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Undemocratic democracies and days of living dangerously or excitingly

by 21 May 2015Electoral enrolment0 comments

Enrolment by age group, 2008-2014

Screw the Orange Guy: The overblown and doubtless over-priced ‘orange guy’, devastatingly lampooned by Rod Emmerson as the prime minister’s inflatable sex doll, clearly holds little allure for 18–24-year-olds. In contrast, the provision for party voting, from 1996 onwards, means that there’s no longer any need for voter registration to be tied to address, unless a voter particularly wants to vote for an electorate candidate. College students, therefore, could be issued with a lifetime licence to vote, which would begin to restore enrolment rates to their 1946 level, and although 18-year-olds were not permanently enfranchised until 1974, those serving in global conflicts were. chart Electoral Commission Report on the 2014 General Election

With just 37% of the votes, the Conservatives have grabbed 100% of the power.

If New Zealanders needed a reminder of just how unfair the first-past-the-post system they dumped at the 1993 referendum is, then the United Kingdom’s general election result has just provided it in spades.

And it is even worse: fewer than one in four of those enrolled, voted for the Conservative Party, or just 22% of those of voting age. If the United Kingdom used a proportional electoral system, as does Scotland for its devolved, national parliament, the outcome on 7 May may well have seen a Labour – Scottish National Party coalition in power.

Thanks to mixed member proportional, it took the support of a skerrick more than a third of New Zealanders of voting age for the New Zealand National Party, last November, to achieve similarly unassailable electoral supremacy. That National secured a third term, despite scandals and corruption, is a rude reminder that after six previous elections under a proportional system, two-party thinking still predominated—and a divided opposition, it seems, will always be punished in the polls. And the third that is represented by the government is wholly unrepresentative, particularly of the young.

Turnout Australia, Aotearoa, United Kingdom, and Canada, 1945 to 2010s

Decline of Democracy Either Side of Ditch: While Western powers will readily go to war ‘to protect democracy’, they are not nearly so gung-ho at protecting their own from the decline that, in Aotearoa’s case ‘has been particularly steep and consistent’, and the slight lift in 2014 of 2.58 percentage points, from the record low 2011 turnout, probably only reflects perceptions of a closer election. Australia’s much steadier decline is a result of compulsory voting, but the flip side is that country’s relatively low rate of registration, despite that also being compulsory, and the high number of invalid votes, because it is there—Aotearoa still trails, but only by 3.7 percentage points. chart Electoral Commission Report on the 2014 General Election

In the last election, only 62.4% of those registered aged 18–29 voted, but, in line with abysmal international trends, fewer and fewer young New Zealanders register to vote, meaning that, of 18–24-year-olds, fewer than half actually voted. The situation would be problematic just in terms of democratic representation, but during the slow-burning ignition of an unprecedented existential crisis of humanity’s own making, which is disproportionately better understood by younger people, this, quite literally, is disastrous. A healthier democracy is the only hope if humanity is to prevail over short-termism. The inescapable pathway, if it is to thrive, as George Monbiot points out in the post-United-Kingdom-election context, democracy must be rebuild from the ground up:

A successful progressive movement must now be Citizens Advice bureau, housing association, scout troop, trade union, credit union, bingo hall, food bank, careworker, football club and evangelical church, rolled into one. Focus groups and spin doctors no longer deliver.

In Aotearoa, this rebuilding could be led by Labour, the Greens, by a new, Generation 10 001 party, by the non-partisan Generation Zero movement, or by combinations of the above. What can’t wait is the imperative to place school-aged children on a pathway that will, in most cases, result in actual electoral enrolment. Ideally, this would be part of a mandatory civics curriculum subject, which Aotearoa lacks, but which 8 of the 13 countries that were ranked ahead of her by the 2009 International Civic and Citizenship Education Study do have. (The fact that Māori and Pasifika students ranked particularly poorly in that study, did not make it into the Ministry of Education’s online summary.) Disgracefully, the currently dominant political party flagrantly refused to implement even the timid recommendations that emerged from the 2012 Electoral Commission review. Despite an average annual expenditure of better than $19 million over the last half-dozen years, the commission appears incapable of providing a vision of how the death of democracy can be averted, much less how democracy might be reimagined.

Civics knowledge ranking

Edged Out by Estonia; Sluming it with Slovenia: Fourteenth of 38 countries could be worse but, as the World’s first full democracy, Aotearoa should aspire to be up there ahead of South Korea. Estonia possibly edged out England and Aotearoa through its pioneering of online voting—something a nation of early-adopter New Zealanders should excel at, and vastly improve upon Estonia’s reportedly seriously insecure system. Slovenia, in fifteenth place, is categorised as a flawed democracy. (The ominous † indicates Aotearoa met guidelines for sampling participation rates only after replacement schools were included.) chart Electoral Commission Report on the 2014 General Election

Usually, a plausible-sounding case for the status quo can be argued on the grounds of the prevailing tight fiscal circumstances. But the one reform that is proven to be most effective in improving turnout, also slashes electoral costs. It is that rarest of things, a bona fide silver bullet: concurrent elections. A referendum on synchronising local and general elections, by a one-off delay of the 2016 local body elections until 2017, could be conducted at the same time as the currently profoundly unpopular $27.5 million referendum on the national flag.

So, given National’s determination to do nothing to aid the country’s ailing democracy, cross-party agreement—the self-serving, supposed prerequisite for electoral change—to lower the voting age, parallel elections, lifetime voter registration, or any of the many practicable measures available, appears utterly unlikely in the near term. This does, however, leave the way wide open for a movement à la Monbiot to establish a parallel, online electoral roll and system. And being app-based, and thus strongly representative of young people, the representatives elected, and policy made, would be ignored by mainstream parties at their peril. And not just mainstream parties, corporations or start-ups could be boosted by surgically targeted buycotts.

The choice, for young or old, is live dangerously but boringly, ignoring the awful truth about global warming, doing stuff-all other than acquiring stuff, or mobilise and make democratic, meaningful climate action simultaneously the most empowering and exciting game in town.

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