Posts Tagged ‘Elections’

Young and free

datePosted on 13:19, July 28th, 2009 by Lew

It seems that Australia is considering a measure which would give 16 and 17 year-olds the right to vote in federal elections.

There are some aspects of Australia’s political system which make this sort of measure perhaps less controversial than in NZ. Australia’s electoral system is more complex than NZ’s; there are many more levels of representation, with two chambers at federal and state level (excluding Queensland); the right being proposed only extends to federal elections, not to state elections which are arguably more important to local electors; and it is a right to vote in a country where adult electors are required to vote. In a sense, proferring the opportunity to vote to those young’uns who consider themselves sufficiently informed and engaged to do so could limit cases of people being thrown into the deep end of compulsory voting in a complex system without a clue.

Politically, this was poison in NZ not so long ago, with most of the vitriol directed at Sue Bradford (who sponsored the Civics Education and Voting Age Bill), and the Greens’ secret conspiracy to take over the country.

But wait a minute, didn’t that bill include civics education? Wouldn’t that make NZ’s electorate more aware of and engaged with political systems and norms? While those with an ideological barrow to push would deride the teaching of civics as a propaganda exercise wherever it didn’t take their particular viewpoint, it is perfectly possible to teach the broad strands of political history, principles of government and representation and the bones of the major ideologies in a non-partisan manner – not an unbiased manner, mind; in a manner which makes the presence of bias clear and obvious enough for students to go and educate themselves. As far as I’m concerned, civics education and democracy should go hand in hand – and civics education and compulsory voting must go together. As it stands, we rely exclusively on the media to give us the information we need to be free and self-governing – without any sort of formal idea about what it means to be free and self-governing, or any critical tools to judge whether we are, or whether the information we get is sufficient to that end.

So, while I’m unconvinced that 16 and 17 year-olds should vote, the idea of them voting with a civics education is frankly less frightening than the idea of adults voting without one.


Deconstructing Democracy, Part 3: Uncertainty.

datePosted on 20:42, June 2nd, 2009 by Pablo

The thing people fear the most is uncertainty. Bad or good, things that are known can be prepared for and dealt with. Things that are unknown can be ignored. But things that are known in the abstract but unknown in their specifics cause visceral angst in human beings. We know that we are going to die, but not how. We know that airplanes crash out of the sky, but not when. As someone who enjoys open water swimming, I always enter the ocean (particularly new bodies of water) with the knowledge that big toothy fish inhabit the sea, but I do not know if they will be sharing proximate space with me at that particular moment. That makes me anxious (after all, if I know that they are there, I do not go into the water; if I do not know that they are there, I do not worry when I do so–although I might subsequently be surprised). Many terminally ill people have noted that it is the uncertainty of their prognosis that is the hardest aspect of their condition, and that the final prognosis gives them the peace of mind to accept their fate (I experienced this first hand with my father). The bottom line is drawn by none other than Donald Rumsfeld: There are known knowns and  known unknowns, but the problem lies with the unknown unknowns.

People consequently spend their whole lives hedging against uncertainty. We cling to our parents at the sight of new and strange things, waiting for their reassurance that all is OK. We go to school and educate ourselves so that we can increase our career and income prospects. We form emotional attachments and enter into relationships in order to to fill the uncertainties of solitary existence. We buy insurance. We double check our parachutes and bungy cords. We clean our guns, we check the oil and fluids before long trips–our lives are a long list of hedging against the uncertainties of the moment. The point is simple: there is an innate fear of uncertainty inherent in the human condition, which we constantly try to overcome by imposing degrees of certainty in our lives.

