The trouble with democracy is its effective monopoly on political structures – unless you’re someone who fancies a caring dictatorship. We’ve just had a change of government in New Zealand and gone from a relatively stable three-term, four-party coalition to a three-party coalition that the jury is still out on.
Why are governments more or less stable? One of the cornerstones of staying in power in a proportional representation system is not trying to do anything too adventurous. Since it’s near impossible for any single party to get more than half the votes, it’s equally challenging getting the majority of the people to back a new, reformist approach to anything.
On the other hand, people power alone won’t do it either. Overwhelming referendum results in 1999 (81.5% in favour) for a reduction in the size of parliament from 120 to 99 MPs was ignored by politicians.
As a result of these two factors, entrenched problems in health, education and other core aspects of the running of our country get played with round the edges. Why? Because it’s impossible to get the votes to pass anything else. Consequently, we get a spooky sense of deja vue every time the government changes and the new government’s focus swings to reversing the initiatives of the previous regime while picking up where they left off, legislatively speaking, in the parliamentary term prior.
This is frustrating to many and probably accounts for the general sense of disengagement with politics. How many times have you heard “They’re all the bloody same…” when people are discussing politicians?
But what if those wily old Greeks who came up with the concept of dēmokratía knew something that we haven’t yet worked out? What if democracy was specifically designed with inertia – not to prevent change but to absorb the excess energy of those who are drawn to power?
There are definitely types of people who seem to routinely stand for public office – the megalomaniacs who want power for themselves or its own sake; the ‘know-it-alls’ who are always ready to tell us how we should live our lives; the dreamers who imagine alternate realities. Then there are the sorts of people who run our ministries, departments and local councils who are unelected but write and implement policy and control the purse strings at an operational level. There are numerous lobbyists and pressure groups vying for influence, usually, over a single cause.
What if democracy’s major benefit is that is so frustratingly bound up in its own processes that no one person or group can become ascendant? If that’s true, then we can either all breathe a collective sigh of relief and leave the political rock show to play on – or we can be extremely alarmed about the inability of our governing process to effect anything other than minor, incremental improvement in a sea of change that is outpacing us.