New Zealand is not immune from international trends and cannot afford to be complacent about its democracy, writes Sir Geoffrey Palmer

New Zealand is one of the world’s oldest and most stable democracies, and Kiwis are justifiably proud to live in the first country in the world to adopt universal suffrage.

But we cannot rest on past deeds. In modern times, New Zealand’s democracy is neither as healthy nor as safe as it could be.

At the last election, more than 700,000 enrolled electors didn’t vote. This included more than one-third of under-35s.

A recent survey by Massey University found widespread discontent among voters – even those who support the current Government.

About half of those summed up the country’s mood as ‘discontented’. About half agreed that political leaders are ‘out of touch with the people’. About half wanted ‘a complete change of government’ even though Labour supporters were under-represented in the sample. More than two-thirds thought the system of government was either ‘completely broken’ or ‘working but needs to change’.

These results were mirrored in a recently published Ipsos poll, which found that more than half of those surveyed thought that political parties and politicians didn’t care about them.

The Massey research also gave some insights into why voters are discontented and mistrust politicians.

Most were concerned about rising inequality, and in particular about a housing crisis that is locking many young New Zealanders out of home ownership and leaving some with no shelter at all. Health and the environment were also big concerns.

The prominence of the environment is unsurprising at a time when New Zealand’s waterways are being managed in ways that scarcely reflect Kiwi values and sometimes don’t even reflect the law.

In earlier times, these levels of discontentment might have been reflected in lower popular support for the Government. But times have changed, and the political system isn’t working as it used to.

What we appear to be seeing – particularly from younger people – is disconnection from and mistrust of all political parties, and from the entire system of government. Those who feel economically disenfranchised also feel abandoned by politicians and politics.

Voters have little understanding of how New Zealand’s system of law-making government works, and therefore little understanding of how their input might bring about change.

We have already seen – in Brexit, and remarkable election results in the United States, France, and Britain – how this discontentment can play out in novel and unexpected ways.

Rather than wait and do nothing, wouldn’t it be better to tackle voter discontentment head on?

There are four main reasons for voters switching off from politics.

First, there is a lack of information. Voters have little understanding of how New Zealand’s system of law-making government works, and therefore little understanding of how their input might bring about change.

This is not surprising: there is no single document a New Zealander can read to find out how New Zealand’s system of government works, and – despite the recommendations of the 2013 Constitutional Advisory Panel – very little effort is made to explain how things work. Civics education is limited, and public education almost non-existent.

Second, New Zealanders have largely turned away from political parties. Parties used to have large numbers of members, who had opportunities to debate and discuss the party’s policies. This created a very direct link between voters and Parliament.

Now, only a tiny fraction of New Zealanders belong to political parties. Citizen participations has reduced markedly, making the political system less connected to the people.

New Zealand now has cadre parties, and tiny numbers of people in the professional political elites exert the power. This is not the type of representative democracy we once had.

Third, there has been a long and sustained decline in the political media. Newspapers used to carry detailed accounts of parliamentary debates and political issues, and broadcast media used to focus on lengthy current affairs interviews. Media understood their responsibilities to inform the public and hold government to account.

As competition has increased, news media have become more entertainment- and celebrity-focused, and media staffing and resources have become more stretched. Long-form journalism about current affairs has largely disappeared, and parliamentary and political coverage have been reduced to sound-bites, often focusing on the sensational or bizarre. Information and accountability have been sacrificed.

It’s true that a vast amount of information is available online, including records of parliamentary debates and select committee hearings. But people do not know what to make of it and cannot devote the time and effort to find out what it all means.

In this transformed media environment, politicians go to great lengths to secure media attention and to control the ways in which they are perceived. Significant taxpayer resources are devoted to managing politicians’ images and to manipulating media coverage and public opinion. Public disenchantment with political processes might be reduced if less effort was spent on persuasion and more on involving voters in policy decisions.

Long-form journalism about current affairs has largely disappeared, and parliamentary and political coverage have been reduced to sound-bites, often focusing on the sensational or bizarre.

A fourth reason for public disenchantment is the rising influence of money and professional lobby groups. In the absence of mass membership, political parties now rely for funding on donations from trade unions, corporations, and wealthy individuals. In such a situation there are risks that the voice of ordinary people will be drowned out by the interests of those with money.

New Zealand has some safeguards in place to limit third party spending on election campaigns and to promote transparency about political donations. But it is difficult to escape the conclusion that election outcomes depend at least partly on which party has the most money. There is a case for tightening political donation and election spending regulations, and for increasing regulatory oversight of political parties. But how likely are existing parliamentarians to support such measures?

New Zealand needs democratic renewal. This means encouraging civic literacy, so people understand how government works, and how they can have influence. And it means rebuilding trust in the institutions of government, by reconnecting the governors with the governed.

Democracy means more than having a vote every three years. It means having genuine opportunities for informed participation in the business of government, so that laws and policies reflect the wishes of the people.

Internationally, some democratic countries are finding new ways for government to engage with citizens, and involve them in decision-making. In Ireland and Iceland, for example, randomly selected panels of citizens have been involved in drawing up constitutional reforms.

These are efforts at ‘deliberative democracy’ – a democracy that informs its citizens and involves them in decision-making, instead of reserving all power for an elected elite.

One of the principal aims of the codified constitution that Dr Andrew Butler and I have proposed (which we have called A Constitution for Aotearoa New Zealand) is to strengthen understanding of New Zealand’s system of government, by gathering all of the main laws in one document which people can easily find.

A second aim is to promote discussion and debate. Do you agree that New Zealand’s democracy could be made stronger? If so, how? What should change?

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