Act now and Aotearoa could own Democracy Day 2021
With Donald Trump’s best prospects now being immediate resignation and a prompt Mike Pence pardon, the United States’ flawed democracy might now survive long enough to face redemption.
Shy seven weeks, it is 20 years from the United States election that, thanks to its patently flawed, undemocratic—and its perversion of the popular vote 61% unwanted—institution of the electoral college, handed the presidency to the loser of the popular vote—by 547 398 votes—George w Bush. But in addition to the pointing and laughing, which is about to repeat, the world’s first full democracy, Aotearoa, needs to be addressing the patently undemocratic flaws in its own democracy.
Just one of its flaws, the 5% threshold for a party to gain seats in the legislature, could well cost the seriously-in-the-shade-of-Labour, Green Party. Some, such as business commentator Rod Oram, are effectively pleading for the Green Party to be supported, alluding to the indisputable fact that as serious as the covid-19 pandemic is, global warming will be the far greater killer. Be that as is may, given how impatient the opposition is to put business before what could prove to be the most lethal pandemic in a century, many voters will be exercised by the need to ensure the Labour-led response is now not sacrificed on the altar of a false dichotomy. With Labour Party polling putting the Greens below 5%, and historically minor coalition partners failing clear that threshold, the probability of Green Party votes being wasted is extremely high.
Then there is the small matter about how potent Green Party policy really is, on climate-action mobilisation. The Mahurangi Magazine contends that Lake Onslow pumped hydro storage now being explored by the Labour-led government is what climate-action mobilisation needs to look like. Pandering to electric cars—even short the blatantly populist National Party proposal to prioritise ev road space by permitting them in bus lanes, in part in the hope of precipitating a peak-bus backlash—is neither green nor climate leadership. Regardless of the party’s consistent failure to show meaningful climate action leadership, voting Green should still be an option for those wanting to push the two major parties in that direction, without the risk of wasting that vote on account of the beyond-crude 5% threshold.
Inspired by its 1986 redemocratisation, the Philippines did deserve to be the annual focus of Democracy Day. But since leading the 2016 descent into populism, in its most murderous manifestation, the world’s 13th-most populous country is also, predictably, a covid-19 basket case. In the toxic disinformation stakes, Duterte’s advice to wash facemasks in petrol rivals Trump’s encouragement to inject bleach. But whereas Trump dreamt of disguising the United States’ infection rate, Duterte succeeded, his corrupt health minister reporting, implausibly, a rate for the Philippines south of Norway’s. The country’s heath department, on 3 August, reported having 2000 test kits, for a population of nearly 110 million—slowing the spread of information, but not of covid-19.
As the world’s first full democracy, Aotearoa, with a bit of work, could consummately lead the global Democracy Day celebrations. The primary head-turner would be annual online elections, held on a Mondayised, holidayised Democracy Day. The reaction of most living in democracies with three-, four-, and five-year electoral cycles—and even Americans, with their two-year cycle of Congress—would be one of incredulity. But then it would dawn, that implemented as part of a thorough overhaul and updating of representative democracy, annual elections free of campaign years and billboard-lined streets, could be far more agreeable. But the key difference would not be that voting is annual, but that it gets results. For this to occur, voters need to be able to vote on what matters. If such an election had been held on 14 September 2020—the nearest Monday to the Democracy Day date of 15 September—the focus of many voters would be their choice of Prime Minister. Jacinda Ardern’s 34 percentage-point July-end polling lead might make that outcome forgone, but her minister-of-health aspirants, unless greatly more impressive than recent office holders, might receive much less emphatic support.
Electoral systems that foster trust in citizens to believe their votes matter will be rewarded with higher turnout than those that leave voters frustrated with the unreasonable trade-offs they are forced to make. Currently Labour is receiving a media caning for its less-than-courageous tax policy. For a voter who believes that New Zealand’s foreign aid is cringingly parsimonious, and with neither major party prepared to meaningfully address that, there must be the opportunity to directly nudge policy. Supporting Labour because at least it is not promising tax cuts, doesn’t come close to the fair representation of voters’ policy preferences. It is not difficult to visualise robust, elegant online systems that would allow voters to participate as deeply as they wished. In the 2020 election, many would be happy just to support, or otherwise, Prime Minister Ardern. Many others would be happy just to rank two or more parties. Some, either because they are exercised about many policies and politicians, or because they believe it to be their solemn democratic duty, may be very willing to invest 20 minutes or more expressing more detailed preferences.
The one-vote-majority Supreme Court decision ending the 2000 Florida recount was egregious. So too was the electoral college system that converted a more-than-half-million-popular-vote win into a loss. But what was unforgivable was that Al Gore lost for the wrong reason. The then vice president, believing he could not win the 2000 election campaigning on climate, attempted rebirth as a Clintonesque, it’s-the-economy-stupid acolyte. Too few were convinced—Hillary Clinton’s electoral-college loss, at least, was in spite of a 2.9 million popular-vote win. That Gore felt that there was insufficient electoral capital in the three quarters of Americans who, at that time, worried “a great deal” or “a fair amount” about global warming to be elected president speaks to the impossibly conflated choices voters are forced to contend with, and to two-party tribalism.