That makes democracy a most remarkable and unnatural form of political rule. As part of the quest for certainty, humans establish social hierarchies. Firms, schools, churches, unions, parties, even the family itself, are hierarchical organisations. Thus authoritarianism, as the ultimate political expression of social hierarchy, is also the ultimate guarantor of political certainty: as the saying goes, Mussolini made the trains run on time. Many have argued that authoritarianism (especially in non-Anglo Saxon societies), is the more natural form of political regime. Perhaps there is some truth to that. After all, under authoritarian regimes there is the certainty of punishment for voicing opposition, the certainty of favour given to allies and toadies, the certainty that you will not be bothered if you keep your head down and go to work or school, the certainty of imprisonment or death should one confront the hierarchical status quo. Authoritarians are all about certainty, and in that measure they are naturally reassuring to a risk-adverse and uncertain public.

Yet, democracy is unique in that it takes what we fear the most–uncertainty–and turns it into the centerpiece of the political system. Elections are no more than institutionalised (if not ritualised) uncertainty. At the moment of ballot casting, no one knows the outcome. To be sure, incumbents may have an advantage over opponents, opinion polls attempt to semi-scientifically show clear tendencies among voting preferences, and electoral fraud abounds at all levels in many democratic regimes. The point is that these occur precisely because contenders for elected positions are trying to achieve some measure of certainty over the outcome, which creates a whole industry of prognosticators and facilitators attempting to do the same for profit. In other words, the measure of a mature democratic system is the relatively high degree of uncertainty of its electoral processes. The more certain the outcome of any given election, the more undemocratic the political system in which it occurs (fully understanding that popular support in advance of elections can make outcomes all but certain–but the point is that we do not absolutely know that at the time our ballots are cast). But that still does not address the existential dilemma: we want to have some degree of certainty about where out lives are heading, politically and otherwise.

The answer, as it turns out, is counter-intuitive yet simple. Institutionalised uncertainty in the form of regular free and transparent elections amongst a universally enfranchised adult population is not only a  contradiction of the social hierarchies that are the organisational bulk of most human society; they are also a guarantee of accountability. That is the beauty of the mechanism, and why it needs to be protected. Hierarchy may guarnatee some degree of certainty, but it reduces accountability in most instances. The duty of those at the top of social hierarchies are to themselves and other social leaders, and much less so to their subordinates. The reason? Such hierarchical accountability leads to more certainty in decision-making (if not outcomes). That is why genuine grassroots consultation in hierarchical social systems is an exeption rather than the rule. 

Uncertain electoral outcomes are what keep politicians honest and accountable. No matter what they do, they know that at regular 2, 3, 4 or 6 year intervals they will be held to account by the voting population. While they may try to hide their corruption and personal malfeasance, politicians ultimately have to deliver on the promises and behave according to popular expectations of office-holders (or at least disguise their behaviour accordingly). It is the uncertainty of the electoral moment that hangs, like the shadow of the future, over present political decision-making; politicians need to think of the future  electoral consequences of their current decisions. This may, from time to time, lead to sub-optimal policy outcomes since popular majority opinion may not always be informed on specific subjects (the despicable treatment of Ahmed Zaoui by the Fifth Labour government was due, in part, to its calculation that rough treatment of a Muslim asylum seeker would be countenanced by the NZ public in the wake of 9/11–and so it was). But the larger point is that institutionalised uncertainty in the form of open and transparent elections at regular intervals is a hedge against unaccountability on the part of the political elite. Thus we must resist the siren song of politicians who say that is in the general interest for them to enact policy unencumbered by popular opinion or who ram through policy without popular consultation. Politicians  that do so believe that the public are either stupid or suffer from short-sightedness and political amnesia, leading to no adverse electoral consequences and a reaffirmation of the certainty of hierarchy (in which elite interests are satisfied first). Instead, the voting public must run against its baser instinct and embrace uncertainty when it comes to the political system, since it is that embrace that promotes accountability from those chosen to lead it.

Next post: entitlements.

Whither Labour?

datePosted on 23:02, February 10th, 2009 by Lew

That’s a question, not an imperative.

