Monday, June 8, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“DEMOCRACY IN NEW ZEALAND” by Raymond Miller (Auckland University Press, $NZ45)
Raymond Miller is Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland and is already the author of a number of important texts in his field. His Democracy in New Zealand has a dual purpose. It is at one and the same time a methodical exposition of New Zealand’s political system and a book that raises (sometimes awkward) questions about the future of that system.
I will not beat about the bush here. This is a valuable book and essential reading for those who want a clear introduction to our form of democracy. But – at least in its expository parts – it is also very much a textbook “written with an undergraduate readership in mind” as its Preface declares. I do not say this as a criticism. I can see it being a recommended text in the type of courses Miller teaches; and long may it be so. But I am simply pointing out that one does have to negotiate graphs, bullet-points and lists of names as one follows Miller’s explanations and argument. The approach is very methodical, then, working its way from a general consideration of what democracy is, to the minutiae of how elections campaigns are conducted, and concluding with a reflection on the future of our form of democracy.
This being the case, I feel one of my dry summaries of the text coming on, and here it is:
Professor Miller begins by noting (Chapter 1 “Democratic Society”) that the Westminster system of parliamentary government was established here in 1852 and that the franchise had been widened to include all men and women by the end of the nineteenth century. But New Zealand never had a carbon copy of the British system. Its democracy was and is unique for the three obvious reasons of remoteness (in one sense developing in a unique way far from centres of world power); smallness (New Zealanders, who now number a mere 4.6 million, are used to ready access to political representatives and still tend to think parochially) and youthfulness as a nation (still having some of the trappings of the old colonising power – such as a British head of state, the Union Jack on the flag, and a foreign honours system). New Zealand now features high on any register of democracy in the world, and the great majority of New Zealanders still express satisfaction with the nature of our current constitution; but there has been a slight dip in voter participation in recent years and elections are increasingly perceived as “presidential”.
Having set up this premise, Miller argues (Chapter 2 “Political System”) that New Zealand is still basically a democracy on the Westminster model. Unlike Britain, we have no upper house (our Legislative Council was abolished in 1951) but still have, as Britain has, a centralised parliament supreme in lawmaking. We now have an MMP voting system instead of the British FPP, but this has made no difference to the dominant role of cabinet. We do debate the matter of having a British head of state, but there is no urgency to the debate and the status quo is not likely to change soon. We have Citizen-Initiated Referenda, but they are non-binding. In this respect, we simply have tinkerings with the British model.
As with Britain, our constitution (Chapter 3) is unwritten. It is currently a patchwork of common law, statutes, the Treaty of Waitangi (or rather, elaborate interpretations thereof) and conventions. Miller (in bullet-point, power-point lecture form) proceeds to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of creating a written constitution and goes so far as to suggest that the constitutional review initiated by the National government in 2008 was really “concerned with creating a public perception of openness, receptiveness to the concerns of the government’s support parties and concern for the needs of Maori.” (p.60). This is one of his more waspish statements, implying a mere public relations exercise.
Parliament (Chapter 4) is central to our form of government, despite often being ridiculed for its foolish and vituperative debates; but there is real discussion about the desirable size of Parliament (do we have too many MPs?); the 3-year term between general elections (is it too short?) and the way parliament often seems the plaything of the executive i.e. subject to cabinet “dictatorship”. Miller notes that the horse-shoe-shaped debating chamber reinforces the idea of two-party adversarialism, which has to be modified a little in the multi-party era. Of Select Committees discussing proposed legislation, he says: “One of the anticipated reforms of the new multi-party parliament under MMP was the prospect that committee chairs would be drawn from across the party spectrum. However, this has not been the case. Using its majority or near-majority vote on each of the select committees, the governing party is normally able to secure the position of chair on each and every committee.” (p.68) There has been a certain fragmentation of party discipline since the era of many minor parties began; and there is an increased deployment of “free” votes on many issues, despite the continuing importance of party w hips.
On the size of parliament Miller notes that, though we have disproportionately large parliaments when compared with Australia and the USA, our parliament is comparable in size to those of smaller democracies.
His account of the electoral system (Chapter 5) is essentially an exposition of MMP and its potential pitfalls. His greatest criticism in this chapter is the way parties frequently declare gender and ethnic equality when they choose their candidates; but often relegate women and/or ethnic minorities to the more unwinnable seats or place them lower down the party list. The dodgy way the winning of one seat can allow minor parties to gain greater representation in parliament is scrutinised. Miller describes as “political self-interest” (p.105) the National government’s rejection of the Electoral Commission’s recommendations on abolishing this one-seat threshold.
