Friday, June 12, 2009

Democracy has been turned on its head

(Published in the Curmudgeon column, Dominion Post, June 9.)

IT WAS Winston Churchill who said democracy was the worst possible form of government, except for all the others that had been tried from time to time.

We’re certainly seeing some of the flaws in our democratic systems laid bare right now.

In Britain, the hapless Gordon Brown’s government is disintegrating amid uproar over MPs’ abuse of their expense allowances. Far from feeling honoured and humbled to be sitting in the mother of all parliaments, many British MPs seem to regard a seat in the House of Commons as a licence to rip off their constituents.

It’s interesting to note that one of the many Labour parliamentarians caught up in the scandal is the ageing Austin Mitchell, who made a name for himself as a witty political commentator while living in New Zealand in the 1960s.

Mitchell, 74, lamely tried to deflect accusations against himself by turning it all into a bit of a joke. Confronted with evidence that he had claimed expenses for whisky and gin, Mr Mitchell told the Daily Telegraph: “I will check to see if my wife is an alcoholic and take appropriate action.”

Ho ho; what a wheeze. I wonder what Mrs Mitchell thought.

Feigning shock that reimbursement had been claimed on his behalf - apparently by his wife - for the purchase of Branston Pickle and Sainsbury’s Ginger Crinkle biscuits, Mitchell said he would institute immediate enquires in his household to see who could possibly be responsible for introducing such “dangerous substances”.

British taxpayers may not have seen the funny side. Mitchell has been MP for Great Grimsby since 1977. One wonders whether the complacency which results from being repeatedly re-elected in a rock-solid Labour seat has transmuted into contempt for the voters he’s supposed to represent.

Meanwhile, here at home, the politicians observed the fury of the British public and decided on some pre-emptive measures to protect their own backs.

The Greens cleverly took the initiative – and the moral high ground – by releasing details of their modest expense claims, which no doubt included nothing more incriminating than bicycle tubes (in lieu of taxis) and organic fruit smoothies.

That prodded Prime Minister John Key to announce a cross-party review aimed at ensuring “greater transparency” on the issue of MPs’ expenses – a marked turnaround from Parliament’s previous emphatic position, which was that it was none of the public’s business how MPs spent our money.

* * *

YOU DON’T have to look too far to find other examples of how we have allowed democracy to become distorted.

In theory, we elect representatives to carry out our wishes. But in reality, the only time politicians make a pretence of being our servants is when they need our votes.

Once re-elected they revert to giving orders rather than taking them. This was certainly true under Labour, which spent nine years instructing us to pull our socks up, stub out our cigarettes and face the front.

It’s even worse in local government, where elected politicians seem to have largely ceded power to council bureaucrats. These wily professionals run rings around most councillors, who after all are mere amateurs with day jobs to attend to.

I recently learned of a situation in which officials of a council pushed through an expensive and pointless, but politically fashionable, programme despite having been advised against it by councillors who knew, from their “on the ground” experience, that it wouldn’t work.

And just look at the Wellington suburb of Thorndon, where planning commissars want to tell residents what they may or may not do with their own properties, even to the extent of ruling whether they can instal skylights and satellite dishes.

Somewhere along the line, voters have lost control of democracy. The whole process has been neatly turned on its head, so that it’s the elected – or more often their backroom policy makers – who give the orders and the electors who must meekly comply.

* * *

PRESIDENT Barack Obama condemned the murder of Kansas abortionist Dr George Tiller as a heinous act of violence, which it undoubtedly was. But since we’re talking about heinous acts of violence, what about the barbaric third-trimester abortions that Dr Tiller specialised in?

Even if you believe abortion is wrong in almost any circumstances, there is something specially repulsive about the way Dr Tiller made his living.

A third-trimester abortion is one that is carried out when the baby has been growing for 27 weeks or more. At 27 weeks many babies are capable, with the right medical care, of surviving outside the womb. Winston Churchill and the great ballerina Anna Pavlova weren’t much older than that when they were born.

At that stage of its development a typical baby is 36 cm long and weighs nearly 1 kg. It is blinking its eyes, kicking and developing physical co-ordination. It is not just a lump of tissue, which is how abortion advocates like to characterise most aborted babies.

It’s one of the great ironies of modern medicine that while dedicated neonatologists are performing miracles in successfully delivering babies as early as 22 weeks, others like Dr Tiller are killing them.

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