Unfinished business: who owns our elections?

Each year leaves unfinished business. One for this democracy this New Year’s Eve is our elections. Who owns them?

In June the Prime Minister called a snap election four months before the parliamentary term was up.

She did that ostensibly because the Alliance had broken up, Opposition points of order on the Alliance’s legitimacy in the coalition were obstructing the government’s legislative programme and Parliament was being demeaned.

Actually, it was a gamble on getting a strong result while the polls were good and before the economy eased. (She was not to know the economy would stay strong.)

The snap election was an example of what some in Britain call “executive democracy”. The Prime Minister was exercising the monarch’s ancient prerogative to summon and dissolve Parliament.

These days the monarch does what the Prime Minister “advises”. Though the Governor-General has an unwritten “reserve power” to refuse an election, she would not do so with impunity unless with backing from a clear majority in Parliament and/or an alternative government at hand.

But the Prime Minister was in good company. MPs had already made clear Parliament, not the people, owns the electoral system.

Parliament rejected a 1999 referendum wanting fewer MPs and refused a referendum on whether to keep MMP.

This was “representative democracy” in action. Once elected, Parliament is sovereign and the representatives, the MPs, are not bound by public opinion — unless Parliament itself calls a binding referendum.

The “mob”, you see — that’s you and I — is not to be trusted with important decisions. Once this doctrine protected the governing classes’ privileges. Now it is held to protect minorities.

Parliament is wary of referendums because they diminish its authority. So you are not to have a referendum on abolishing legal appeals to the British Privy Council. You allegedly cannot resolve such a complex question.

Phooey. If you were asked whether British or New Zealand judges should constitute the final court you could readily decide (and, I guess, would decide for the latter). And, as with the electoral system votes in 1992-3, you could sensibly choose among a number of options for a local final court.

In 1992-3 Rod Donald championed MMP and referendums. How come this gamekeeper last term turned poacher to stop a referendum on keeping MMP or not (you probably would have voted to keep it)? And how come Nandor Tanczos opposed a Privy Council referendum?

The Greens, after all, promote “participatory democracy”. So do left parties. It is a noble ideal.

Participatory democrats put much store by consultation. Hence the numbingly complex consultation requirements in this year’s Local Government Act and Land Transport Management Bill. Likewise the Resource Management Act.

Actually, such participation is usually by sectional elites (lobbyists such as Business New Zealand) or by self-chosen elites (such as Greenpeace) who oppose or support the elite in office — or by plain busybodies. Many participants have a distinct minority worldview and/or a belief that office-holders are in thrall to other special interests (big business is the current popular demon).

Regular folk don’t do much participating and don’t want to. Participatory democracy takes too much time for too little reward — unless individual interests are threatened.

The one time regular folk do participate, and still in high numbers, is in national elections.

And that, in a way, vindicated the Prime Minister July 27 — in the sense that you, not she, decided who won, who lost, who got to play the bit parts and who was left in the margin. And, though Labour’s support plunged during the campaign, that was probably not at all because she cut short the three-year term she signed on for in 1999.

But why in the twenty-first century should she have a sixteenth-century queen’s power to decide when Parliament goes and elections are held?

Germany, from which we adapted MMP, has fixed terms. So, nearer home, does New South Wales. This country could too.

There could be a rule that a government could not be voted out unless another with a majority is waiting. And if Parliament became paralysed, the election of a replacement Parliament for the remainder of the term could be allowed.

Moreover, the conduct of elections could be assigned to an independent entity, as in Australia (where, incidentally, the Electoral Commission funds political parties at $A1.84 a vote). Here the functions are divided among the Representation Commission (boundaries), New Zealand Post (voter registration), (the Electoral Commission (party registration and broadcasting funding) and the Justice Department (election day and vote-counting).

A task force of bureaucratic mandarins has recommended a single entity — but in the Justice Department, which takes orders from the Justice Minister.

So the foxes guard the hen run. Do you care? Nah, it’s summertime and the fishing is easy. Pass the chardonnay.