Web Magna Carta and better democracy for half the price
It is possible to put a price on better democracy.
At least to the extent that combining local and general elections would nearly halve the cost of holding them, and massively improve local-body turnout to boot.
Extensive experience elsewhere suggests that if New Zealand’s local-body elections were held concurrently with its general election, their collective turnout would be potentially dragged up by about 36 percentage points.
So, on the face of it, concurrent elections are a turnout silver bullet, and, aside from the critical benefit of boosting voter turnout, would save many ratepayer dollars—the budget for Auckland Council alone, for its three-year cycle of elections, is $7.7 million.
Whether voters would be half as dutiful in selecting local government candidates as for selecting their political party and member of Parliament, would then largely depend upon how successful parties become in fielding attractive local-body candidates. Those disillusioned with party politics will hate the idea of any electoral change that strengthens the influence of parties. But it is the behaviour parties, rather than parties per se, that is the problem; their refusal, following an election, to work together for the common good of the people they represent. The solution to misbehaving parties lies in ensuring, in fact in legislating, that they behave transparently. Those parties that show they can be trusted will prosper, and the quickest route to building trust is for a party to democratise—Labour is said to have trebled its membership after allowing its members a vote, albeit negatively weighted, for party leader.
The media is quick to categorise low local-body election turnout as apathy, but on the contrary, for many non-voters, the refusal to vote in such elections is an excusable, inadequate knowledge of how the myriad candidates would likely vote on the spectrum of policies and bylaws. A study following the 2004 elections revealed that, in the most important age group in respect to establishing a voting habit, year-13 students, by a two-fold factor, chose the ‘I had no idea of who to vote for’ option to categorise their principal reason for non-voting. Some form of party system, preferably the multi-party system, is the only practicable and potentially constructive means of channelling factionalism; the legitimate aggregation and articulation of common interests. It is thus the earnest duty of any responsible political party to develop a comprehensive platform of local-body policies and local projects. Here, people’s parties possibly enjoy a rare advantage over the deep-pocketed parties representing corporate interests, as it is the perfect opportunity for parties to recruit the grass-root supporters that are utterly essential for any party dedicated to representing citizens. And it is also probably the only way new Green Party co-leader James Shaw can come close to delivering on his promise to quadruple membership in two years.
In next year’s local-body elections, a number of voters will be given the option of casting their ballot online. This follows the egregious, record-low turnout in 2013 , and the findings of the Online Voting Working Party, set up in the wake of that embarrassment:
For stepping into the brave new world of online voting, the Department of Internal Affairs, and particularly the 11 collectively and individually brilliantly qualified members of the Online Voting Working Party, deserve colossal respect. There are any number of online security experts who totally oppose online voting, claiming that the internet can never be rendered sufficiently secure for that use. But requiring 100% security is unreasonable, and New Zealanders’ uptake of online banking is ample proof that people are capable of keeping any residual risk involved in online transactions in perspective.
So, what should be of intense interest to James Shaw and, hopefully, sufficient Green Party functionaries, is DemocracyOS. The brainchild of Santiago Siri, a genius Argentine college-dropout, games-software-developer-with-a-conscience, and entrepreneur, DemocracyOS is a soon-to-be-launched, open-source voting platform, which is currently accessible in demonstrate mode. The perfect, poster-child example of online democracy in action, meantime, had been provided by proponents of internet rights, as a basic human right—no less than Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World-Wide Web, has called for a Magna Carta for the internet. Although, to date, the demo hasn’t exactly gone viral, possibly, ironically, and ironically on account of its southern origins, the platform could be the perfect tool with which James Shaw can ‘change the party’:
…technology-based, data-driven but founded on communities, self-organisation and the passion of volunteers.
