Bedrock of a Democracy

The Rev. John Fairbrother

21 January 2014

Get ready for the triennial dose of popularist politicking, facile rhetoric and expedient policy pronouncements. General election year has come round again.

Among all the posturing and spin, hopefully, genuine policy trends will become apparent. Trends that inform the public of the direction a party and its leader might take if power should be won. Major parties will seek to affirm their faithful constituents, win over the unsure and seek to dismiss or apprehend the policy of their opponents.

New Zealand’s electoral system is a combative process, which rightly demands clarity and resilience. The positive sub text of any campaign, despite the debates and announcements, is the process itself will refine and temper political will and skill.

Best intentions notwithstanding, an election inevitably will reveal a competitive mêlée of political statements, rebuttals and counter statements. The discerning citizen is required to listen carefully, observe, and recall the records of former governments and politicians to ensure the two votes of Mixed Member Proportional representation are applied as creatively as possible.

MMP provided the means to break autocratic government by executive. Cabinet can no longer retreat from public scrutiny as it could prior to the electoral reform. Minor parties sitting at Parliament’s debating crossroad have acquired practical influence to moderate the effects of powerful political lobbies and related policy implementations.

However, there is a challenge to the efficacy of the parliamentary system that is related to electoral reform but lies outside the parliament. Public participation in an election is the key to democratic function. If a majority of people do not turn out to vote how authentic is an election?  This presents the risk of minority government of a different form. A choice not to vote is significant.

New Zealand society has troubling similarities with other western democracies. We, too, have growing extremes of poverty and wealth; a loosely termed middle class straining with the demands of work, living expenditure, market driven peer expectations, and the challenges of personal relationships intensified in increasingly mobile, connected, atomised social environments.

Low voter turnout may be not so much an outcome of ignorance or apathy as much as resignation to the reality of every day being sufficient concern unto itself. Indifference and despair may breed frustration, even anger. It will unlikely provide a reasoned climate conducive to participatory politics.

Governments have a direct responsibility to nurture the health of a democratic system. It is the system that provides our society’s sense of continuity from generation to generation. Politicians come and go. Their roles are of major significance and their policies may become so, however, their personal stakes are entirely transitory.

All politicians have responsibility to promote the worth of democracy. In this regard the democratic system requires care, maintenance, creative criticism and change measured against the safe context it provides for all citizens.

Local Authority elections have long been plagued by low voter turnout. The risk of this same trend being a significant factor for General Elections is a matter of grave concern. The need for a systematic civics course in the schools’ national curriculum has never been stronger. An informed, interested electorate will function well only if the system of education accepts responsibility to educate the young about the privilege and significance of voting.

To participate in the electoral process is to contribute and to contribute is to share in the responsibilities and outcomes of government. Such participation is the bedrock of a democracy.


John Fairbrother

14 January 2014