Monday, June 6, 2022

The vacuum at the heart of the democratic process

Ever heard of Naisi Chen?

No, me neither. Then how about Mark Cameron, Karen Chhour, Emily Henderson, Marja Lubeck, Liz Craig, Camilla Belich, Ibraham Omer, Teanau Tuiono, Damien Smith, Lemauga Lydia Sosene, Simon Court and Helen White?

They are all current, serving Members of Parliament. Chen, Craig, Lubeck, White, Belich, Sosene and Omer are Labour list MPs. Cameron, Court, Chhour and Smith got into Parliament on the ACT list. Tuiono represents the Greens and Henderson is the Labour MP for Whangarei.

My point in running these names past you is merely to illustrate that there are people sitting in the House of Representatives whom most of us have never heard of. I follow politics reasonably closely and most of those 13 names are unfamiliar to me.

You’ll note that most of the unknowns, if I may call them that, are list MPs and therefore less visible than those who represent actual electorates and who are therefore directly accountable to voters. Electorate MPs need to make themselves known to their constituents and local media because their re-election prospects depend on it. List MPs, on the other hand, answer only to the party machine and it’s theoretically possible that they could sit in the House for several terms and still not make the faintest impact on the public consciousness.

You may also note that there aren’t many National MPs on my roll of anonymity. This isn’t because of pro-National bias on my part (God forbid). It’s simply that most currently serving National MPs, even those in list seats, have been around longer than the wave of newcomers who entered Parliament in 2020, and have therefore had more time to become publicly known. (Labour won 19 list seats in 2020, many of them occupied by newbies; National won 10, of which several went to long-serving MPs such as Gerry Brownlee and Chris Bishop who had an established public profile. ACT won nine new seats, most of them occupied by MPs no one had heard of.)

One of the conclusions to be drawn from this is that MPs in general have become more distant from the public they purport to serve – so distant, in fact, that many of their names are unrecognisable. This is in part an inevitable consequence of electoral reform, and more specifically the creation of the mixed-member system and the expansion of Parliament from 99 to 120 MPs, 48 of whom have no electorate.

One of the claims made for the MMP system is that it has made Parliament a lot more diverse, although it’s likely this would have happened even under the old first-past-the-post system as a result of social and demographic trends. But one downside of the change (one of several, in my view) is that it eroded the direct connection between electors and elected.

We now have two classes of MP: those who are directly accountable to voters, who get out and about in their electorates and hence are publicly visible (at least if they’re doing their job properly), and those who are rarely, if ever, seen outside Parliament and about whom the public knows zilch.

This is not to say list MPs are inevitably doomed to anonymity. Some acquire a high profile because they are hard-working or adroit self-promoters or media favourites (Golriz Ghahraman and Chloe Swarbrick come to mind – the latter to the extent that she was able to win a strategically important electorate) while others mimic flatfish, metaphorically speaking, by concealing themselves in the mud with only their eyes protruding.

But there’s another important factor here that’s rarely examined. It concerns the crucial role of the media in ensuring the proper functioning of democracy, and it was brought into sharp relief by the member’s Bill recently introduced to Parliament by ACT MP James McDowall.

It’s just possible that one reason so many MPs are unknown to the public is that the media have largely abandoned their traditional function of reporting what happens in Parliament. And I mean in Parliament – not outside the debating chamber where members of the press gallery (sometimes known as the wolf pack, but perhaps more accurately characterised as a mob of sheep taking their cue from whoever happens to be the most aggressive among them) wait to ambush whichever politician they have collectively decided will be that day’s target.

We are largely ignorant not only about who represents us in Parliament, but also what they do there. The only time the mainstream media take an interest in the debating chamber is when something happens to excite them, such as a squabble involving the Speaker or the inflammatory hurling of an insult.

It wasn’t always thus. One way previous generations of New Zealanders became acquainted over time with the names of MPs is that the media regarded it as one of their core duties to report parliamentary debates, parliamentary questions and select committee hearings. Look at newspapers from 20 or 30 years ago and you’ll see entire pages devoted to coverage of parliamentary proceedings, all painstakingly reported by newspapers that took their role as chronicles of record very seriously.

