How “New” Is Our Democracy?

The face of New Zealand and democracy has changed dramatically in the past few years and we need to reflect New Zealand’s new identity and democracy in our main media entities.

Willie Jackson, NZ Herald, 5 July 2022.


HAS NEW ZEALAND’S DEMOCRACY really “changed dramatically” in the past few years? I suppose it all depends on how you define “democracy”, “dramatically” and “the past few years”. Let’s start from there, and then work on to explore the motivation behind such a bold political assertion.

There are very few countries in the world that can boast a continuous democracy as old as New Zealand’s. Our population became fully enfranchised in 1893 when the Liberal Government extended voting rights to women. The United States would not reach that democratic milestone until 1920, and women would not be fully enfranchised in the United Kingdom until 1930. If one of the key indicators of a democratic nation is the right of its people to vote in fair and regular elections, then New Zealand can hold its head high.

Another feature of a working democratic system is whether the will of the majority of voters is reflected in the character and composition of their government. In this regard, New Zealand’s record is less exemplary. Since the acquisition of self-government in 1852, New Zealand has experimented with a number of electoral systems.

The “Two Round System”, for example, pitted the two highest polling candidates of an initial open round of voting against each other in a second run-off ballot. It was designed to ensure that, ultimately, a Member of Parliament represented a true majority of the electors. It lasted from 1908 until 1914. Others, like the system which featured the “Country Quota”, were intended to weight the votes of electors living in rural areas more heavily than those of urban voters. This blatantly anti-socialist measure lasted from 1881 until 1945!

Underpinning both of these reforms, however, was the electoral system known as “First-Past-The-Post (FPP). To win an FPP election it was necessary for a candidate to win more votes than any of his/her rivals. Not more votes than all the votes of his/her competitors combined, you understand, but just a simple plurality. The candidate with the mostvotes (which may, or may not, have constituted a majority of the votes) won.

Obviously, FPP can easily lead to a situation in which the governing party was able to win a majority of parliamentary seats with considerably fewer than half the votes cast. In an election where three or four parties of roughly equal strength are seeking the electors’ support, the outcome is not Majority Rule, but the rule of the most popular minority. Since it is clearly unhelpful, in terms of preserving political legitimacy, to have a clear majority of voters feeling unrepresented, the grim arithmetical logic of FPP drives the political class inexorably towards a rigid two-party system.

In the 1920s and early-1930s, New Zealand voters had three major parties to choose from: the Reform Party, the Liberal (later the United) Party, and the Labour Party. In no election between 1919 and 1938 did any single political party ever secure more than half the votes cast. FPP notwithstanding, New Zealand only boasted a rough two-party system for five elections (1938, 1943, 1946, 1949, 1951) The Labour/National duopoly was broken in 1954 with the advent of the Social Credit Political League. It would take until 2020 for a single New Zealand political party to, once again, secure more than half of the popular vote.

The switch from FPP to Mixed Member Proportional Representation (MMP) in 1996 was certainly the most dramatic change to New Zealand’s democratic machinery since the National Party abolished the Legislative Council – New Zealand’s unelected (and largely decorative) Upper House of Parliament – in 1950.

New Zealanders voted for MMP in response to what was widely perceived as a lack of democratic political agency. With Labour and National both committed to neoliberal economic and social policies, many New Zealanders felt politically disenfranchised. Voters dreamed of electing Parliaments in which heterogeneous assemblages of genuine representatives would enable the formation of governments much more closely attuned to the people’s will.

Their hopes were not fulfilled. MMP certainly allowed political parties to select candidates more reflective of the gender, ethnic and sexual-preference makeup of the New Zealand population, but the House of Representatives remained dominated by National and Labour. Those smaller parties that managed to make it into Parliament dutifully lined-up with one or other of the two major parties in coalitions that only very rarely produced anything even remotely challenging of the neoliberal status quo.

Regardless of the drama, or lack of it, it would seem that, over the course of the last 100 years, the more that New Zealand’s democratic rules have been changed, the more its fundamental political impulses have remained the same. It is, however, possible to make one important observation: the larger the winning party’s share of the popular vote (now known as the Party Vote) the more permanent its subsequent alterations to the country’s face tended to be.

The problem, of course, is that these alterations are all-too-often executed without a mandate. The last time a political party sought, and got, a decisive electoral mandate to change the face of New Zealand it was 1972. (Some might say 1938!) Certainly, over the past 35 years, the biggest and most alarming instances of facial surgery (Rogernomics, Ruthanasia) have been accomplished without the patient’s informed consent – or an anaesthetist!

It is to be hoped that Willie Jackson’s use of the past tense when describing the dramatic changes to the face of New Zealand democracy is inadvertent. It is certainly difficult to make a case for the will of the majority of New Zealanders being any easier to impose today than it was 30 years ago. The “tyranny of the majority” that Willie complains of finds no confirmation in our political history: neither in the Pakeha world, nor Te Ao Māori.

The truly scary thought is that Willie sees the obstacles to achieving effective democratic majorities as a feature, not a bug, of our present system. If his idea of a new and improved New Zealand democracy is one in which, once again, the most determined minorities get to rule, then the change he is describing is not so much an uplifting electoral drama, as a political sucker-punch to the face.


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