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Chris Trotter probes worrying signs that New Zealand’s long democratic history has produced a sense of complacency among its citizens

Chris Trotter probes worrying signs that New Zealand’s long democratic history has produced a sense of complacency among its citizens

By Chris Trotter*

Democracy - who needs it? Fewer and fewer people, both at home and abroad, seem as willing as previous generations to “defend democracy”. The term itself: once generally understood as a system of government dedicated to personal liberty, the inviolability of private property, equality before the law, and majority rule; has acquired a bewildering complexity. What you were born, and where, now pose a serious challenge to democracy’s universalist claims. To be a human-being is no longer enough.

There is an irony here. The rise of democracy – to the point of becoming the ultimate constitutional goal and the accepted measure of civilised government – has for the past three centuries been driven by the steady expansion of what it means to be a human-being. If a human-being may be defined, politically, as a person whose expressed opinion is accorded a determinative influence, then their numbers have indeed been growing steadily.

Males in possession of land and/or demonstrable martial prowess were the original political humans, to whose numbers were soon added males conspicuously successful in trade and commerce. For centuries, these barons and burghers had the game pretty much to themselves. It required an epochal shift: from feudalism to capitalism; to open the ranks of political humanity to middle-class males.

Democracy was the lever by which these middle-class males gained entry to the places where decisions are made. The problem with the core principles of liberty, equality and solidarity, however, is that they are dangerously extendable. The same arguments that secured political rights for the middle classes could be mounted on behalf of the working classes. Even more worryingly, they could be extended from males to females; from the old to the young; from persons of your colour, to persons of all colours.

When Abraham Lincoln so magisterially distilled the essence of democracy to: “government of the people, by the people, for the people”; the “people” he had in mind were white (and just possibly black) American males. Not included were American women of any colour, Native Americans or “Orientals”. For the next 160 years, American history would be driven by the efforts of those excluded from the definition of “the people” to be recognised fully as human beings.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the moral transgression required to drive people out of the human definition once it has been claimed and/or bestowed. The terrifying history of the Jim Crow South not only bears testimony to the level of harm that must be inflicted to enforce exclusion from the political community, but also to the disfiguring spiritual violence those responsible for such exclusion are required to inflict upon themselves. The “strange fruit” of the South describes not just the dangling bodies of lynched African Americans, but the dead eyes of the White killers who watched them die.

Recall, too, the extraordinary violence inflicted upon the Suffragettes by the Liberal Government of Herbert Asquith in the years immediately preceding World War I. The forced feeding of female hunger-strikers was widely condemned as a form of politically-inspired torture. And all because an insufficient number of British parliamentarians were willing to include women within the definition of the politically human.

No such blots appear on New Zealand’s democratic escutcheon. Indeed, this country boasts one of the longest continuously operating democratic political systems on earth. Since 1867 New Zealand’s parliament has reserved seats for the country’s indigenous population, and in 1879 granted full “manhood suffrage”. In 1893 the franchise was extended to include women. In 1969, the “voting age” was lowered from 21 to 20 years-of-age. Eighteen-year-olds were enfranchised in 1974. There is even a reasonable chance that at some point in the next decade the voting age will be lowered to 16 years. New Zealand is the only self-governing country that can boast an uninterrupted period of democratic government, based on universal suffrage, lasting 128 years. Certainly, none of our “Five Eyes Partners” can say as much!

With this history, one could be forgiven for assuming that faith in democracy would be stronger in New Zealand than anywhere else in the world. There are, however, worrying signs that New Zealand’s long democratic history has produced a sense of complacency among its citizens.

For decades, New Zealanders were famed for turning out to vote in record numbers. In the 1984 snap general election, for example, a record-breaking 93.7% of those registered to vote cast a ballot. In the intervening three decades, however, turnout has declined, falling to just 74.2% in 2011. Interestingly, the extraordinary “Covid Election” of 2020 registered a sharp improvement in turnout. At 82.5%, it was the highest since 1999.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Maori New Zealanders evince considerably less faith in democracy than their Pakeha compatriots. Certainly it is understandable why an indigenous people comprising only 15% of the total population might find reasons for looking at the principle of majority rule through narrowed eyes. The so-called “tyranny of the majority” has long been cited as one of the downsides of the democratic system of government. For an indigenous culture locked into permanent minority status, the dangers of uncompromising majoritarianism loom large.

