Opinion by Carolyn Skelton.
I am one of those who have concerns about its endangered state of democracy in Western-European (so-called) democracies. Democracy requires the media playing a key role in enabling a wide public debate of diverse opinions, and, thus providing a mechanism whereby those with political (and economic) power can be held to account. These days this role seems to have been compromised by the corporate-dominated media, and the profit motive. (For an in-depth explanation of this perspective, see Nicky Hager’s 2012 Bruce Jesson lecture).
Lately I have been pondering an underlying question: “Why does democracy matter?”
When I see the PM and Murray McCully dancing on a pin, spinning lines that mislead and divert (as with the #sheepgate saga), and seeming to get away with it, I despair about the state of our democracy. The attempts to hold John Key and Murray McCully to account seem to have the impact of shooting at passing clouds (see Bryce Edwards’ round up on this. When I see the continuing presence of homeless sitting quietly in Auckland’s streets with signs asking for a few cents; when I see the unaffordable housing crisis continuing to escalate, while the government continues to pander to speculators and the housing profiteers; when I see the government claiming all is OK, average incomes have not deteriorated, and the economy is fine, using statistics of averages that fail to expose the big gaps in wealth and income of the wealthiest and poorest…. I wonder how we came to be dominated by such cynical, calculating, self-focused, and uncaring methods.
But, what has this to do with democracy, or lack of it thereof? After all, we are a parliamentary representative democracy; we can all vote, protest, state our views, and the opposition can hold the government to account in parliament? But that has become more surface than deep substance – the outer trappings of a hollowed out ….”democracy”. J M Balkin explained back in 1998, how this happens.
‘Democracy’ is a grand word. Who can disagree with something sounding so noble and hard fought for over the centuries? And when I try to pin it down, I find there it is not one thing, but different things to different people. ‘Representative democracy’ (where people can vote for members of government to represent them) is the most narrow form.
And it has become degraded by money, and slick propaganda machinery that too often meshes seamlessly with our corporate dominated media. See for instance how John Key refused to accept a view expressed by many journalists, that there is no evidence that Labour was the cause of the #sheepgate debacle. Susie Ferguson on Wednesday 12 August 2015, kept challenging Key, and he continually repeated his “blame Labour” lines, probably hoping that, if he says it enough, enough voters will accept it.
Donald Trump inadvertently showed just how much he is part of a US political process degraded by big money. Lee Fang reports that “Donald Trump Says He Can Buy Politicians, None of His Rivals Disagree.“ He quotes Trump as saying:
“I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them, and they are there for me.” He added, “And that’s a broken system.”
NZ has gone some way down that route, with political parties’ electoral fortunes being too dependent on raising funds from vested corporate interests.
If a government can no longer be held to account in the House (with the speaker too often allowing Key and his ministers to continue with their slick game of avoidance, diversion, attack and misrepresentation), how democratic is representative politics? All governments and politicians do such things, but Key’s government has taken it to a whole new, slick and brazen level.
Unfortunately, our elections of representatives has become hi-jacked by a fight for the middle ground of popular opinion, while the marginalised poor, the young and otherwise powerless, tend not vote any more. Vernon Small reported last year, that a Statistic’s NZ survey shows:
The young, the poor and recent migrants were less likely to turn out for parliamentary elections than other voters, a survey has found.
But, as George Monbiot argues, the “middle ground” is an impossible dream: a
..magic mountain that retreats as you approach. The more you chase it from the left, the further to the right it moves.
And the grand notion of DEMOCRACY also seems to be on the retreat. More on this in part 2.
For now, I am reminded of this song written by Joni Mitchell quite a while ago. It’s still relevant and a reminder of the endangered state of democracy, with the chorus,
Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you got til it’s gone…”Counting Crows ft Vanessa Carlton’s version of Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi