Compulsory voting cart before smarter-democracy horse
Big business would be the biggest loser, was a Labour-led government to legislate to prosecute non-voters.
Currently, unlike Australians, New Zealanders are legally allowed to refrain from voting. But with global voter-turnout in determined decline, New Zealand’s lack of compulsory voting is being increasingly mentioned—even at the Mahurangi Action-hosted stvsingle-transferable-vote bicentennial breakfast.
It is desperately important that the vast majority of age-eligible citizens vote, but as elections in Russia demonstrate, it is also desperately important that voters be allowed wholesome options to vote for. But even in Aotearoa and Australia, and in the United Kingdom and the United States, in fact in all established democracies, the candidates which voters must choose between are virtually all dependent upon the support of big business—candidates for the virtuous Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand being a shining exception.
It is astoundingly naïve to imagine that there is no quid pro quo. Some apologists like to point out the largesse is often given equally to the competing political parties, as if that proves anything more than that the donor is sufficiently wealthy to ensure that all politicians are in her or his pocket.
Ironically, if the New Zealand Labour Party was to legislate for compulsory voting, it would likely guarantee itself sufficient electoral support to radically reform the utterly corrupt practice of exchanging big-business funding for big-business-friendly policy. Although it has not been implemented anywhere, much less any country of scale, the most promising campaign finance reform model is that whereby the state dollar-for-dollarGeorge Monbiot implies a greater than 1:1 ratio, electoral spending should be a fraction of what it has become matches the modest membership fee prescribed for political party membershipwhich of course must remain voluntary. The potential benefits are numerous, including that it doesn’t require an army of bureaucrats to decide, election by election, how much each party is to receive—no party should ever be helped to be re-elected after betraying its members, by being guaranteed the same level of campaign finance that helped obtain its election.
As this year’s elections have reinforced, the need for local-body campaign finance reform is possibly greater than that at the national level. Candidates routinely flout the campaign-finance reporting rules with no fear they will be removed from the office they have fraudulently gained; much less be jailedTaito Phillip Field, a former New Zealand associate minister for Pacific Island Affairs, was sentenced to six years in prison after being convicted on 11 charges of bribery and corruption and 15 of attempting to pervert the course of justice, but, unlike Mayor Dalziel, for nothing that blatantly garnered him electoral advantage.. Given that the majority of New Zealand local government candidates purport to be non-political-party-affiliated, a party-membership-based funding model might appear inappropriate for local-government elections. That so few have the honesty to declare party affiliation is a damning reflection of the abysmally low opinion in which political parties are held. The Green Party, again, is the exception. Its courage, and success, in fielding local-body candidates, contrasts with the practice of hiding affiliation:
This strongly suggests that the dishonest behaviour should be flushed out and penalised by making campaign funding contingent on unambiguous affiliation with a transparent, members-based political organisation.
Campaign finance reform would need to be more than skin deep, and to include mandatory transparency and democratisation of party processes. Membership, of course, must be as private as the ballot is secret, but membership couldn’t be bogus—members would be required to be registered voters. The obvious benefit, of course, is that the power of political parties would be roughly proportional to the members that they attracted—big business would no longer be able to blatantly buy and sell politicians and policy. The argument would be made, of course, that big business would simply invent myriad invisible ways to assist political parties willing to do their bidding. But this goes to the wider issue of corruption, and its detection—robust protection for whistleblowers being one of the more obvious needs.
If Labour was to insist on putting the cart before the horse with the stick of compulsion, as it has every self-interest to, voters should not hesitate to retaliate by demanding that democracy first be made fit for purpose, as a fair part of that trade. After every election for the last three decades, there is much soul-searching as to the cause of the global decline in voter turnout. As the fictional Jane Fulton, in Sudden Death, saysby the magnificent activist, feminist and writer Rita Mae Brown, 1983. And no, not Albert Einstein—doesn’t even sound like Einstein!:
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.
Those who refrain from voting are invariably labelled apathetic, but this is lazy mainstream-media characterisation. Some refuse to dignify a practice that has long since passed corrupt, exceeded farcical, and now actively thwarts the beyond-urgent mobilisation needed to stand a chance of salvaging a survivable climate. But, that aside, rather than be an opportunity for ritual voter-turnout-decline handwringing, elections must be harnessed to generate an appetite for reform.
Being the world’s first full democracy provides a uniquely solid lynchpin on which to rebuild the expectation that Aotearoa will once again innovate, and once again lead. The Labour-led government’s laudable plan for teaching of New Zealand history to be made mandatory in all schools by 2022 is invoking a backlash that will only intensify going into the 2020 election—the populist dog-whistling will become deafening. That it would take a country until 2022 to begin to comprehensively teach its own more-than-700-year history is a significant history topic in of itself. But, potentially, the teaching the trifecta of first indigenous enfranchisement, first female enfranchisement and first citizen-led proportional-representation reform provides the compelling backstory for introducing universal year-7–15 voting in schools.