Joining these Maori sceptics of democracy are those who are simply unwilling to accept formal political equality as the be-all and end-all of human rights. These are the people who enjoy quoting the Nineteenth Century French writer, Anatole France, who famously declared that: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” Or, as George Orwell slyly puts it in his political fable, Animal Farm: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

To be white, male, heterosexual, well-educated, and – of course – wealthy, is to enjoy a level of “privilege” in a culture where these distinctions are generally esteemed. Formal democratic equality, it is asserted, actually serves to mask this privilege and, by doing so, permits the disproportionate power conferred upon its possessors’ to be wielded with, if not impunity, then without serious challenge.

In its essence, this argument denies that in a country like New Zealand all human-beings possess equal determinative influence. In effect, the possessors of privilege are said to enjoy super-human status. In short, they have the power to put their thumb on the scales of social justice, and secure for themselves an unfair share of society’s goods and services.

Democracy, as it is generally understood, is dismissed as a sham. Only when the privileges of these “supermen” are stripped from them can those who suffer from the deficiencies such inequity imposes: women, Maori, LGBTQI, the disabled; hope to enjoy the equal determinative influence they are entitled to as fully human beings.

By this reckoning, simply being human is no longer enough. True democracy cannot exist where privilege goes unchallenged and unchecked. It can only flourish where no one has to sleep under a bridge, beg in the streets, or steal bread. Where rape is unthinkable, and racism no more than an evil memory from a bitter past.


*Chris Trotter has been writing and commenting professionally about New Zealand politics for more than 30 years. He writes a weekly column for interest.co.nz. His work may also be found at http://bowalleyroad.blogspot.com.

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35 Comments

Democracy has been overtaken by politics. And politics has been overtaken by the very industry it has created for itself. Politicians and their staff, the party, lobbyists, consultants and media personalities make a great living from that industry without being exactly industrious or productive. And finally politicians have been overtaken by deeply entrenched bureaucrats who are self serving, opinionated and unaccountable.

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Democracy is under threat in New Zealand for sure. We have a party in Government who regard opposing views as something to be surpressed, not as something to be considered.
Tricky little bunch.

"Democracy" defined by the West became a joke on the day when the US uses its military and wars to force it to other countries.

As Mr Jensen said
"There is no democracy. There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immane, interwoven, interacting, multivariate, multinational dominion of dollars. Petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars, reichmarks, rins, rubles, pounds, and shekels."

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ANY democracy > CCP

Literally any other commentator on this website > Xingmowang.

we dont know how lucky we are.big brother is not watching us although some of us think so,front page complaint from citizen who is paranoid about his govt issued numberplate.

That article is hilarious. How could someone be so virtuous? And so stupid as to be offended.

only afterwards did I click that his name(Jim Crow)could have made him more sensitive.

There also comes a point where you so have to set limits. Like the voting age. Very few people care about voting at 18, let alone dropping it to 16. They are very much still kids at this stage, with limited to no real world experience in anything other than school.
Not to mention that their political values and ideas will more than likely be heavily based on following the "woke" crowd on social media that push very subjective, rather fact free propaganda.
If they really are set on lowering the age, perhaps 17 is a decent first step. See what the engagement is like, and then drop it for the next one if we the people vote to?

The voting age should be the median age people leave home. This is the age they start to need representation and start to understand how manage their affairs (accommodation and budgeting). Then it probably takes seeing the outcome of two or three elections before you understand how your vote actually works.
I think it's likely teenagers still at home become either single issue voters or are heavily influenced by their parents. Even preschoolers can have an opinion on if they want to vote for the blue, red, green or yellow (party) they are people too.

I'd return it to 21.
Even at that age most are 5 years off making a balanced/reasoned vote.

If we go down that road, then maybe we should also take voting rights back off the elderly. I mean at a certain age people are probably starting to lose some of their faculties right?

