OneAction NZ

Democracy Co-operative

Why we Need to Innovate Democracy

Posted by Rhys Goodwin on January 31, 2021 · 8 mins read

The 2020 US election and subsequent events have shown us just how low to the ground a democratic country can fly without totally crashing and burning. Culturally Aotearoa is a bit different from the US so we can’t expect issues with our democracy to be expressed in the same way, and I’m not suggesting that New Zealand is as far off the track as the US is, but there is without a doubt rot in our democracy as there is in many western democracies across the world.

In our society, we’re all in a relationship with each other (whether we like it or not). Even though we don’t all know each other personally, we work together a bit like a family household or flatmates. The way we mediate that relationship is through democracy and our government. We elect people and parties to represent us who then set up the “rules of the house”. In this way, different viewpoints are expressed, and different identity groups protect their interests, as well as further the interests of the whole Aotearoa New Zealand community. This is democracy. But there are a couple of key ingredients which determine how well our democracy works and how strong it is.

The first ingredient is participation - we have to make our values and the outcomes we want known. The second ingredient we need is effective representatives who above all else, work to deliver on those values and outcomes.

The more we participate the greater the quality of the discussion and ideas, and the better the outcomes for individual and country. When participation is low or where a small group dominates participation, things can swing towards extremes, potential is wasted, and big issues aren’t addressed. One way of participating is through voting, most of us do it, although that is declining, especially in the youth sector. When we vote we have a direct and binding impact on who ends up with seats in Parliament. It’s a pretty powerful thing, but it only matters if we feel represented by our chosen party or MP.

There are other ways of participating too - anything from commenting on social media to writing to our local MP or making a submission to Parliament - but typically unless you put in a lot of effort, you’re unlikely to have much impact. Grater Effort=Greater Impact. That might seem fair on the face of it, but what it means is that only those with the time and resources end up influencing the direction of this waka.

So if the strength of our democracy and the quality of government leadership and decision making is based on the quality of our participation, and if most of us don’t have the time, resources or inclination to participate in much more than voting every 3 years, then this suggests that we are no where near to reaching our potential as a community of people working together. It suggests that our democracy could be much stronger and community outcomes could be much better. Some would argue that people just need to stop being so lazy and do their civic duty, and that our lack of effort shows an ungratefulness for the good thing we’ve got going on here. There may be a thread of truth to that, but I argue that the real issue is that we just haven’t yet developed a way for everyday people to participate easily on a wide scale, in a way that has a real impact.

What about representation? What do we expect from our representatives? The way our current political parties work is that they try to match a set of policies to a group of people in the hope that they might capture their vote and gain political power. It’s essentially a trial-and-error process of fine-tuning messaging and policies to capture the widest possible net of voters within their target market. There are a couple of big problems with this approach. Firstly, it leaves everyday people out of the process - we don’t get to input our values (without considerable effort or the right connections). Secondly, it has a distorted driver - parties have become totally focused on getting votes rather than focused on carrying the peoples voice to the table. When the primary aim is getting votes and ‘winning elections’, political risk becomes the biggest factor, innovation is stifled, and progress is slow. Parties are much more likely to employ short-term ideas based around an election cycle. This is what we have now.

Have you ever noticed how there is no shortage of great ideas out there but there is a lack of political will to put them into action? Our clunky 1890’s political party model is no longer fit-for-purpose, it’s not delivering for us. - This is why we need to innovate democracy.

We need to turn democracy on its head, or should I say, put democracy back on its feet. We need to start driving our country from the people up, rather than politicians down.

Solving the participation problem and the representation problem is exactly what OneAction aims to do by offering a way to participate that is both meaningful and easy. As a democracy co-operative, OneAction’s focus is on giving our members a voice (rather than on getting votes). For us, getting votes is a by-product, or a measure of how well we’re doing, rather than the main aim of the game.

We need to consider just what’s at stake here Aotearoa. If we don’t energise and invigorate our democracy, then the wheels will likely start to wobble, especially as the world gets warmer and smaller. Numerous scholars are raising these issues (e.g. see Geoffrey Palmer, Max Harris, Max Rashbrooke). Now is the time that we need to take a leap forward in how we do democracy.

If we don’t get our democracy “match-fit” we’ll not only struggle to address the issues we face, but we’ll also waste an opportunity to push our boundaries as a community and realise our potential. Likewise, we’ll miss the opportunity to be an example to other countries of a new way of doing democracy.

It might seem strange at first, nothing like this has ever been done before. And at first you might dismiss it and think “na that’s not for me, I’m not interested in all that stuff, I’ll leave it to someone else” but I’m inviting you in earnest, as one New Zealander to another - will you consider helping me to cut a new path for politics in New Zealand?

OneAction isn’t just asking you to take part-ownership of Aotearoa’s direction, we’re building a platform to make it possible.

If you want to see this vision become a reality, then please join us and share the idea with others. It’s free to join and it takes less than 2 minutes a month of on-going effort.