, re-emphasising the demos, even by just undertaking modest steps as suggested above, is surely the path we have to take to reinvigorate our democracy. Otherwise, no matter what superficial adjustments we make, we will continue to live in an oligarchy masquerading as a democracy."

Democracy's defenders

These radical critiques of the status quo have been seen by some as attacks on democracy itself, and a dangerous route to go down. For example, leftwing commentator Chris Trotter says "dissing democracy is never, ever, a good idea" - see: Not dead yet: A response to Rachel Stewart's musings on democracy.

Trotter admits that democracy is "having a rough time at the moment", but says "that only reinforces the need to get stuck in and organise it back into robust good health." He maintains the status quo is worth protecting in light of the possibility that things could get much worse: "a corrupt democracy is always - always - better than a virtuous tyranny".

A much more detailed defence of representative democracy is put forward by Victoria University of Wellngton's Jack Vowles, who strongly takes issue with the arguments of both Stewart and Sirota, suggesting their arguments are simplistic and their solutions are counterproductive to their aim of increasing the political influence of the marginalized in society - see: Voting under attack as election approaches.

Vowles, a political scientist, suggests that "Sirota and Stewart ignore one of the most powerful lessons of political science: 'If you don't vote, you don't count'." By this he means that politicians will only direct their policies towards those who are actually likely to vote, and therefore, "If public policy in democratic societies is biased toward the rich, property owners and the old, all else being equal there is likely to be a simple reason: these are classes of people who tend to vote. The poor, those who own little or no property, and the young are less likely to do so."

He also makes a case that, although politics in this country is far from perfect, "Democracy is a work in progress and the battle to enhance and defend it is ongoing. Internationally, there have been recent democratic reversals. But it is not helpful if those who believe in democratic values simply give up electoral politics and encourage others to do so."

These critiques prompted Rachel Stewart to respond in the Herald, wondering why "my mere musings would hit so many raw, jangly nerves", and suggest that the negative reaction could be understood in terms of identity politics - see: Pesky ECGs (elderly Caucasian gents) need to get out more.

Leonid Sirota also responded to Vowles' arguments to reiterate that his own concerns were to argue against compulsory voting, but again to emphasise that he wants to expand democracy, not limit it further - see: A critique of democracy, not an attack.

Discontent with this year's election

Not all of the current discontent with the state of democracy revolves around the theoretical principles and (arguably) esoteric disputes about ways of running society. Some critics are simply bemoaning that there's not enough quality election debate going on.

For example, TV reviewer Jane Bowron thinks politicians aren't fronting up enough for debate: "I can't remember such a quiet lead-up to an election, and an urgent need for so many important issues to be thrashed out, or at least given a proper public airing. Housing, immigration, climate change, water degradation, dairying, health - particularly the state of mental health, education, road and rail, infrastructure ... take your pick. It isn't just a case of New Zealand being overshadowed by world politics, our politicians simply aren't in clear sight" - see: What election? Who's seen the politicians?

Former National Cabinet minister Wyatt Creech has also expressed strong doubts that quality debate and discussion is going to occur this year, especially in light of the health of the media: "In fact, it's the reverse; this diet of superficiality and sensationalism eats away at real debate. That is not just unfortunate from the perspective of those of us interested in public policy; it's seriously sapping of the true lifeblood of democracy. It is no wonder interest in politics and voting, especially amongst milliennials, wanes. It is no wonder surveys show the general public's increasingly low respect for politicians, the media and the system. I think we all would like to see this dis-interest reversed; I sure hope so. The question is how to do it" - see: How to drive voting & policy debate this election... and how not to.

Solutions to New Zealand's democratic malaise

So, should we make it illegal not to vote? That's the putative solution that is fast gaining ground in the debate about democracy in New Zealand at the moment. The idea got a major boost last month, when three former prime ministers came out in support: "Jim Bolger, Mike Moore and Sir Geoffrey Palmer want New Zealand to follow Australia's lead and introduce compulsory voting" - see RNZ's Former PMs support compulsory voting in NZ.


The three former PMs all spoke out in Guyon Espiner's series of RNZ interviews, which you can watch here: The 9th Floor. They all have strong concerns about the declining participation in politics. For example, Geoffrey Palmer says there's a "crisis" in democracy throughout the western world, including here: "Hardly anyone votes. Are they turned off by it? Do they think it doesn't matter? If you are going to live in a democracy which is supposed to be conducted by the people for the people then the people should have some duties. They should participate and they should vote."

But politicians are mostly against the proposal. Current PM, Bill English, says "no one's made the case for it", and "Part of the job of politicians is to persuade people it's worth voting". Similarly David Seymour suggests it's a dead end: "You can lead a voter to the ballot booth, but you can't make them think" - see Craig McCulloch's Former PMs support compulsory voting in NZ.

Herald columnist Brian Rudman argues that the decline in participation is partly driven by the decline in the power of politics, and that compulsion would be artificial: "Now that central government has taken a major step back from interfering in citizens' lives, it should have been no surprise that those most disadvantaged have begun to decide there's nothing here for them either and drifted off. Australian-style compulsory voting will certainly make the figures look better. But forcing the unwilling to participate under threat of a fine is hardly democracy of the willing" - see: Compulsory voting not the answer to low turnout. Rudman proposes, instead, that greater state funding be given to the political parties to foster their outreach to voters.

Finally, a week ago two Wellington scholars - Emily Beausoleil and Max Rashbrooke - published their own diagnosis of the problem: "Rather than pushing people to the ballot box, we need to address the reasons they are failing to turn up under their own steam. People are turned off by an increasing distrust in MPs, a widening gap between political elites and everyday citizens, and politicians' growing failure to represent 'the people' as the tentacles of money reach ever deeper into political campaigning. If we want people to turn out to vote, we need better parliamentary politics." They therefore propose a series of "everyday democracy" initiatives to "put many more decisions into the hands of citizens" - for more about these ideas, see: More direct democracy better than compulsory voting.