Without building fit-for-purpose electoral systems, the only hope for salvaging a survivable climate is for unusually able and charismatic leaders to succeed in being elected, in sufficient countries. Concern for climate globally is high but is not being reflected by electoral outcomes. This is due to a trifecta of the limitations of horse-and-cart-era representative democracy, the terminal corruption of those by global business interests, and a mainstream media model that, like the political landscape, is owned by the plutocracy. The irony is that, with the internet, never has the fourth estate had such a low-cost means of gathering and disseminating information. But the once proud publish-and-be-damned independence from advertisers has long since been eroded, with publishers having become totally beholden to big business. Government support for public broadcasting in Aotearoa is cravenly neoliberal, at less than 12% of the per capita average of the sort of company New Zealanders typically aspire to keep, of Norway, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.
While capable, climate-knowledgeable leaders could prevail in spite of their inadequate and damaged democratic machinery, to bank on sufficient such leaders assuming power to mobilise meaningful climate action would be reckless in the extreme. Given that climate-action mobilisation will engage humanity for centuries, particularly to adapt to sea-level rise, now is time to build fit-for-purpose democracies, and global democracy. Waiting until climate tipping points are proven to be exceeded to build a better democracy is utterly unconscionable and would be literally catastrophic. But even without the arguably existential imperative for it to be fit-for-purpose:
At least, that is how the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance puts democracy’s global state, in its 2019 report. Was Aotearoa to exhibit the leadership its historic role as the world’s first full democracy demands, by Democracy Day 2021, on Monday 13 September, most New Zealanders will already have voted. In fact many would have voted more than once, given that Aotearoa would go one better than Estonia in allowing voters to continually revise or enhance their preferences, right up until 6 pm on polling day. In addition to Estonia, Sweden allows “second voting”. While the world will still be in an elevated state of covid-19 disruption, the Mahurangi Magazine would likely be urging readers to consider voting similarly to 2020, had Aotearoa already moved to own Democracy Day:
Prime minister Jacinda Ardern
Party preference 1 Labour Party
Party preference 2 Green Party
Health minister preference 1 Dr Ayesha Verrall
Health minister preference 2 Dr Shane Reti
Energy priority 1 Lake Onslow pumped hydro storage
Energy priority 2 Busway electrification
Housing priority 1 Modular, high-cube-shipping-container-dimensioned, ⪚r3.3-insulation-cored, laminated-wood accommodation, manufactured at scale.
As regular readers might well imagine, the Mahurangi Magazine’s idealised list of recommendations would be considerably longer, but voters should be facilitated to engage sufficiently to express preferences regarding choices that exercise them. For many, expressing one or two party preferences would suffice. What is outright irresponsible is that the present mmp ballot paper implies that the two-tick, binary, choices on offer are of equal importance. There are only a very few seats like Epsom—where act, which won 0.5% of the party vote, exploited the coattails provision to gain a seat in Parliament—that influence who forms the government. For the vast majority of voters, only their party vote will influence the outcome of the election.
An invariably overlooked deficiency of New Zealand’s implementation of mixed-member proportional, and every other, is its lack of provision for voter-expression of the almost inevitable coalition involved, often only determined after post-election, voter-disrespecting horse trading. Thus, to be democratic, coalition preferences must be enfranchised. The Mahurangi Magazine’s would be:
Coalition exclusion preference 1 New Zealand First
Coalition exclusion preference 2 act New Zealand
(Recent, reactionary, rats-and-mice parties not dignified with a ranking, here.)
The surge in act party popularity is an example of the perils of electoral systems that encourage conflation of policy and party. Routine polling of policy issues such as assisted dying would discourage such aberration.
Hitting the top of the democracy leader board will require action across all aspects of democratic behaviour. Meanwhile, voting in elections providing only marginally more than Hobson’s choices is inexcusably horse-and-cart. Smart, secure online elections would signal to citizens that their votes are what will shape the critical mobilisation to meet the intertwining accommodation, child-poverty, climate, energy, and public health emergencies. That mobilisation must be the economy—an economy beyond consumerism, with the sacred mission of salvaging a survivable climate.
The Mahurangi Magazine’s proposed strategy, in short, is for the world’s first full democracy to rediscover its electoral-system auahatangacreativeness, creativity. Possible alternative here to “mojo”?, and for Aotearoa to demonstrate, every Democracy Day from 2021 onward, that voting for and on mobilisation will indeed reliably mobilise the meaningful climate action the world is desperate for.
Pumped about party preference The Mahurangi Magazine did not expect Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to boldly nail Lake Onslow colours to Labour’s masthead during the 23 September leaders’ debate. This is the first policy decision, albeit dependent upon the $30 million investigation now being undertaken, taken by Aotearoa, or for that matter, any country, of any material substance in addressing the existential need to slash fossil fuel use. A survivable climate cannot be delivered via the world’s billion cars being powered from battery-stored electricity. Aside from the challenge generating that electricity zero-carbon, the scale of mining, manufacture, and attendant pollution of the battery production would be heinous. Directly grid-powered trolleybuses and trolley-trucks, coupled with the world’s largest, 5-terawatt-hour5 trillion watt-hour, pumped-storage hydroelectricity facility, now that is a “battery”, and that is climate-action mobilisation. This is bigger, in terms of life and health, than the covid-19 pandemic, because it will demonstrate that going hard and going earlyas published: going early and going hard, which is arguably more strategic, but the Ardern phrase has undeniably earned its place in the vernacular, with scientifically sound strategies, is possible. And electable.
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.