Viewed in isolation, it is easy to imagine that the figures showing higher turnout with increasing voter age reflects that an increase of interest accrues with age. What is mostly occurring, however, is that younger people are not developing a voting habit, and are unlikely to as they age. Today’s best voters, those 60 years or older, have spent a lifetime voting. It is not something they stumbled into later in life—they were brought up by a generation that highly valued and respected the right to vote. The writer’s mother, for example, was born just 18 years after Aotearoa became, when it enfranchised women, the World’s first democracy worthy of the term. In contrast, declining respect for politicians is helping to ensure that today’s parents are unable to instil in their children the same reverence for democracy that was part of their upbringing. Gallop, since 1973 (the year before Mahurangi Action was established, which coincided with Richard Nixon’s disgrace and resignation), has seen American respondents’ confidence in Congress categorised as ‘very little’ erupt from 11% to 50%, in 2014. New Zealanders can be grateful that, in the 2015 UMR Research Mood of the Nation report, the percentage having very little confidence in Parliament is only half that of their cousins in the United States. Curiously, however, politicians, as an occupation, in the latest of those annual reports, enjoy a slightly higher rating, 4.7 out of 10 than when the reports began in 1993, on 4.1. (It took the inclusion of real estate agents, in the 2008 report onward, for politicians to have competition for the bottom slot.) The low point—a 3.9 out of 10 ranking in 1998—coincided with Winston Peters’ sacking by Prime Minister Jim Bolger, after New Zealand’s worst imaginable introduction to proportional representation and coalition government.
There are two routes, theoretically, by which turnout can be turned around. One involves addressing the entire voting-age population. The other targets year-13, or even younger, students. If money was no object, continued orangeguying, to the enormous profit of the ad agencies, could continue to be inflicted on an underwhelmed populace. Or something more shocking tried, such as the 200 000-kroner X-rated Voteman video that survived all of two days before being pulled by the Danish government. The orange guy and Voteman utterly epitomise the wasteful, scatter gun approach to the turnout crisis. By targeting college students approaching the age of voter registration, and having them participate in annual shadow elections and referendums, a cohort is recruited to a lifetime of voting. Chances are, in the process, those college students will additionally enrol more of their parent’s generation than enrichment of Saatchi and Saatchi ever would.
Two members of the Online Voting Working Party are already involved in this work, and the Green and Labour should unashamedly select sufficient 18–24-year-old candidates to convince college students that those parties at least were sincere in their endeavours to represent youth. Two members of the Online Voting Working Party are already involved in this work, and the Green and Labour should waste no time in fully democratising their party organisations, online—from policy to candidate selection to party lists. National could radically democratise too, of course, but it would be fascinating to witness the knots the party would be obliged to tie itself into to reassure its corporate benefactors that its core business was prioritising their bidding.
There is nothing, of course, to stop National firing the concurrent-elections silver bullet, but it had better be prepared to duck the ricochet. Concurrent elections will benefit the party or parties that stand to benefit most from a strong grassroots. National certainly needs members, but not for their piddling annual subscriptions. Meantime, the Green and Labour parties acutely depend upon members’ subs—particularly the Greens, given their highly principled refusal to accept donations or sponsorship deemed to be contrary to the ethics and philosophy of the party.
A full and uncompromised democracy is a prerequisite for a fair and just society, and its subversion by corporate neoliberalism has led to large underclass of permanently poor, and its blameless, child-poverty victims. But the greater, existential crisis that today’s hamstrung democracies are failing to manage is, of course, anthropogenic global warming. That so many who are concerned about greenhouse gas emissions imagine photovoltaic panels and electric cars are any sort of answer is testimony to the pitiful lack of understanding of the enormity of the task of decarbonising modern civilisation. Global warming is not just another environmental problem, and the better ability of young people to comprehend this means they must build a better, fit-for-purpose democracy, globalise that democracy, and replace fossil-fueled infrastructure a century and a half in the making, even as they contend with an increasingly cruel and problematic climate.
That James Shaw comprehends the enormity of the crisis is manifest by his incredibly courageous decision, in a blokey society, to elect to not obtain a driver’s licence. Now, he should not hang about to find out if National will snatch up the concurrency cartridge. By calling the cost-saving concurrent-election shots, Shaw would set the agenda for retrieving democracy from the grasping, self-serving hands of the corporations…
…and finally put the Green Party, as it celebrates its 45th birthdayThe Values Party, from the remnants of which the Green Party was formed, was founded in 1972 in 2017, into power—coalition power.