OneAction NZ

Democracy Co-operative

Toss your rubbish in the bush, it’s fine!

Posted by Rhys Goodwin on December 31, 2022 · 7 mins read

Kia ora folks,

Lately I’ve been thinking about our cultural norms around politics. In Aotearoa we appoint and dispose our law makers as we see fit and by extension, we authorise the law we all live under. Sovereignty – the final power in determining law is often thought to reside with Parliament, but this is a mistake, the final decision rests in the hands of us democratic citizens because we have a process to fairly and peacefully change our government and hence our laws. We are a sovereign, self-governing people. For practical reasons we delegate the exercise of our sovereignty to Parliament every few years, but we remain sovereign. We are the government, and the government is us. It’s something easily taken for granted, but globally it’s not the norm. More than 50% of the world’s population live under authoritarian rule. That is, they are subjects, they are ruled over and have little possibility of changing their laws or law makers without bloodshed.

I was recently rebuked by a fellow uni student when I claimed that China’s government was illegitimate. “what right do you have to call the Chinese people’s system of government illegitimate!?” he asked me angrily. The point he hadn’t grasped was that the government in China is not owned by the Chinese people! Self-governance and the ability to dispose and appoint governments is what gives a system of government legitimacy. That is, democracy is a prerequisite of legitimate governance.

When we think or talk about the government as separate to us, we are thinking and talking like ruled people. When we see our government as separate to us, we cease to see ourselves and each other as free, sovereign, democratic citizens. This is both a cause and a consequence of the erosion of democracy. When things aren’t right, rather than pointing the finger at the delegates of the day, we ought to be asking each other, “why have we got our delegates doing this?”. We need to be asking each other in earnest – what things we want to conserve and which things we want to progress. This is the essence of politics – a negotiation of rights and responsibilities.

Consider this thought experiment (or perhaps you’d like to try it for real?), today I am free to go down to the Ōtāhuhu town square and shout horrible things about our government and Prime Minister. Now, the police might move me along for disturbing the peace but not for my political message. In a great many countries this would see me in a cell or dead.

The freedoms and the rights we have here in New Zealand – these sweet fruits of self-governance and democracy are an incredible treasure which we need to protect and nourish, just like our beautiful natural environment.

Here’s another thought experiment – imagine I’m walking along one of New Zealand’s great walks, surrounded by beautiful native bush, alive with birdsong. Whenever I finish a packet of snacks, I just toss the plastic wrapper in the bush. No reasonable person thinks this is ok. If you saw me doing it, you’d probably be furious, because you care about protecting this shared environment.

What then of our democracy? What if I said to you “oh I don’t care about politics, I don’t want anything to do with all that - not interested.” Is that ok? Isn’t caring for our democracy just as important as caring for nature. The trouble is, taking an active hand in steering our country is not a particularly strong social norm. For example, we don’t instil a deep sense of civic responsibility into kids at school, and it’s pretty common for people to be completely switched off from politics altogether.

But let’s not judge ourselves too harshly - the truth is, aside from voting every few years there are few accessible ways that we can meaningfully direct our country. Why commit the mental effort of forming views about our direction when there’s no path for our views to be included in the mix? As I’ve argued in most of my previous posts, we simply haven’t invented the right kind of political vehicle yet. Our current political vehicles (our political parties) are chiefly concerned with getting elected and advancing their agenda. Our current approach to representative government has done us well for the last ~130 years but now needs to be evolved in the face of a changing world.

Image credit: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance

At a time when democracy is in decline globally and global issues are becoming increasingly complex and urgent, more than ever we need to protect, nourish, and evolve democracy. The answer to declining democracy is always more democracy – that is, truly empowering citizens to take responsibility for the decisions which shape their country. In this respect, a political vehicle (a political party) should not focus on its own agenda but rather put all its effort into empowering citizens, but what we find today is that our parties concentrate political power within the party.

OneAction believes that a political party (political co-operative in our case) should act as a distributor of political power, a spring of democracy if you like, and that’s our sole reason for being. Of course, democracy is, by nature, all about the numbers and we’re realistic that most New Zealanders aren’t suddenly going to start caring about politics, but we also believe there’s at least a few hundred thousand of us who recognise the need to lead an evolution of politics and democracy. What about you? Would you lend a hand to getting this thing off the ground? What skills could you bring to the OneAction team? If nothing else, you can bring this vision one step closer by joining the TallyUp™ – it will cost you less than 2 minutes per month.

Final thought for 22
What if we could begin a cultural shift in the way we view and do politics? What if we actually could re-invent politics right here in Aotearoa New Zealand?

Ngā mihi


International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. (2022). Global State of Democracy Report 2022: Forging Social Contracts in a Time of Discontent.