Our democratic system has been evolving for over 150 years and is likely to continue to change, albeit at a slower rate than in the past. We are one of a handful countries that don’t have a formal written constitution (Israel and the United Kingdom are others that spring to mind) and a Unicameral legislature (parliament). Members of the executive are selected from members of Parliament. Parliament has absolute sovereignty, and there is no institution that can override its decisions.
Parliament has entrenched some legislation relating to elections, which requires either 75% support in Parliament or a simple majority in a referendum. However the entrenchment act itself is not entrenched, so in reality a simple parliamentary majority is all that is required to change the general elections from once every three years to once every 1000 years. Legally there is nothing you or I could do about it.
Our democratic system is open to abuse due to its lack of checks and balances. So it begs the question why do we enjoy the highest levels of freedom in the world? I’m afraid I can’t answer that with any certainty, but I see a number of trends that put our democratic process at risk.
Loss of egalitarianism: Until the introduction of Rogernomics in the mid 1980’s we were one of the most egalitarian nations on earth. Poverty was almost unknown, and where it did exist, it was largely due to lifestyle choices of a family’s primary income earner. The wealthiest 1% of the population held a relatively small proportion of the nation’s wealth compared to today’s top 1%. By and large, members of Parliament not only represented their electorate, they were also representative of their electorate.
Charting the bell curve of the population as a whole and members of parliament would have resulted in very similar charts. Today it’s quite different. The chart for the population as a whole shows a flattening of the curve. The tails at either end of the curve have extended and the highest bulge in the graph has moved noticeably towards the poorer end of the chart. We now have the dubious reputation of having the fastest growing disparity between rich and poor in the OECD.
While we do have some members of parliament from poorer backgrounds there is an increasing number of millionaires and multimillionaires present. The bulge in the bell curve of the wealth of parliamentarians has been moving in the opposite direction to that of the general population.
Our parliamentary representatives are becoming less representative of us. Issues that are important to lower income groups have become less relevant to them as they have become more isolated from those they represent. This is apparent in the attitude the National Party has with its fund raising dinners.
For anyone who is not familiar with the controversy, dinner guests get the right to have a private conversation with a government minister by making a suitable “donation” – typically between five and ten thousand dollars. While this may not actually result in the buying of a minister’s support, the public and no doubt the wealthy (and often foreign) business people see it differently. At least one minister has admitted that his thinking on a topic has “shifted” after such private discussions, although he claims he wasn’t “influenced” by them. Yeah right!
What these ministers can’t or don’t want to see is that not only must government be free of corruption, it must be seen to be free of it. They are walking a very slippery slope with this practice.
This post was going to be about the misuse of Parliamentary urgency to pass non-urgent legislation, but once started, took on a life of its own. The issue I have with the use of urgency it that it bypasses the Select Committee phase of the process where members of the public have the right to present written or spoken arguments for or against the bill – A very important part of our democratic process. This will be a rant for another day.