IMO any change to the voting age should be for people who turn 18 during election year. So if you don't turn 18 until after the election, you would still qualify to vote in it.

No need to go any lower. I was unable to vote in the 2002 election because it was held early.

I feel this is also the way it should be done for criminals in jail. You cant vote, but if you are eligible for parole or will be released during the next term you should be able to vote. As you are currently not a contributing part of society, but once you get out you will be.

LOL who says prisoners are not contributing to society while incarcerated? For one they provide jobs, income and profit for others in society while incarcerated. A majority of prisoners work with local and regional councils, communities or businesses on work contracts outside the prison. They work in areas such as forestry, horticulture, farming, construction, grounds and asset maintenance, printing, distribution centres, catering, cleaning, textiles, engineering and mechanics etc which ultimately benefit society a large. So why is it they are 'unproductive' members of society who shouldn't get to vote on the people who will make decisions about the way they and their families are treated in the society in which they live AND work? Considering they already have their freedom confiscated should be sufficient punishment for the majority, of which most are minimum security criminals.

What ever the voting age is, all potential voters should be made to pass an IQ test before they are permitted to vote.

You don't 'pass' an IQ test. An IQ test is an assessment of your IQ level, not a pass or fail score.

I'm struggling with this one from CT. Obviously we are meant to think for ourselves about the future direction of democracy and if we agree with the latter part of this column but I can't tell if he's actually arguing for it and if not its strange not to have a conclusion.

I think Animal Farm quote meant to draw attention to the parallels between this potential future direction of democracy and Marxism: a struggle between a collectivised oppressed group and their oppressor group, the promise of utopia and zero implementation details.

The 1 person 1 equal vote is critical to democracy, if this is no longer in effect there is no longer a democracy. Without this it's everything is subjective and those in power will be able to manipulate everything until no one believes democracy works. Keep expanding the people included if you want (there's not many left), but this argument is that democracy does not work.

When did minorities become post modern. More being assigned by the neo Marxists.

VDH the problems of being post modern
https://youtu.be/eiq98TGJRtI

PragerU and problems of CRT
https://youtu.be/8Zy6DQoRYQw

Unheard & corruption of Science
https://youtu.be/2oro0ttU2_A

The China splitting of Five Eyes
https://youtu.be/YtijFNITbmg

What were you expecting with socialists in government?

And here is Chris' other work this morning.

If Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Government is not very careful, however, it will soon find itself having to explain why it has failed to reject out-of-hand an official document which calmly anticipates the end of democracy as most New Zealanders understand it.

https://breakingviewsnz.blogspot.com/2021/05/chris-trotter-giving-effect...

Sounds like everyone need self identify as Maori, pdq.

It appears chris is sucked in by the ideology of identity politics.

Suggest a better system then chris? Communist China seems to tick all the boxes of you last paragraph.

Except the racist one. That will not happen when human beings are involved.

Of course, being able to vote is also meant to come with unavoidable responsibilities eg eligible for the draft should the need arise.

You don't necessarily automatically qualify for a vote by just being born.

Given the inference of responsibilities and commitment to the country, voting should be restricted to NZ citizens only.

That's the problem when you suppress interest rates to zero you create weird and dangerous imbalances in the economy and weird and dangerous imbalances in people's heads obviously going by that dribble I just read

“government of the people, by the people, for the people”

1) The lower MMP threshold is undemocratic and needs to go

2) We wont have real democracy until the politicians are paid based on the increase in total welfare per capita and its distribution thereof they bring forth, not a salary and donations.

One mustn't confuse equal opportunity, with equal outcomes.

Mandating equal opportunity is democracy in it's purest form, servicing core needs and infrastructure which creates a level platform where any individual can succeed. It supports good quality health, education, family values and employment opportunities.

Mandating equal outcomes is what this government seem to be more concerned with. To do that the playing field becomes skewed and the whole system starts falling apart with poor funding allocation, expensive vanity projects, quashed dissent (cancel culture), rejection of common sense, group think and feelings over logic. It supports niche interest groups, anyone with a grievance, any popular vocal social media idiots, all at the expense of everyone else.