The now-defunct New Zealand Press Association, the industry-owned co-operative that serviced daily papers from Whangarei to Invercargill and had its own team of reporters in the gallery, was meticulous about covering the day-to-day business of Parliament. In addition, the small, privately owned South Pacific News Service (SOPAC) provided papers with specific parliamentary stories on request and often pursued issues that were of local interest to individual newspapers.

That was the primary means by which the public learned who was who in Parliament and what they were doing, if anything. It was a guide – an imperfect one, but better than none – to how our elected representatives were performing and what they stood for.

Some papers, notably The Dominion, also published an irreverent “sketch” column reporting on parliamentary proceedings in a way that often revealed far more about MPs’ conduct and personalities than a truckload of Hansard transcripts could ever do. (Jane Clifton was an acknowledged master of this journalistic form and continues to entertain Listener readers with her political insights, all the while seeming to keep her credibility intact despite the delicate complication of being married to Trevor Mallard.)

But that was then and this is now. Much of the time we have no idea what business is being conducted in the House, still less any knowledge of which MPs are making speeches or asking questions. Often we don’t learn about important legislation until its consequences – not always welcome ones – become apparent long after it has been passed.

This means there is a vacuum at the heart of the democratic process. We elect our representatives every three years, and then what? To all intents and purposes they disappear into a void until the next election, with the exception of the handful of activist MPs already mentioned who attract journalists’ attention. The feedback loop that should tell us what all those other MPs are doing is broken.

Yet the right to observe and report Parliament is arguably the most fundamental of press freedoms. The 18th century politician and philosopher Edmund Burke is credited with the famous observation that there were three “estates” in the British Parliament – the Lords Spiritual (bishops), the Lords Temporal (peers) and the House of Commons – “but in the reporters’ gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth estate more important [by] far than they all”.

Burke recognised that a functioning democracy must be an informed democracy. It would no doubt astonish him, and those who fought for press freedom in the 18th and 19th centuries, to see that the contemporary media in New Zealand have largely renounced this most basic of press functions.

In a previous era a Bill such as McDowall’s, which was aimed at ensuring freedom of speech in academic institutions, would have been reported. At least some of the MPs who spoke in the debate would likely have been named and quoted. The public might have learned that McDowall and National MPs Penny Simmonds, Simon O’Connor and Michael Woodhouse cared about free speech while several MPs on the other side (Angela Roberts, Jo Luxton, Chloe Swarbrick, Shanan Halbert, Gaurav Sharma and Ingrid Leary) didn’t think it needed special protection in universities. The media would very likely have felt a special responsibility to report the debate because it concerned an issue in which they have a stake, since freedom of expression and freedom of the press are directly related.

As it was, I didn’t see or hear a word in the mainstream media about McDowall’s Bill and its defeat. It vanished without a trace, other than in Hansard. I’m reminded of the tree falling in the forest: if no one heard it, did it make a sound? Or in the case of McDowall’s Bill and countless others like it: if no one bothered to report them, did they even happen?

My guess is that you’re more likely to see a polar bear in Bellamy’s than a row of reporters busily taking shorthand notes of speeches in the House. As a result, MPs largely escape the public scrutiny that should inform our votes. This magnifies an absence of accountability already inherent under MMP, where a substantial proportion of MPs are answerable not to the public but to their party hierarchy. Call them the invisible MPs.

Online platforms (Newsroom, BusinessDesk, Point of Order, to name three) fill some of the gaps in parliamentary coverage, and Radio New Zealand’s The House caters to a small audience of political obsessives. But it’s hit and miss, and the result is that we are arguably less informed about the business of Parliament than at any time in living memory. That can’t be good for democracy.

My apologies to readers who couldn't make the link to my post about James McDowall's Bill work. It seems to have come right with a bit of tinkering.


LNF said...

100% correct. List MP's serve the party and can block any Bill that the Party doesn't like
20 Labour list could be gone 2023. The only thing that might save them is National
List MP's should have a maximum of 2 terms
Message to Peter Shirtcliffe. Sir - you were right

Peter said...

Good Morning Karl.

I will have to admit I did not vote for MMP. But we have it, and must make the best of what we have. But a major flaw in the party list is that we, the voters have only minimum impact on who actually gets in. If voters could prioritise the list ... even if most did not ... then parliament would much more closely represent the wishes of the electorate, rather than position in a party hierarchy. As an aside, if you really want to get up a list MP's nose, tell them they were appointed, not elected.

