Saturday, June 27, 2009

Democracy would be fine if it wasn't for the voters

(First published in the Curmudgeon column, The Dominion Post, June 23.)

UNTIL last week, it wouldn’t have surprised me if the child smacking referendum had turned out to be a bit of a non-event. Nanny State issues lost much of their potency with the change of government. The political mood of the country has changed and people have moved on.

All of that remains true. Yet the politicians, in trying to talk down the referendum, may have cack-handedly succeeded in rarking up the public all over again.

They try to muddy the water by suggesting the referendum question is confusing and ambiguous (it’s not, though it could have been more elegantly worded), and they huff and puff about the referendum being a waste of $9 million. This conveniently overlooks the fact that it wouldn’t have been necessary if Parliament had heeded public opinion about the Bradford Bill in the first place.

Then Sue Bradford wades back into the debate and deftly applies a match to the touchpaper by proposing another Bill that would give an unelected parliamentary official the right to determine what, if any, wording would be acceptable in future referendum questions.

This is rich. Referendums give the public their only opportunity to have a say between elections. Of course it’s only a token opportunity, because Parliament can – and routinely does – ignore the results.

But even this minimal right is too much for Ms Bradford – and, it seems, for most of her parliamentary colleagues, including prime minister John Key. An already impotent public is likely to be further emasculated by being denied the right to choose the wording of referendum questions – all on the spurious basis that the smacking referendum is “confusing” and “ambiguous”, when most New Zealanders have no difficulty grasping what the question means.

What makes it richer is that Ms Bradford is a member of a party that likes to take the moral high ground and makes a great show of conducting its affairs more democratically than the major parties.

And what makes it richer still is that Ms Bradford herself was put into Parliament via the party list, with no direct mandate from the voters whose rights she now seeks to curtail. The irony of this seems completely lost on her.

Parliament’s response to the referendum reinforces the impression that politicians pay lip service to democracy at election time but are not terribly interested in hearing from the public in between. Worse still, it suggests they fear and distrust public opinion.

Basil Fawlty reckoned running a hotel would be a breeze if it weren’t for the guests. It seems democracy would be fine too, if only the people could be kept well out of it.

* * *

WELL, fancy that – a film called Antichrist, featuring graphic scenes of genital mutilation, has been chosen as the closing night highlight of the NZ International Film Festival.

Of course it wouldn’t have been chosen for its shock value. No, it will be a film that makes a profound statement about the human condition. They all do.

The Danish director, Lars von Trier, is reported as saying the film provided him with therapy after a two-year bout of depression. It obviously worked, because at the recent Cannes Film Festival he proclaimed himself the greatest director in the world.

Let me stick my neck out and predict that the film will attract the usual superlatives. It will be hailed as enigmatic and a great work of art.

It is almost axiomatic in the arts world that if a painting, film or book is enigmatic it must be good. It doesn’t seem to occur to people that it might simply be the product of a tortured, disturbed mind.

* * *

I WAS INTRIGUED by the media’s use of the euphemistic term “romantic favours” to describe what disgraced politician Richard Worth wanted from the women who were the subjects of his supposedly unsolicited attention.

To me the word “romantic” implies an equal two-way relationship, willingly entered into by both parties. Assuming that what has been reported is correct, “romantic favour” is almost oxymoronic in the context of the Worth affair, because there is very little that is romantic about a situation in which a man puts pressure on a clearly reluctant (or so we assume) woman.

All of which reminds me of another oddly coy euphemism that has taken root. Why the media insist on saying someone slept with someone, when what’s really meant is that they had sex, is a mystery. It’s a phrase that dates back to a prudish time when proper people couldn’t bring themselves to mention sex explicitly.

A couple of years ago I read that former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, famously the most carnally active member of that debauched rock band, claimed to have slept with 265 women in three months.

Good grief. They must have been short naps. He would have had to set the alarm clock to go off in 10 minutes so he could move on to the next one.


Owen said...

Shouldn't the headline be "fine", or am I missing a subtle joke?

Karl du Fresne said...

No subtle joke, just carelessness on my part. Thanks for pointing it out. Now corrected.

Craig Ranapia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Craig Ranapia said...

This is rich. Referendums give the public their only opportunity to have a say between elections.

Oh balls, Mr du Fresne. Your local MP may never show his face in the neighbourhood -- at constituency clinics, public meetings, or other events -- or maintain an electorate office. Mine does.

A journalist of your experience might also be totally unaware that you can Freepost MPs, make submissions to bills at select committee and join whatever lobby group will have you. But I doubt it.

But let's not pretend that citizen-initiated referenda is the last, tattered remnant of democracy between elections. That's silly.

And as for the sneer about the Clerk of the House being an "unelected parliamentary official," I'd note she doesn't just get to make s#@! up as she goes along. She has to apply legislation and standing orders that are determined by... elected legislators.

And if you want to take that line out to the reductio ad absurdum, I guess the elections themselves are somehow less than entirely legitimate because they are administered by unelected officals. Funny that, because I thought our electoral agencies enjoy a high (and well-deserved) level of respect for their political independence and freedom from corruption.

SeaJay said...

Dear Karl, I had real trouble with this poll.
Some of my beautiful siblings have disciplined with the hand and no real harm done. So my first instinct was to tick No. But that isn't what I did. I ticked Yes because the law would not in any instance come against the actions I recall. This is not an 'Anti-smacking law'.
People - this is not an 'Anti-smacking Bill' - only the abusers pay.