The day we reach that utopic place where racism, sexism and prejudice doesn't exist, will be the day there's no longer greed in the human heart. Until then we have to make do with democracy.

You can add to that list of grievances the denial of property rights.

A great article CT and worthy topic for debate. IMHO democracy has been under threat in NZ for decades by all political parties. Helen Clark kicked the legs out from under a truly independent judiciary by killing the Privy Council, and has added her voice to the many others to increase the parliamentary term to at least four years. The call to become a republic is another move to undermine democracy here, by political interest groups. In between elections our Government still lacks accountability to the public, and fosters a sychophantic media. Governments for many years have suppressed dissonant opinions and facts, and their agents in this are often their own bureaucrats and ministries.
What is equally interesting is the quality of comments here. Clearly a few who don't understand what true democracy really means.

Fair enough. CT though is both biased and selective to complain about Lincoln’s oratory. Those were dark difficult times in the midst of a vicious civil war, and besides, that phrase cannot be isolated, dissected and determined from the real and solemn context & thrust of the speech. Lincoln himself had blown democracy apart with the suspension of habeas corpus, the sedition act and martial conscription. He also was under the impression that the slaves that were freed would take the opportunity to return to Africa. There was therefore a lot more going on in the soup at that time than CT chooses to mention.

While I don't disagree with your historical context Foxy, that phrase of Lincoln's is a succinct definition of what democracy should be;

A Government;
Of the people - only members of a country's citizenry can take a position on the government, and any member of that citizenry is eligible.
For the people - The Government acts in the people's interest, and on their behalf. This one also implies accountability to the people, something that many politicians appear to seel to avoid.
By the people - the people, and no one else, gets to choose who represents them.

Fundamentally any Government is not a power unto itself. It is there to represent the people's interests only. This requires it to be engaged with them, to act in ways that protects and furthers their interests. It also expects that Government be accountable to the people.

These days we often hear Governments talk about the "National Interest", but it seems that just whose "interest" that is is brushed over. The Government's, or the peoples?

A question; should the current tensions build to a break point will the Government choose China (money) over cultural history and freedom, and what would the people choose if given the choice?

It's just nonsense to label or lump together groups of individuals as "women" or "Maori" or "LGBTQI" or laughably "supermen" (I thought we weren't allowed to call ourselves that?) and think it really means anything. All these "groups" are made up of individuals with very diverse opinions, wealth, intelligence and so on.

Nether a democracy nor any other system except perhaps individualized virtual reality is ever going to deliver to all individuals the equal determinative influence they are entitled to as fully human beings. How could that even be conceivable let alone possible?

Most human beings don't have the intelligence, charisma or training or even the inclination to be anywhere near having "determinative influence" on society or the State.

This article is just a general racist and sexist and therefore ignorant and malicious attack on European males without any specifics. Who are these "supermen"? Can you name a few? How exactly are you going to strip our "privileges'" from us? What are the details?

The problem is not the white, male, heterosexual, well-educated, wealthy individuals. People with all these attributes just tend to be the most "trusted" by the majority of individuals in our society.

Early start, go the coffee! Good going Zachary. Appreciated.

Trotter is nothing but a hardened Marxist! An incredibly pompous know-all Marxist!
True democracy died in New Zealand the day MMP was voted in . Albeit by a binding referendum that allowed a tiny percentage of voters to make the call. The fact that we have list MP's in major positions of power is a gross abuse of democracy! No one votes for these parasites! Only electorate MP's should be eligible to have a say in running the country. I have yet to meet ANYONE who has voted for MMP!

My thoughts are: 1.Democracy is way better than authoritarianism, as absolute power corrupts aboslutely. 2. Having a democracy does not mean you are "good" in a definitive way; the roman republic was a democracy, yet Romans enjoyed slavery as part of their daily lives. 3.NZ is no longer a country where Maori and Pakeha represent the absolute majority of the population, our representative democracy needs to evolve to fit for purpose.

Herein lies the road to Zimbabwe - where tribal allegiance trumps democratic and property rights.