When I was in my late 30s I resigned from my well-paid and challenging career as a DSIR scientist and stood for election to become the first ever Labour MP for Hawke's Bay.

Success was certainly not guaranteed: there was a serious contest in 1983 simply to be selected as Labour's candidate, and after that was done, most commentators, including the Labour-inclined ones, thought that Sir Richard Harrison, the long-serving National MP, was a safe bet to be re-elected.

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They were wrong, but that's not the point of this column. The point is that in the 1980s it was still possible for people with good jobs and supportive families to set these aside, and seek election to Parliament, in the hope of changing New Zealand for the better. And even within a conservative electorate like Hawke's Bay, it was possible to persuade a narrow majority of voters to agree.


That would be inconceivable today, because New Zealand politics has changed, and not for the better. Steadily fewer people are bothering to vote, significant numbers don't even get their names on to the electoral roll, and those who still do these things have fewer expectations about changing anything. The best that most voters today are hoping for is a government that won't make things any worse. What a discouraging prospect for potential candidates!

Is this change in outlook a New Zealand phenomenon, resulting from the perceived local issues so many of our letter-writers complain about? Of course not: the change is one tiny part of a global phenomenon, the move away from representative democracy towards its only proven alternative: rule by power-hungry despots, who brook no disagreement, even from their supporters, and are ready to resort to whatever means seem necessary to shore up their power.

To point out just four examples, out of the scores reported on by our news media: China, Russia, the United States and India have all been steadily advancing down the well-trodden track towards rule by despots.

In China, President Xi Jinping has devoted years to undermining and then removing any potential alternative leaders, cracking down on any attempted criticisms in the news media, and promoting a Mao Tse-Tung style cult of personality. His latest step was to remove the two-term limit on presidents and thereby guarantee himself the opportunity to be President for life.

In Russia, President Putin has bypassed the similar two-term limit on presidents by having himself elected as Prime Minister for a term.

After that, under the Russian Constitution, he was entitled to seek up to two further terms as president. As with Xi, Putin has cracked down ruthlessly on media criticism, and candidates who have dared to challenge him have been charged with bogus crimes, convicted in rigged trials by state-appointed judges, and ruled ineligible to stand.

In the United States, President Trump has broken new ground in exploiting modern technology and social media to drown out news media criticism, tweeting a seemingly endless stream of outright lies interspersed with gobbledygook.

Trump openly praises both Xi and Putin for their so-called "strong leadership" with seemingly wide-spread acceptance. The constitutional safeguards expected from Congress are being proved ineffectual, because the Republican Party majorities in both Houses have shown themselves to be interested only in retaining power.

And here it is necessary to say that anyone who thinks this unprincipled approach is peculiar to the Republicans should take a long hard look at how previous Democratic Party congressional leaders have behaved, then think again. Power has trumped principle many times.

Finally to India, where Prime Minister Modi has become steadily more popular with a majority of voters, despite his extreme Hindu Nationalist views, moving this huge and diverse country further and further away from the democratic principles espoused by Nehru, and other leaders, who supervised the founding of modern India after World War II when Britain finally permitted independence.

Arguably the most surprising aspect of the move toward global despotism is that it does not seem to have attracted any major backlash from voters.

On the contrary, most voters seem to be just as happy with "strong leadership" by despots as Trump has shown himself to be.

Even in countries like New Zealand, with none of the overt trappings of despotic rule, it is the perceived strong leaders like John Key and Jacinda Adern who have attracted the most admiring responses from both journalists and voters.

That being the case, what can we look forward to? In my opinion, we will be very lucky if we survive as a species, let along as an independent nation, for another 200 years.

In my reading of likely future events, the only prospect for a better future lies in the looming global climate catastrophe leaving sufficiently few survivors that our descendants are finally shocked out of their complacency into making the huge changes needed to build a better world. Whether this happens or not, I won't be here to witness it, and neither will most of the other animal and plant species that currently share our planet: they'll be extinct.

* Bill Sutton is a former MP for the old Hawke's Bay electorate and is a published poet.