Doug Longmire said...

Unfortunately and a bit depressingly Karl, you are quite right.
The MMP system, which to be accurate, was foisted upon us with no proper options, has resulted in a parliament in which more than a THIRD of the M.P.'s have NOT been voted in by the electorate.

hughvane said...

Let’s indulge ourselves in an informal survey - keeping it seemly - of what MMP might state. Starting the ball rolling - Mickey Mouse Parliament.

Not since the age of 19, when I took an interest in politics and was going to change the country, if not the world, have I ever witnessed such a shemozzle as NZ has in its House of Representatives, aka Parliament.

The List system is a junket for unelected members, some of whom Karl has named, to enable feasting on the State milk dispenser without being accountable to anyone but their colleagues and associates who may be feasting themselves as well, and are equally unknown to we the Great Unwashed.

I cannot remember if I voted in favour of MMP back in 1994, nor can I recall if we were offered STV, but I know which system I would NOT vote for now - or ever again. To think that MMP was foisted on Germany by the Americans after WWII to prevent a single party winning an absolute majority in that country ever again; then look at what has happened to NZ now.

Scott said...

I would add that unelected list MPs have done a lot of damage. Sue Bradford and her anti smacking bill comes to mind, opposed at the time by 85% of the electorate. But what does she care? She is not accountable to the electorate!

The homosexual Mexican Green MP is another good example. He doesn't appear to even like NZ and he was able to travel in and out of NZ with his boyfriend during the lockdown. He is literally a law unto himself.

Regarding the media the marvel today is that Labour can introduce anything, no matter how radical, and it will get no coverage. Co-governance is happening but how many NZers know about it? This radical change in our constitutional arrangements should set off a five alarm fire bell inside our media newsrooms. But so far - crickets.

Basically the media are now a bought and paid for adjunct of the Labour party. NZ is being radically transformed but the media, to their eternal shame, is silent.

Trev1 said...

Surely you've heard of Marja Lubeck Karl? She tweets a lot of photos of herself with Jacinda and is often spoken of as a potential successor to Ardern in the Thousand Year Matriarchy.

Like many young people, today's journalists are deeply incurious and long to be spoon-fed by the ruling clique. They get a thrill from being called by their first names by the politicians they live to flatter. It's a mutual onanism society.

The turkeys won't vote for Christmas so MMP is here to stay, at least until the onset of "co-governance" and then who knows what rules if any might apply? Perhaps Professors Kidman and Spoonley can tell us?

Anonymous said...

MMP has failed on several fronts

+ absolute majorities were supposedly a thing from the past under MMP - we're now witnessing the ugly reality of authoritarian rule last seen under FPP.
+ 25% of enrolled voters have no representation in parliament, 18% have disengaged and not voted - this is more than the Greens Act & Maori Party combined. MMP was supposed to encourage people to vote.
+ Half the parliamentarians are accountable only to the party. Willie Jackson is a great example - three terms and never been elected by any voter. Where does that put his co-governance agenda if Hepuapua is not Labour policy. MMP is destroying democracy.

MMP has been instrumental in taking us away from democracy and into ethnic tribalism - who would have thought.

PaulL said...

I often think that people blame MMP for the fact that other people don't agree with them. So they inveigh against list MPs from parties they don't agree with, when those list MPs are often doing exactly what they were elected to do. Sure, they're not "answerable" to an electorate, but their party as a whole is absolutely answerable to their voters. And it's not like FPP didn't have many flaws, most obviously that it created a two party system in which many voters weren't represented at all. MMP isn't perfect, but I think it is better than FPP. STV might be better, but given how little traction it's getting in local councils, I'm not sure people like it.

Separately, on the university freedom of speech bill - the argument from the opponents was that it basically duplicated a rule already in existence. Which begs the question of why universities are successfully blocking speech they disagree with. I haven't seen any canvassing in MSM (or elsewhere) of what the current flaws are, and how this bill would have solved them. Which makes it really hard to have any useful perspective. My general view is that this particular bill was basically grandstanding, because it mostly created a law that duplicated an existing one, in the hopes of drawing attention and support, rather than being a serious attempt to resolve a problem that I agree exists. But again, no actual analysis of it is available to me, so who knows really.

