OneAction NZ

Democracy Co-operative

Our Dying Democracy Tree?

Posted by Rhys Goodwin on June 30, 2022 · 7 mins read

Kia ora folks,

The New Zealand Herald recently ran an article about a woman whose identity was stolen and used to buy a car which she then received speeding fines for. The police refused to investigate as they considered the crime too minor. I was a bit shocked at first – as the article noted – what message does this send to would-be fraudsters? But from police’s perspective the issue is so prevalent that there is just no way they could investigate all identity theft and fraud. Basically, you’re on your own in many cases. Perhaps we could or should demand better from our police but at the end of the day we can’t just magic-up unlimited resources. This story got me thinking about how I’ve often taken institutions like police for granted. I’ve generally felt that the police have things under reasonable control. I’ve generally felt quite safe in New Zealand. That got me wondering – what would it feel like if police resourcing decreased or if crime escalated to a point where police could no longer contain it? Not a nice thought.

This thought reminded me of a Lex Fridman podcast with historian Stephen Kotkin where the question came up – how do we know that we in “Western” countries (e.g. US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand etc.) are the “good guys”? While there is always corruption and mixed motives in all human activity, as Kotkin explained, we need to look at the fruits of Western democracy, in particular its institutions. Institutions like police – which in New Zealand will not take bribes. Institutions like the IPCA which holds the police to account. Then there’s the courts, ACC, Public Health, the Official Information Act, and the list goes on. Through our Institutions and the law we’ve built up over the years, we guarantee each other certain rights and we keep human tendencies towards corruption in-check.

Like any fruit bearing tree, the healthier this democracy tree is, the sweeter the fruit and the stronger the storm it can weather. Despite all it’s flaws, when you take a step back and look at this democracy tree and the rights it creates for us, it is nothing short of astonishing. A marvel of human political technology.

So, the fruits of a healthy democracy are an ever-expanding array of rights and securities to live the lives we choose. But there is a flip side – what happens when the branches on this tree get rotten and die? In Aotearoa we have a beautiful democracy tree. But for how long? Will we soon see branches start to die off? Looking at what we’re going through now, with all the increasing economic pressures, there is a possibility that things will get a lot tougher than they already are. Arguably things are definitely going to get tougher as we stare down the barrel of climate change (or at least climate change policy). What this ultimately means is that we’re going to be faced with some tough decisions. How will we resource things? How will we take care of each other? What trade-offs will we have to make? What rights are we determined to retain no matter what?

The trouble is, even before COVID and the war in Ukraine we’d been witnessing greater division in Western democratic societies. Our politics has been getting crappier. So we’re now not only potentially facing some hard choices and tough times, we also face the challenge of shoring up and firing up our democracy because if we don’t we’ll descend into further division. We’ll start reversing the progress we’ve made in establishing sound institutions, human rights, and the rule of law. Many would argue that this regression, this death of democracy and the souring of its fruit is already under way for example in the US and the UK. Some even question if the US is now ‘so far gone’ in its politics that it has little hope of pulling itself out of a catastrophic tailspin.

What will we do here in Aotearoa? As a world leader in democracy, what kind of example will we provide to the rest of the world? How will we keep our democracy tree healthy and fruiting? As the world gets warmer and smaller it’s clear that our existing political vehicles (traditional political parties) are no longer fit for purpose. Clearly, we need to build new vehicles. But of course, democracy by nature cannot be revitalised by just a few people. It will need a big chunk of us to push, just a tiny bit. Even if you hate politics, even if you don’t normally get involved, even if you don’t have time, even if you think it won’t work – look at what’s at stake folks, can we afford to stay passive? Can we afford to let our democracy tree wither?

I don’t know exactly where OneAction will go – there’s no template for this project. I don’t know what will work and what won’t, but I do know that we need to build something better. If nothing else, all I’m asking from you is to own and carry a small piece of this project. In practice that takes less than 2 minutes a month. By joining the monthly TallyUp you’re counted in a group of people who want to build innovative and more collaborative ways of doing politics in Aotearoa. When that number gets big enough, we’ll be able to pool our skills and resources to create the kind of political vehicle which can begin revitalising our democracy. This is my earnest plea to you – we’re running out of time folks. Please don’t wait until our politics looks like the US.

Will you help me with this project? It will be fun (and very, very difficult).

Join the TallyUp™ here

Ngā mihi rā