25% less democracy doesn’t equate to 25% less can-kicking
Blamed for everything from the lack of climate-action mobilisation to the lack of a capital gains tax, to the failure to raise the retirement age, the three-year parliamentary term—it is persistently opined—must go.
Evidence for the efficacy of longer parliamentary terms, however, is never provided. It is apparently axiomatic that, with more time in which to introduce non-populist policies, politicians will be less wary of voter backlash. Even the earnest duo Dr Andrew Butler and Sir Geoffrey Palmer qc seem unable to summon citations to support the bald, 4-year-good-3-year-bad assertion implicit in their proposed codified constitution.
Longer parliamentary terms are famous for failing to go full-term. The United Kingdom, since the adoption of its fixed-term electoral act in 2011, has had three elections and three prime ministers, which is arguably less conducive to quality long-term governance than New Zealand’s three-year term. What is readily admitted, even by Butler and Palmer, is that democracy is more than elections. There are many promising and tested participatory long-term planning processes that could be deployed in Aotearoa, before enacting the unproven premise that holding fewer elections will improve democratic efficiency. Equally indispensably, a world-leading policy development and legislative drafting office would decouple that exacting work from electoral cycles, irrespective of their length.
In 1967, and even more emphatically in 1990, New Zealanders voted against extending the parliamentary term. But with 56% supporting a four-year term, in a 2013 Colmar Brunton poll, elite calls for a longer parliamentary term as a panacea for political short-termism have become persistent. However, it is possible that the rise in four-year-term support reflects a disdain for party politics, and a distaste for polarising political campaigns. The distrust evident in July 2020’s polling wherein only 22% expressed trust in politiciansthose rating trust and confidence between 7 and 10 on an 11-point scale, could well be a latter-day, post-proportional-representation, plague-‘a-all-your-houses sentiment.
The oft-stated rationale for providing an extra year between elections is that a government spends the first twelve months deciding on policy, the second attempting to translate that into legislation, and the third fighting an election. A cynic might counter that any incoming government worth the ~$280 million in salary and other parliamentary expenses its members soaked up during their previous three years in opposition might be expected to have the odd bit of draft legislation shovel-ready.
But while governance structures matter, autocratic, democratic, or otherwise, worthy leaders will make any system work, as is evidenced by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Most of the world’s leaders, preoccupied with the received imperative to put the economy first, abjectly failed to grasp that, long-term, there was no acceptable alternative to extinguishing the pandemic. There is no practicable alternative, as Professor Michael Baker reiterated Sunday morning before last, when asked about the worst-case scenario:
We are seeing the worst-case scenarios overseas, and it’s grim. Because this virus is showing its ability to continue circulating around the planet, it might effect 40-, or 50-, or 60% of the world’s population. It’s showing its infection mortality risk is about 0.7%, so if you do the maths—you can do it on the back of an envelope—that’s about 20 million people dying over the next couple of years.
Lest listeners’ reaction be that hearts should simply be hardened to that carnage, Professor Baker added:
Its also this terrible disruption to health services, the huge uncertainty for businesses operating in this environment, and the long-term illness that many people get, following this.
Prime Minister Ardern’s Churchillian response, however, is the exception, and democracy as practiced a fifth of the way into the 21st century, is demonstrably unfit-for-purpose. Corrupted by corporate finance and increasingly fronted by unprincipled populists, the Trumpian response to covid-19 of running out the clock to the next election, whilst signalling madly to low-information investors that stock market riches are there for the taking, epitomises the ignominious decrepitude of the edifice that masquerades as democracy.
Arguably, the most egregious aspect of modern democracy is that it is blatantly wholly bought and paid for by the plutocracy. The 2016 United States presidential campaigns cost the Clinton–Trump camps a combined $1.16 billion. Even in Aotearoa, in the 2017 election year, political parties received Including a nearly $3 million government broadcasting allocation $14.5 million, which, per capita, is almost as much—more than 80% of the United States presidential campaign figure. The easiest reform, was the New Zealand Labour Party to announce a genuinely toxicity-free-moment, would be to enact George Monbiot’s self-described “brutally simple” proposal:
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.