Andy Espersen said...

The political picture that exists in Denmark, with a similar MMP system as New Zealand’s, is quite different – because here their cut-off point for participating in the extra seats is only 2% – whereas ours is 5%. The result is a lot of parties in Denmark (13 this term) – and what in effect turns out to be a parliament with a lot of single, independent members. A ruling party, even a coalition party, can never achieve a complete majority – but must always take into consideration the many independents.

Our reason for introducing the 5% rule was that we were scared of that situation – but in fact this turns out to be a strength of an MMP system. All the single party-leaders are sensible, intelligent people who all simply vote for the legislation that their conscience tells them is right for their country - that is real democracy. A three year dictatorship by an unethical, tyrannical party such as we are seeing it in New Zealand at the moment would simply be impossible in Denmark – because here most of the extra seats are not taken up by members appointed to a party list, whose only quality is loyalty - and who will just vote robot-like for their own party.

pdm said...

Karl and Trev1 - Marja Lubeck also miraculously secured an MIQ place when she went on holiday overseas during one of the lock downs. But it is okay when the left manipulate the system.

I voted for STV.

Hilary Taylor said...

Parliament on tv...I suppose this is meant to compensate? Would love to know the viewership numbers, given everyone knows that if anything startling happens they can view it in any number of places afterwards.
I know of Chhour because she came to my attention over the self-sexID bill and its implications for women, and she has made some worthy speeches...she answers emails too. Nicole McKee too as she was very impressive on the radio before she became an MP over the gun buyback, when she was spokeswoman for the gun/hunting group. Both are social conservatives who speak plainly and sensibly, with Maori heritage to boot.
Some of the others, the Tijuanan of course...Lubeck, the Ardern sycophant on twitter.
Pretty sure STV was thrown around before we voted for MMP.
Thought the parliament protest was a good opportunity for some of the others to get a name out there but everyone choked.
And we all know Jackson much more than we would like to...

Andy Espersen said...

Further to my comment above : It is interesting to speculate on just why the Roman democracy, which had been so successful for almost 500 years, was finally destroyed by Caesar. Some scholars think was the inability for the democratic system to come to sensible compromises about solving emerging social problems.

So the more we make it possible to really compromise on everything – from abortion policy to strictness of Covid legislation – from sensible, ethical treatment of aborigines to writing school history curricula – about how best to solve the CO2 emissions problem - et cetera, the more likely it is that our democracy will survive.

In his article Karl points out that our democracy is really under threat these days - and in many other countries than in New Zealand. However, as far as I can see, democracy is really blossoming in the small Scandinavian countries.


pdm said...

Hilary Taylor.

I used to be a regular Question Time watcher of Parliament from 2011 th rough to 2017 and an occasional watcher until the 2020. I do not bother now for two reasons:

1. Too many patsy questions - I include Green questions as patsys.
2. The blatant bias of The Despicable Mallard.

Brightwings said...

Require all MPs to write a monthly report detailing activity: issues dealt with, organisations/places visited, speeches given, events attended as MP and the role they carried out at that event, correspondence, etc., for publication on the Parliament website, just as they have to with travel expenses now.

As well as making all MPs more accountable, this will also shine a light on those who struggle to string a sentence together, are terminally lazy and/or have no vision or purpose.

In these days of gotcha political journalism, the Press Gallery would have a field day.

ihcpcoro said...

Karen Chhour (Act) recently gave an excellent speech in Parliament. With a multi cultural background (she is part Maori), she shone some interesting and valuable light on our current government's racially divisive policies. Worth seeking out on line.

hughvane said...

I'd like to start a list, in this blog topic, of a Leader Board of Political Ornaments [also known by far less charitable titles].

First on my list would be Damien O’Connor. Despite holding one of the most important portfolios in Cabinet, he does, to all intents & purposes, nothing but keep very quiet and draw his salary.

Others thoughts? Poto Williams?

Eamon Sloan said...

We are desperately in need of some conviction and character politicians on the NZ scene. Today's lot, (Labour, National, Act, Greens), for years have not produced a single protagonist who has been prepared to buck the system in any meaningful way. I can’t see any of today’s crop being capable of even thinking of breaking out of their blinkered mind-sets.

