During the 25 years I was in academia I wrote a fair bit on the subjects of democracy and democratisation, both in theory and in practice. I continued in that vein in some of my blogging on this site, including the 5 part series on Â deconstructing democracy in 2009. As part of my ruminations, I have delved from time to time into the subject of democratic accountability, specifically its vertical and horizontal dimensions, both of which are absolute requirements for the health of liberal democracy. Among other things and contrary to what some pundits might say, my understanding of the two dimensions of democratic accountability is what allows me to state categorically that dirty politics such as that practiced by the National Party’s vicious wing is not inherent to democracy
Vertical accountability refers to the accountability of the governors to the governed. The signal feature of this dimension are elections of those who govern, but also include the ability of the electorate to demand review, recall or sanction of non-elected officials such as those in the judiciary and civil service if and when their actions become to egregious or are ignored by the other branches of government. There a variety of methods with which to do so, but that requires a degree of horizontal accountability as well. In any event vertical accountability is aided by a robust, critical and independent media that draws public attention to what otherwise might be quiet indiscretions by those in office.
Here is where horizontal accountability comes in. Each branch of government is formally accountable to the others. In the event of malfeasance in one branch the other branches have a right and indeed duty to independently investigate any potential wrong doing. They must maintain a degree of institutional autonomy in order to do so, because otherwise they cannot exercise the degree of inquisitorial independence that is required for transparency and integrity to obtain.
It is this dimension where New Zealand appears deficient, and the proof of that is the inquiry that the Prime Minister has ordered into Judith Collins use of a public servant’s personal information. In this case the PM gets to frame the terms of reference of the inquiry, and has done so in way that assures that Collins will be exonerated. In political circles this might be called narrowing the focus to what is strictly illegal, but in common parlance it is known as acceptable corruption.
The inquiry conducted by the Inspector-General of the SIS into the hasty OIA release of sensitive SIS documents to a blogger linked to the government is more independent and therefore more transparent and honest, assuming that the IG does her job correctly.
But the problem remains that horizontal accountability in NZ is nowhere what it should be. Parliamentary committees are dominated by the government and often have limited inquisitorial powers. Crown Law has, time and time again, adjusted its prosecution priorities to accord more closely with government interests (recall the time and cost of the Zaoui and Urewera prosecutions, both of which ultimately reduced to far less than the government initially alleged). Some judges are said to lean politically one way or another when it comes to examining government behaviour.
Less we think that this overly friendly relationship between government and prosecutors be exclusive to National, let’s remember that the two prosecutions cited above began (and in Zaoui’s case ended) under the 5th Labour government.
Some say that the lack of a written constitution impedes the full exercise of horizontal accountability in NZ. Perhaps that is so but I also think that it is a product of habitual practice in a small country, where the political elites are for the most part a relatively small club that play by their own informal rules as much as they do by the law. Those in government are given fairly broad license when it comes to how they account for their actions to the other branches. Those in opposition wait for their turn in office to do the same. The judiciary and public bureaucracy publicly maintain their independence but at a senior level they play close attention to the interests of the government of the day.
Voters give a veneer of vertical accountability to the status quo by turning out for elections. Their susceptibility to spin and deflection makes them targets of the dirtier machinations of politicians, and in the absence of genuine horizontal accountability counter-weights that is all that is needed to govern. In such a context governance is all about bread and circus, or in the NZ case, pies and rugby. The fact that National has not suffered much in pre-election polling pretty much confirms this truth.
It can be argued that this is politics as usual, in the form of one hand washing the other in the interest of political stability. Indeed, all of this is perfectly acceptable, except that it is also perfectly, albeit not by legal definition, corrupt. But what is wrong with a little acceptable corruption amongst political friends so long as the public does not care and there are no real institutional checks on what they do so long as they do it quietly?
I could be wrong on this and John Key is just being a jerk when it comes to the terms of the Collins inquiry. Â But something tells me that the rot runs much deeper, and it will not stop should he and his nasty pack of party colleagues be voted out of office later this month.