Despite its putative antiquity, anything approaching full democracy is a historically recent phenomenon, and very much a work in progress. Or at least it would be if those purporting to live by its tenants treated it with the respect its ideals deserve. The central tenant of democracy is, of course, choice. The people chose the policies, and politicians, they prefer. New Zealanders, largely oblivious of their country’s stela contribution to the democratic project, are tolerating their politicians spinning out a preference-voting reform that should’ve taken one electoral cycle to implement, to take, at the rate of progress to date, a century to implement—a better example of malapplied localism would be difficult to conceive. If the disquiet felt by Aucklanders about the blatantly undemocratic structures built into the 2010 forced-amalgamation edifice could be channelled to force preference voting on their stv-oblivious local government ‘leaders’, it would be game over for the legislatively-enshrined prevarication—it would be insaneor, at the very least, dysfunctional to prolong the wantonly expensive, council-by-council process, once New Zealand’s metropolis joined its capital in moved safely beyond the perversities of first-past-the-post.
Under fppfirst-past-the-post, Auckland’s incumbent mayor was re-elected by just 17% of registered voters. Given that his National Party-backed challenger attracted less than half that support, and no other candidate was remotely in the running, it is likely that preference voting would have confirmed that Mayor Goff was preferred by a majority. But in a three-way tussle, the Aucklanders might not always be so lucky, and could all-too-easily electa misnomer in many first-past-the-post elections, where the ‘winner’ is other than the most-preferred candidate a divisive, malignant narcissist pathocrat to preside over the metropolis.
The chicken-and-egg challenge is to convince sufficient Aucklanders to demand the adoption of the far less perverse electoral method provided for in the 2001 Local Electoral Act—preference voting, specifically stv. Legally, Auckland Council would be obliged to hold a referendum on adopting the single-transferable-vote system if 5% of registered electors signed a petition demanding it. However, for 53 000 Aucklanders to sign a petition on an issue as esoteric as stv would be unprecedented. Even this year’s high-profile petition seeking to ban bottom trawling on seamounts and other ecologically sensitive areas, backed by the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, Forest & Bird, Environment and Conservation Organisations of New Zealand, Greenpeace, LegaSea, and wwf-New Zealand, failed to clock up that number of signatures. But rather than attempting to force a referendum, a disciplined organisation of several hundred preference-voting-concerned citizens could simply persuade Auckland’s mayor and councillors to exercise their power under the legislation to introduce stv, without the extravagance of a referendum—support for mmpmixed-member proportional, through three referendums since 1992, is more than enough proof that New Zealanders are fed-up with the unfairness of fppfirst-past-the-post.
Labour will lose its slender hold on power on 21 November 2020, if the most recent polling23–27 November 2019, giving National a 7 percentage point lead over Labour proves to be indicative. Rationally, the party should have wasted no time in fixing mmp, given that the parties it persuaded to support it, Green and New Zealand First, each only cleared the 5% threshold by little more than 1 and 2 percentage points respectively. Given its squeamishness about addressing the undemocratic threshold—a 5% threshold would be unlawful in Europe—Labour is unlikely to suddenly deliver the transformational change it promised ahead of the 2017 election, but nor was radical, climate-action-mobilisation-ready electoral reform ever likely to be part of any such transformation.
Conceivably, a ’Fix mmp Aotearoa’ association could work at both local and central government level, to provide a one-stop shop for policy analysts, politicians, and organisers, and the mainstream media. And while there are powerful arguments for including compulsory voting in the mix, there is a stronger argument for sticking with smarter-democracy measures that don’t have cart-before-the-horse downsides such as the careful-what-you-wish-for indication that the far right appears to profit more from compulsory voting than the far left.
Led by advocates even half as articulate and charismatic as Professor Janine Hayward, Aotearoa could rediscover its electoral-reform mojo, and redeem its world’s-first-full-democracy credentials.
Brutally simple George Monbiot describes his proposal for reforming campaign finance as brutally simple:
Every party would be entitled to charge the same small fee for membership (perhaps £50 or $50), which would then be matched by the state, with a fixed multiple. Any other political funding, direct or indirect, would be illegal. This would also force parties to re-engage with voters. Too expensive? Not in the least. The corruption of our politics by private money costs us hundreds of times more than a funding system for which we would pay directly. That corruption has led to financial crises caused by politicians’ failure to regulate the banks, environmental crises caused by the political power of the dirtiest companies, and lucrative contracts for political funders; and overcharging by well-connected drugs companies.
Great grout-graft scandal Unlike Mayor Dalziel’s alleged electoral fraud, nothing Taito Phillip Field was convicted of garnered him electoral advantage. Involving tiling goods and services worth less than $30 000, Field’s hefty six-year sentence contrasts with zero investigations, never mind convictions, into, for example, myriad corruption allegations surrounding billions in privatisation programmes since 1984.