Saturday, October 21, 2017

The demeaning of democracy

(First published in The Dominion Post on October 20.)

I’m writing this column on Thursday morning. Winston Peters, who is described as the kingmaker but behaves as if he’s actually sitting on the throne, has said he’ll make an announcement about the formation of a new government this afternoon.

We shall see. With Peters, who knows?

Everyone’s talking about the time lag, but that should be the least of our concerns. Other western democracies have taken months to form coalition governments and haven’t suffered any obvious harm.

No, what should cause us to rise up in disgust is that the post-election circus has made a travesty of democracy.

For that we can principally blame Peters – but not just Peters alone. Both Bill English and Jacinda Ardern, by kowtowing to Peters, have been complicit in the demeaning of the process by which we elect governments.

The media are not without blame either. By dancing around the New Zealand First leader and hanging on his every snarled utterance, they have encouraged the delusion that he’s entitled to decide our next government.

It’s only in the past few days that commentators have started to openly question the morality of a situation in which a party that won a mere 7.2 per cent of the vote, and lost its only electorate seat, should determine who will govern us.

There is a place in the political ecosystem for the Peters party. You can see why people voted for it. But a flawed system has given New Zealand First a degree of power and influence far beyond that to which it’s entitled.

In any half-rational and honourable democratic system, National and Labour – which between them won 81 percent of the vote and all but one of the 71 electorate seats – would have dictated the terms of coalition negotiations and perhaps humoured Peters with a few policy concessions.

Failing that, English could have made a principled decision not to play Peters’ game. If things came to the worst, he could have chosen to sit out the next three years and watch a Labour-New Zealand First-Greens coalition tear itself apart, as it almost certainly would.

Instead we’ve ended up with the worst possible option: a washed-up politician, unwanted by his own electorate, behaving as if the country had handed him a mandate to dictate the government agenda for the next three years, or however long any ramshackle coalition with Peters at its centre might last.

It’s been reported that he expects to be deputy prime minister, whichever party he goes with. What colossal gall from a politician who couldn’t even persuade his own electorate to return him to Parliament.

But that’s Peters. We know him well and shouldn’t be surprised.

What was less foreseeable was that both National and Labour were reportedly prepared to humour Peters’ preposterous ambition. Like everything else that has happened since election day, this makes a mockery of democracy.

First, there was Peters’ haughty refusal to talk to English and Ardern in the immediate aftermath of the election, on the spurious pretext that he had to wait for special votes to be counted.

Then came the bizarre aura of obsessive secrecy that surrounded the negotiations at Parliament, where officials even went to the point of ensuring that reporters couldn’t get a clear view of the National and Labour teams as they went to and from meetings.

The message to voters couldn’t have been clearer: Once they’ve cast their votes, the doors are slammed shut and the politicians are left to get on with it, unencumbered by any obligation to disclose whatever they might be up to.

Open government? Forget it.

Peters was the only party leader fronting the media, and he lived up to expectations by (a) barking at reporters for their impertinence in wanting to know what was going on, and (b) delivering pronouncements that were minor masterpieces of obfuscation and evasiveness.

Deadlines and time-frames shifted and changed like wisps of smoke. But that’s Peters; nothing he says should ever be taken at face value.

The crowning indignity came when it became apparent that the decision on who would govern us was to be made by an anonymous bunch of non-entities few people even realised existed – the board of New Zealand First.

We should all feel humiliated by this pantomime. A country that could once claim to be a model liberal democracy has been discredited by a flawed electoral system, compounded by Peters’ overweening self-regard and the readiness of the two major party leaders to defer to him.

There is a solution that would avoid these farcical proceedings in future. In our haste to drop the first-past-the-post system in 1993, no one thought to ensure there were rules in place to govern what happened under MMP after the votes were counted.

Peter Dunne has the right idea. He suggests it should be the job of the Governor-General to invite the party that has won the most votes to form a government. If it can’t get the numbers, then an approach should be made to the next-largest party.

The crucial thing is that the Governor-General should control the process. Instead, we’ve handed that power to a huffing and puffing egotist having his last shot at glory via a hole in our constitutional arrangements. Well done us.


Barry said...

This is another good post Karl - thank you for it.

Pdogge said...

You and Hosking sound alike, 2 angry old men. What a shame, you used to be very objective....

Karl du Fresne said...

So you think it's okay that Winston Peters, whose party is supported by 7% of voters, calls the shots in the formation of a new government?

Karl du Fresne said...

And who's this Hosking person to whom you refer?

Mark Hubbard said...

Rob Hosking is one of the best business journos out there, Pdogge.

Per Barry's first comment, great post Karl. Right on every point. I think now we are better educated on how MMP works, it's time for another electoral referendum on the workings of our democracy (which is not a democracy at all).

Unknown said...

It's only been six years since the last referendum, Mark, at which MMP was retained with an increased margin. There will not be another referendum before at least the 2029 election, in my view, by which time Winston and his party will be long gone from parliament.

And what exactly do you mean by "another referendum on the workings of our democracy"? Do you mean a repeat of 2011, or something else altogether?

Unknown said...

"If it can’t get the numbers, then an approach should be made to the next-largest party."

I don't believe that would work, Karl. If National had failed to get an agreement with NZ First, that would have given too much negotiation power to Labour. Had your / Peter Dunne's suggestion been in place, we could well be looking at another election right now.

I regard what is happening as the continuation of the transition to MMP. The reason why we - and by that I mean, the People - don't like what is happening is because we don't like Winston Peter's personality; basically, we are sick to death of him, and just want to be rid of him. That will happen soon enough; we just have to hang in there.