However, even that reform would not ensure the party-political playing field remained level in perpetuity. An even more brutal measure was that proposed by the Chartists: annual elections. Their rationale was that, with elections held annually:
…no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelve-month.
But the Chartists’ sixth objective, annual parliaments, was about more than just campaign finance; it was about prohibido olvidar:
6. Annual Parliaments, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelve-month; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.
The evocation to prohibido olvidar—never forget—is being used on Democratic billboards to remind Floridians of Trump’s oblivious lobbing of rolls of paper towels at starving Puerto Ricans, in 2017. Whereas longer electoral terms result in hideously disruptive election-year circuses, annual elections, combined with strictly prescribed campaign financing, would likely penalise parties observed to brazenly put politicking ahead of governing.
An encouraging dynamic of the 2020 election year is the youth-led push to lower the voting age to 16. But combined with four-year term, this would mean only one 16-year-old in four would get to vote at 16. Fifteen-year-olds currently agitating for the voting age to be lowered, would have to wait until 2024, when they are 19, to cast their first votes. By the time they reached the average New Zealand life expectancy for their cohort, assuming that they’d developed the voting habit, they would have five fewer opportunities to exercise their franchise. But that is not the worst of it. Robust research shows that turnout is highest when young people can vote immediately after being enfranchised, and then falls away.
With the very survivability of climate at stake, it is essential that young people are represented in parliament by their peers. While non-democratic futures are conceivable and possible—one of the world’s two most populous countries, the ascending superpower China, is determinedly single-party autocratic—for civilisation to forsake democracy now rather than radically reform it, in the hope of benign authoritarianism, would be a preposterous gamble of unprecedented proportions. It would be more dangerous for humanity, collectively, than proposing “let’s give this Third Reich malarkey another lash!”
In 164 years of elections, Aotearoa has held them, on average, every three years, one month—what with the First World War government running for five long years. Rather than knee-jerk into a four-year term now, less arbitrary, tested measures should be adopted to address the long-term planning that no country, democratic or nay, has demonstrated consistent prowess with. Climate can-kicking by lifetime ruling autocrats—China’s nationally determined climate action contributions are rated “Highly Insufficient”—is every bit as prevalent as it is by leaders subject to election cycles, regardless of length. The constructive, democratically spirited way to break New Zealand’s disruptive three-year electoral circus is to introduce annual, online voting. Youth, there is every reason to believe, will not have the patience or perversity to prevaricate on climate-action mobilisation until climate becomes unliveable for billions.
An effective ban on old blokes in utes erecting billboards, every three—or heaven-preserve democracy from its terminal, accelerating, disengagement from youth, four—years!
Achilles’ Heel of current strategies The following are the two concluding paragraphs of Asymptomatic Transmission, the Achilles’ Heel of Current Strategies to Control Covid-19, published 28 May 2020:
Asymptomatic transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is the Achilles’ heel of Covid-19 pandemic control through the public health strategies we have currently deployed. Symptom-based screening has utility, but epidemiologic evaluations of Covid-19 outbreaks within skilled nursing facilities such as the one described by Arons et al. strongly demonstrate that our current approaches are inadequate. This recommendation for SARS-CoV-2 testing of asymptomatic persons in skilled nursing facilities should most likely be expanded to other congregate living situations, such as prisons and jails (where outbreaks in the United States, whose incarceration rate is much higher than rates in other countries, are increasing), enclosed mental health facilities, and homeless shelters, and to hospitalized inpatients. Current U.S. testing capability must increase immediately for this strategy to be implemented.
Ultimately, the rapid spread of Covid-19 across the United States and the globe, the clear evidence of SARS-CoV-2 transmission from asymptomatic personsArons MM, Hatfield KM, Reddy SC, et al. Presymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infections and transmission in a skilled nursing facility. N Engl J Med. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMoa2008457, and the eventual need to relax current social distancing practices argue for broadened SARS-CoV-2 testing to include asymptomatic persons in prioritized settings. These factors also support the case for the general public to use face masks when in crowded outdoor or indoor spaces. This unprecedented pandemic calls for unprecedented measures to achieve its ultimate defeat.
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