TOP’s Democracy Reset: good principles, rushed execution

Gareth’s Morgan’s The Opportunities Party (TOP) yesterday announced its ‘Democracy Reset‘, tapping into the growing public sense that democracy isn’t working the way it should. And it’s right to identify concentrated power within Cabinet, falling voter turnout and vested interests as key threats to the system. But while it has some good ideas, it doesn’t offer either a radical or a coherent way to really hand back power to the people.

The problems start when it accepts uncritically some research from last year claiming to show that millennials don’t care about democracy – research that has been very strongly questioned (on the grounds that we don’t know what millennials will think about democracy when they reach the age that people born in the 1930s are now).

The TOP policy also concentrates oddly on two quite technocratic and not obviously essential fixes. The first is restoring an Upper House, which is supposed to take power from the executive and restore it to Parliament.

But the Upper House would almost certainly be advisory, so it could in fact be ignored, just like the current attorney-general’s warnings about human rights violations are ignored. Whereas if it did have some decisive power, all sorts of questions about the legitimacy of an Upper House would be raised, especially if some of its member were appointed, not elected. These complex questions don’t seem to have been considered.

Also, if we want more expert scrutiny of bills, which seems to be the point, why don’t we work that into the current system, for instance by strengthening the select committee process? There are good examples from other countries where that happens. So an Upper House doesn’t seem very necessary to achieve the stated goals.

The next section, ‘Empowerment of People’, is broadly sensible: devolution of power, deliberative democracy, and civics. But it doesn’t say anything definitive that really counts. Saying “let’s have devolution” is easy; what matters is what powers are devolved, and how you resolve the tricky issue of maintaining central oversight and expertise while giving locals control.

Similarly, I couldn’t be more pleased to hear a party call for “collaborative software, participatory budgeting and citizen’s juries/assemblies”, but how will they be used? And how would TOP deal with the classic problems, such as the questions over the status of the results of such things (whether they really represent the public) and the fact they are normally ignored by parliaments?

Then, the section on the second technocratic solution, a written Constitution, is pretty slapdash. Key rights from the Indian constitution are posted in full, suggesting we need to consider “the abolition of untouchability” (!), but there’s no discussion of crucial things for a New Zealand constitution: property rights; economic, social and cultural rights (and whether they are something that should be in a constitution); etc.

Bizarrely, there is no mention of whether this constitution would be enforceable by the courts, in the sense that judges could, as in the US, strike down laws they deem inconsistent with it – even though this is one of the key questions about any written constitution. Also, if the courts could do that, it would be the precise opposite of TOP’s stated aim of restoring sovereignty to Parliament!

Elsewhere, TOP advocates for stregnthening the position of the Treaty, which seems very welcome, though I’m not qualified to comment on whether its proposals go far enough.

Finally, there is a very cursory section on media and the public sector, which consists solely of a plan to sell TVNZ to fund journalism on other platforms (potentially sensible but surely not the whole solution to media problems), and a call for “more open and transparent government”, which again is sensible but totally free of details, especially on crucial questions such as how to restore the provision of free and frank advice in a world where ministers often don’t want to hear it.

In short, while I don’t disagree with much of the above, it all feels very rushed and piecemeal, most of the key questions are ducked, and the fundamental problems of our democracy – disengagement and the lack of genuine decision-making power for most citizens – aren’t going to be changed by such policies.

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