The current Maori party are making headlines for all the wrong reasons. But, here I will divert to the Waikeria Prison riot (Dec 2020). The first politician to pick up on the riot as a political issue was the Maori party representative, Rawiri Waititi. He hightailed it to Waikeria immediately, ostensibly to support Maori inmates affected by the goings on. Whether he achieved anything is an open question. The main point is that he took up the issue and made a lot of waves for himself and his party. Waves of the wrong kind possibly but waves all the same.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. I am not a Maori party supporter, and in no way am I an admirer of the direction Maori Politico/Cultural elites are taking today.

Andy Espersen said...

Further to Karl’s profoundly important article re “the vacuum at the heart of the democratic process" : We must bear in mind that at this present moment our electoral act is being overhauled. The MMP system will be reviewed – including the 5% cut-off point. Denmark has a 2% limit for parties to participate in the extra parliamentary seats. As it happens, my younger brother (Soeren Espersen) is a very popular Danish politician – and has been an MP in the Danish "folketing" for many years. He told me an amusing story – which, I suggest, should stop us worrying about getting too many parties in parliament.

A few years ago the Danish equivalent of our 20th century McGillicuddy Serious party scraped past the 2% limit – and got one person in parliament for that term. Soeren told me that this one MP turned out to become an extremely valuable MP during the whole term. He was more diligent and hard working on the select committees he was delegated to than most others – he conscientiously attended all sittings of parliament – and he voted serenely on all legislative proposals just as his conscience obliged him to do, which is really what democracy is all about.

But no – he never drummed up enough support for the Danish parliament to pass his party’s main political plank, namely to legislate for the wind at all times to be behind all bicyclists in Denmark!!!!!

Hilary Taylor said...'re a braver soul than me. I did enjoy the covid panel thingy that Bridges ran, that I thought was essential watching. But as far as parliament is concerned, like you I'm squeamish now and there's so much baloney I just can't be bothered. As for the Duck...hardly a day goes by when I don't marvel at Jane Clifton's self-sacrifice.
hughvane...Poto W is out of her depth, to my mind...probably a very nice woman, should've stayed in local govt, which is where she came from, no? I'm not confident about any of them really...others say O'Connor has heft...somewhere.

pdm said...

Karl two more unknowns to add to your list - in now and out (hopefully) at the 2023 election.

`“Dan Rosewarne and Soraya Peke-Mason will replace Kris and Trevor from the Labour List.'

Karl du Fresne said...

Household names, both of them, and doubtless 100 percent committed to service of the people who elect - sorry, appoint - them.

Karl du Fresne said...

*the* service ...

D'Esterre said...

hughvane: "I cannot remember if I voted in favour of MMP back in 1994, nor can I recall if we were offered STV....."

Here's my recollection. There were two rounds of voting. In the first, we were asked to choose between MMP and STV. The majority vote was for MMP. In the second round, we chose between the winner of the first round (MMP) and the then current system : FPP.

My work colleagues at the time - and I - favoured STV. Now that I've been obliged to use it in local authority and DHB elections, I no longer favour it, and wouldn't vote for it again.

I admit to having voted for MMP, because, like many citizens, I was infuriated at the way in which, under FPP, the (one-Party) Executive could ride roughshod over the interests of the citizenry. By that time, we'd been beaten about the ears by Rogernomics. Remember the vaulting interest rates? That was just one of the effects.

Then in the early 90s, we'd had the Mother of all Budgets and the swingeing benefit cuts. Because of the nature of my work at that stage, I saw at first hand the devastating effects upon beneficiaries. In my view, a number of contemporary social problems have their genesis in those cuts. Add to that the misguided policy of requiring beneficiaries to navigate the private rental market, with the help of an accommodation supplement, instead of the government increasing the supply of state housing, and here we are.

I'd add that we have for many years been involved in the small business sector: the benefit cuts of the early 90s also seriously affected many small businesses at that time, even those which didn't sell into the beneficiary market.

So. I and many others voted for MMP, so as to rid ourselves of one-Party governments. We believed that the proportional system would prevent it happening. Now we know better.