Democracy in NZ: Lost, Stolen or just Mislaid?

Last weekend Jeanette Fitzsimons delivered the inaugural Rod Donald Memorial lecture to a packed audience in Christchurch.

Here are some highlights of the speech and you can read the whole thing here.

Running through the history of democracy has been the issue of just who is a member of society? In ancient Athens women and slaves were not. In early nineteenth century Britain only landowners were. Many societies are still battling to include ethnic minorities. I was living in Switzerland in 1972 when women achieved the vote for the first time in federal elections. I was astonished it had taken so long, but even more amazed that the main opposition came from some women who saw it as a threat to the stability of families.

For several years there has been rising discontent in Canterbury about the over allocation of water from rivers and aquifers, and over deteriorating water quality. People who would never have seen themselves as activists created a new organization calling for a moratorium on new water rights until the problem was sorted. Farmers who were moving in large numbers from traditional dryland farming to irrigated dairying saw their livelihoods at risk. Councils tended to represent the farmers.

If democracy is about governing by the will of the people for the greatest good of the greatest number, then it also requires controlling our own economic destiny which includes ownership of our key productive assets, particularly land, and the ability of our elected representatives to make economic decisions in the future. Rod was deeply concerned that both of these have been steadily whittled away by successive governments. He would be even more concerned at the renewed attacks on them now.

There is no public movement—yet—to oppose Solid Energy’s proposals for massive lignite development in Southland which would release greenhouse gases significant on a global scale and make anything else NZ does on climate change largely irrelevant. Yet we had tens of thousands of people sign the Sign On petition asking the government to set a target to reduce greenhouse emissions by 40% by 2020, and hundreds of people actually came to the Minister’s public meetings to demand that commitment.

21 Comments Posted

  1. Sleep can’t be far off

    ‘but I have promises to keep
    and many miles to go before I sleep’ (Robert Frost)

    No me fave US/UK blogs are up in the night and I do enjoy a good idea tossing comp….

    Otherwise, I’m just a bed-check Charlie – always trying to sneak through the wire in the tiny hours – that is one alert Frog let me tell you!

  2. Tangential, perhaps – nuff said – Lod forgive me! My Vote remains!

    “As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: you liberate a city by destroying it. Words are to confuse, so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their own interests.” -Gore Vidal

  3. Probably a good thing too Frog – please accept my apologies.
    Under the privilege of free speech I am prepared to engage with anyone.
    Unenjoyable though that may sometimes be – if I had your job there is only one type of devious troll I would embargo.
    Threadjacking, when several thoughtfull Greens have loaned their best opinions is something I find highly objectionable – above and beyond the range of personal insult.
    It is as well to delete the whole lod!
    However, several times I have seen this Blog nearly arrive at something of a breakthrough, only to see some paid flunky destroy the lot.
    IMO – deliberate sabotage is the no1 thing to be aware (beware of)
    with thanks for your mercy

  4. Zigzactly;- and the Greens are looking like getting 30% of next years vote.
    Meanwhile we are treated to the sight of Gnats crying over the ‘lost workers’ – well lets see them carry those concerns through into policy.

  5. Interesting analysis Bryce, and thanks for link to dom-post. My favourite line from the post was,
    “Norman believes 10 per cent is a realistic goal for 2011. If the Greens can walk the line between retaining activist grassroots members and courting middle-class sustainability converts, he might even be right.”

    You’ve got to be in the system to change the system.

    On another topic, Sam mentioned Matt McCarten who has spoken about a 1% transaction tax replacing other taxes. Is this a viable thing?


    I guess that the MMP democratic system is the best system that we have got; it’s not perfect and there is a lot of room for improvement. One improvement that comes to mind is the proviso that the voter decides who the intended candidate goes into coalition with.

    This will stop politicians like Winston Peters making deals and holding the country in limbo for weeks on end.

    We could have the best democratic system in the world but when business lobby groups infiltrate both the main parties then they undermine the effectiveness of what democracy was intended for.

    It then becomes a dysmocracy not a democracy.

  7. The real problem with so-called ‘democracy’ is that you have to be one of the majority to either have your say or be acceptable. Look at the non-going Cannabis debate.. 46% say “yes Ive tried it”, but the zero-tolerance, lock ’em up B-S still goes on & on & on.. “let freedom ring” Kia-ora Koutou Katoa !

  8. Yes there’s always a danger of that. However on the other hand, constantly barely managing to get over 5% of the vote has got to be pretty enthusiasm-sapping too.

    I’m confident that as times change the Greens’ internal democracy is strong enough to be able to have the necessary conversation and come to a place that leaves it stronger than it was before.

    But we’re getting off topic so I’ll shut up now

  9. “Who else is the ‘activist base’ going to vote for?”

    Matt McCarten, nobody or that perennial favorite, voting Labour to keep National out.

    “Why isn’t is possible to be both mainstream AND an ‘activist’?”

    You can, but why would you bother? Activism requires a commitment that usually derives from inspiration and a desire for deep change. You aren’t going to get that commitment if you are offering a bit of tinkering with that which already exists. The mainstream also offers lots of rewards to stop being an activist and become a professional – so most social democratic activists soon find a place in the system they can live with, and give up activism.

    Thought Russell Norman’s quote in the Dompost was a laugh: “At the end of the day we needed something, and hopefully the thing will be repealed before Gerry Brownlee does any damage.”

    We hope the legislation we voted for will be repealed? Eh?

  10. Rimu – some very good questions. Others might want to have a go answering in terms of the Greens. But perhaps its useful to think of some other political parties here. The Alliance party, the Act Party, and NZ First, all at times attempted to be more moderate, professional, and respectable. In all these cases their leaderships pushed their parties in such a direction – often in quite anti-democratic ways. The result always was that a large number of members of the party who contributed time and money to operating the party (ie their “activist base”) ceased to be involved or enthused about what their party stood for anymore. Once a party waters down its raison d’etre or “brand” then both members and potential voters see less to distinguish the party from the rest of the melee in Parliament and thus lose their enthusiasm to be activist for something that they have less belief in. And when there is a feeling that these parties are unprincipled, overly-pragmatic, not responsive to grassroots opinion, then a distaste for the leadership invariably tends to develop. Perhaps others can state whether this has been happening in the Greens lately?

  11. That’s a good article Bryce, thanks. The writer clearly did their home work.

    However it ends with a question about the GP moving mainstream and losing it’s activist base, which seems like a false dichotomy to me. Who else is the ‘activist base’ (whatever that means. It seems to be largely a myth to me) going to vote for? Why isn’t is possible to be both mainstream AND an ‘activist’? etc

  12. Actually, perhaps answering my question (above), is a really good and wide-ranging article in today’s Dominion Post, which you can read here:
    Fitzsimons appears to have opposed the Greens’ sellout on the ‘earthquake fascism’ legislation.

    But the main theme of the lengthy article is about the ongoing issue of political direction of the Greens under Norman and Turei, suggesting the party is going more mainstream, more moderate, less leftwing, etc, and alienating its activist base. Senior Greens are quoted as approving of this shift to the centre and advocate a coalition with National etc, while other Greens are quoted as resigning or being unhappy with the new direction under the moderate leadership.

  13. Some interesting stuff in Fitzsimons’ talk – good to have these issues examined.

    And it’s great that she gives a good critique of The Canterbury Earthquake Response and Recovery Act. But it’s a huge pity she doesn’t really deal with how her party sold out on the legislation.

    For anyone that’s interested, my in depth attempt to analyse how the Greens’ dealt with this significant issue can be found here:

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