In considering “cabinet government” (Chapter 6), Miller points out that the structure of cabinet is more dynamic than that of parliament itself, because each prime minister determines both the size of cabinet and what it is intended to do. In this matter, Miller notes more similarities than differences National and Labour administrations that have led governments (only sometimes coalitions) in the era of MMP. National prime ministers personally decide who will be in cabinet whereas Labour lets caucus decide. However, both Labour and National leave it up to the prime minister to allocate portfolios, so the structure of power is little different. Raymond Miller in fact spends a number of pages on what he calls the “Clark / Key” model of cabinet government, showing how both Helen Clark and John Key have used minority parties to keep the centre ground, while keeping those minority parties away from essential executive decisions. He also notes in both Labour-led and National-led governments the existence of virtual “kitchen cabinets” – that is, an inner circle of senior and most-trusted members of cabinet whom the prime minister consults on strategy.
This leads into the matter of “Leaders and Leadership” (Chapter 7). It has been noted that recent elections are often personality-based and almost “presidential”, partly because the age of the class-based mass party is over with the ending of the old National-Labour duopoly. Nevertheless, Miller asserts that there is still much of the egalitarian impulse in the way New Zealanders respond to leaders. Moving away from political theory and generalisations, he suggests that often, political biographies are the best way to understand how prime ministers and party leaders operate. Thus “there is much to be said for the value of single-actor narratives in deepening our understanding of the history of political leadership in New Zealand.” (p.132) In his analysis, the most effective leaders have been those who can present themselves as willing to compromise (Clark, Key) and the most unpopular leaders have been those who were too rigidly ideological (Shipley, Brash). In a media-saturated age, New Zealand prime ministers now control their image carefully. Again making a non-partisan observation, Miller says “As with Clark, Key is selective in his choice of radio stations, generally preferring to be interviewed by the more ideologically sympathetic broadcasters on commercial radio than their counterparts in the publicly owned Radio New Zealand.” (p.146)
The topic of political leadership includes leaders of the opposition. For Miller, the failure of many leaders of the opposition consists of their inability to be effective debaters in parliament, or to present themselves as offering a real alternative to current government policy.
The discussion on political parties (Chapter 8) is dominated by a discussion on how the old duopoly has broken down since the introduction of MMP. However, Miller notes that most of the new parties that appeared in the first flush of MMP did not survive. Even so, the very existence of minor parties has changed the way the major parties conduct themselves. Says Miller, in his most comprehensive statement on the matter:
“Having almost completed the transition from the class-based politics of the mass party era to the catch-all politics of today, National and Labour seek to maximise their appeal to voters by competing in the ideological centre ground. In contrast, their rivals are forced to garner their support from much smaller electoral communities, including ethnic and religious minorities, environmentalists and those on either side of the neo-liberal divide. Frustrated by their failure to create a sufficiently large niche of potential support, these parties are either pushed toward the extremities of left or right or relegated to a lopsided battle with the large parties for the support of the median voter.” (p.182)
The discussion on Maori electoral politics (Chapter 9) is a good general overview, which I couldn’t help comparing with M. P. K. Sorrenson’s essay “Maori Representation in Parliament”. [It appears in Sorrenson’s volume Ko Te Whenua Te Utu, which I reviewed it in the March posting of Landfall Review on Line]. Miller does, however, have the advantage of bringing the story up to date. As for “Elections and Voters” (Chapter 10), Miller concentrates on the way the media now really define election issues and how there is now virtually a “permanent campaign” with all parties regularly having to show how fit they are to govern. All parties consult professional imager-makers and media advisors and there is a “risk averse” approach in the way specific policies are now presented to the public.
After all this solid exposition, then, we come at last to Miller’s concluding remarks on the future of New Zealand democracy (Chapter 11). He weighs up the inevitably top-down nature of representative democracy against the idea of more direct democracy promised by Citizen-Initiated Referenda. But the potential for hasty and ill-considered judgments in such referenda, and the limitations in the way propositions referred to the public can be worded, finally lead him to endorse the stability of the form of democracy we already have. This is not an exciting conclusion, but it is a logical one after what has gone before. Miller doesn’t say it in so many words, but he implies that, with all its faults, cabinet-led parliamentary government is the “least bad” form of government.