It’s impossible to ignore the impact of the Clark-Cullen legacy on NZ’s political orthodoxy. Their government – like Thatcher’s and like Lange’s – moved the political mainstream, requiring incoming governments to appeal to it in order to win support. John Key’s ability to learn from some of the mistakes of his predecessors in both major parties, but not others, has been considered in plenty of different ways, and some of those give more than a moment’s thought to his future. At least now people agree that he has one which doesn’t involve being rolled by Bill English.

But what of Labour? I see two broad possibilities, which I’ll characterise as the Crusaders Game and the Hurricanes Game. Despite being a Hurricanes supporter, by that I don’t mean to privilege one over the other.

The Crusaders Game

Labour recognises that the political agenda is no longer theirs, and concentrates on their core stuff: defence, set-piece, taking advantage of their opposition’s mistakes and infringing at the ruck (but not so much as to seem a cheat).

This means a retrenchment of sorts. Goff is the ideal leader for this game: steady, capable, etc. but they will probably have to alienate the Greens, and if the māori party and its constituency gets what it needs from being part of the National-led government Labour may find themselves friendless. Whatever the case, this strategy will mean ceding the political field to National and starting again in three or six or nine years from within someone else’s political agenda – as National are doing now. This relies on fairly orthodox two-party-plus-hangers-on political thinking – the idea that occupying the centre is the route to success.

The Hurricanes Game

Labour sees in Key’s concessions to the Clark-Cullen agenda an opportunity, and maximises it by relying on gut instinct, team spirit, inspirational leadership, raw opportunism, personal brilliance and complaining about Key’s infringing at the ruck (but not so much as to appear a whinger).

This strategy will require three things: first, new leadership; second, a much closer relationship with the Greens; third, intense and sustained energy. Labour will have to learn to live lean, to rehabilitate itself with the wider left, and ultimately to normalise the idea of the Green New Deal among skeptical NZ voters. This relies upon a quite unorthodox political strategy – the idea that a party or bloc of parties can and should cooperate to move the centre in order to more easily occupy it in their common interest. The danger is that they run out of puff in getting there, and find themselves in three or six or nine years having to adopt the Crusaders Game anyway.

There are other possibilities, of course, but these seem most plausible and simple dichotomies are nice.

So, four questions: what should Labour do (in your humble opinion) and what will Labour do? How, and why?


The Second Job of Citizenry

datePosted on 06:00, February 1st, 2009 by Anita

During last year’s election campaign I was struck by just how few people actually care; the cynicism and distrust of politicians, no-one expects honesty. More and more often I hear people talking about just not bothering — “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, it’s always a politician who wins.” The reality is that if you don’t vote the politicians win too.

Overseas negative and attack campaigning to suppress the vote is a common tactic. It may not be possible to persuade your opposition’s supporters to vote for you, but you might be able to put them off voting altogether. In our context, National may not be able to get many working class women to vote for them, but if they can stop them voting at all, that’s nearly as good.

In a fascinating public lecture Therese Arseneau talks about what she learned from the use of consultants in US elections

their aim is to actually to suppress the vote. The aim of negative campaigning was to keep particular people away from the polls.

A study of US Senate races shows just how effective this tactic is at suppressing not only the targeted voters but the electorate as a whole. They found that in largely negative races turnouts were 4.5 percentage points lowers than in ones that were largely positive. In New Zealand a 4.5 percentage point drop is about 130,000 people.

Both major parties publicly stated they ran positive campaigns, yet the tenor was negative all the way. This is true of political parties, the media, the net and the whispering campaigns.

There has always been some negativity from the two main political parties, but volumes seems to have increased over the last two campaigns. From the National Party we see the increase in the build up to the 2005 election, with the Crosby/Textor strategy of targeting Helen Clark — arrogant, out of touch, childless — along with divisive rhetoric against traditionally Labour supporting segments of society. Labour’s negativity showed in some of the 2005 campaign — for example their anti-National mocked-up eviction notices. This time we saw attacks on Key, which didn’t looked well co-ordinated or thought through, but sure were negative. Read the rest of this entry »