Features Australia

Best practice democracy?

10 March 2018

9:00 AM

10 March 2018

9:00 AM

People protesting against both the concept and practice of authoritarian government has now become a worldwide phenomenon. It seems high time therefore to turn our attention to considering what have been, or are, examples of best practice democracy in action.

In The March of Folly, Pulitzer prize-winning historian Barbara Tuchman, reviewing crucial decisions in world history from the Trojan War down to the US involvement in Vietnam, stated as an historical phenomenon that ‘governments get most issues wrong’.

If so, it would seem we should reflect on this before we fling ourselves into the trap of constitutional reform, an issue pushed by radicalised in-groups particularly keen in New Zealand to lock preferential rights and special privileges into any reform process, to favour individuals with a Maori genetic inheritance – no matter how minimal. The fact that there are apparently no longer any full-blooded Maori in New Zealand, and that after 200 years of cohabitation, not only has the Maori economy, well funded by treaty settlements, reached $50 billion, but part-Maori have successfully taken their place throughout the professions, the trades and industries, argues against such racist provisions. That the benefits of the taxpayer-funded treaty settlements were, arguably, unwisely handed to the powerful neo-tribes with no requirement for accountability, so that these wealthy, virtual corporations have neglected an underclass of disadvantaged Maori, is no argument for any constitutional reform locking in a virtual apartheid.

Our 1985 Labour government’s ill-thought proposal to re-visit a then century and a half‘s conflicting claims of tribal ownership dating back to the signing of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi has been described as unbridled folly. The Maori gift of oratorical persuasiveness produces powerful rhetoric, acting upon governments which appear to have been both emotionally labile and historically under-informed. A speech, for example, by Doug Graham, when Minister in charge of the negotiations, was staggeringly simplistic, infantilising the facts of history. For example, consider the claim that pre-European Maori ‘had a well-developed societal structure, well understood the need for ecological and environmental considerations, and no doubt would have happily carried on had not the ships arrived with settlers with quite different cultural backgrounds and understandings’. This Pollyanna picture of a stable, cohesive group of happy-ever-after people is far removed from the reality. Social instability, hunger, slavery and violence were endemic, with marauding clans locked into cyclic utu (revenge-seeking) extreme cruelty and cannibalism. Far from being protectors of the environment, pre-European Maori set fire to forests to hunt the giant moa and other birds to extinction. The pre-European, Maori way of living offered no permanent right to land, life, or possessions.


It is all too easy to be wise after an event. Sir Geoffrey Palmer, prominent in his legal activism, claimed that the setting up of the Waitangi tribunal ‘has been an enduring contribution to the constitutional position of Maori in this country’. However, even at the time, well-founded concern was that that the tribunal would act as an over-powerful, partisan body. Inviting comparison with a star chamber, it excludes from genuine representation the majority population with a substantial stake in its findings.

Moreover, most New Zealanders, including many of Maori descent, do not concur with court decisions granting racial preferment and privileges to part-Maori. The public largely thinks that the government and courts, drawn from and influenced by the politically correct cultural cliques of the day, have by no means been free from judicial activism. Moreover, there is widespread disappointment that the reportedly ‘bottom line’ pre-election undertaking by the Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters that the removal of the racist Maori seats in Parliament would be a requirement for the support of his party, New Zealand First, has been abandoned. Public cynicism and the distrust of politicians have reached probably an all-time high in this country, too.

Post-election, we look set to continue along the path of ethnic preference and continuing social protest. However, given that in a genuine democracy decisions should be made by the people, and for the people, many feel it’s time to look to towards achieving just this.

In this country, successive governments have inflicted their tops-down decisions upon us – rather than following best practice. We can contrast this with Switzerland, whose people do not allow their government to over-rule them. Legislation, presented from ground level upwards for ratification by the people, has made Switzerland the most successful, prosperous democracy in the world.

As Gregory A. Fossedal points out in his excellent Direct Democracy in Switzerland, we should beware of politicians thinking they know better than the people. By now, well aware of the over-reaching nature of political power – we’re overdue to detach it from the government bureaucracy. The conclusion is inevitable. If we want to reclaim a democracy, then the first step is to limit the power of political parties – to withhold what they most want – the party vote. What could be more democratic than to insist that nobody should be in Parliament without first presenting him/herself for scrutiny by the voting public? The abuses of the List system have become very obvious. MPs for whom the public would never have voted have even become ministers, exercising virtually authoritarian powers with public concern ignored. List MPs owe no loyalty to the electorate – only to party headquarters and the leaders who now personally select them. What the Swiss eventually said to their politicians was: ‘You will no longer impose your thinking on us, we are part of the decision-making, we who are most affected by it.’ Their inspired solution was to insist on a moratorium of 100 days after Parliament passes legislation – for the country to scrutinise, and accept or reject it.

This period of public scrutiny, with the ability to then call for ill-considered legislation to be blocked, restores (by a binding Facultative Referendum) the decision-making to those who must live by it. Described as ‘the most significant proposed change in decades to New Zealand electoral laws’ – the 100 Days provision is quite simply unbeatable as a way to restore democracy.

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