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Some Thoughts On Our Democratic Infrastructure

Article – John Stowell

Democratic infrastructure

We hear a lot about infrastructure, and the backlog of maintenance of roads and drains, the poor state of many of our older, and not so old, buildings.Millions, if not billions, of dollars are rightly allocated towards fixing our physical infrastructure. Should we not also be thinking of whether our democratic infrastructure is up to snuff, or perhaps needs a chunk of investment to strengthen it against trying times? An earthquake with endless aftershocks of the Covid pandemic? The tsunami of climate change? The insidious leaks rotting away at the house of democracy as right wing regimes in supposedly democratic states chip away at voter rights for their opponents? Are we thinking everything is OK here, no problems, we have our constitution and politics sorted?

Max Rashbrooke and Joseph Cederwall, in their contributions to The Dig’s Transitional Democracy Series which appeared just before the 2020 general election introduce the analogy of an out of date operating system, and the need for Democracy 2.0. Well, a brand new operating system for Aotearoa New Zealand is probably not yet on the cards, but the time is surely ripe for thinking about some improvements to the “consultations” routine within our system of government.

Long-term Insights Briefings

Upcoming is the first round of Long-term Insights Briefings from Heads of Department under the Public Service Act 2020. Will the Heads of Department be thinking about how robust their usual methods of doing things are, whether they enable us all to tackle the big challenges as a real team of five million? Will they take the opportunity to think of ways that team could be less of “follow our leaders” and more of “let’s sit down and talk this over together”? The IPCC, and our own backyard, tell us that we are in unprecedented times where climate threats are concerned. We feed ourselves and the world in ways that are destructive of both the climate and the environment, and so are not sustainable. We know that drastic changes of course are needed to begin to rectify things. Do we have a political system capable of defining and implementing, for the long-haul, such drastic changes? Let’s hope that some of the briefings show real insight into how to tackle these issues.

Effects of the electoral cycle

Political parties setting out their policy wares every three years with the aim of attracting votes beyond their core supporters and thus being able to form a government; does that enable us as a team of five million to take the long view, or does it favour short-term thinking because the next election is never more than three years away? And what about the electorate? Do the voters, and the over 20% of enrolled voters under the age of 40 who did not vote in 2020, think they have a big enough part to play, or any part? The continuous decline of the voter turnout for national elections, from close to 90% of the estimated voting age population in 1984 to around 70% in 2020, does not speak of an engaged and empowered populace, but perhaps of a growing loss of interest or belief that voting is worth even the limited effort involved. Not to speak of local government.

Innovations from Government, or lack thereof

In Chapter 11 of their Policy Platform of Dec 2019, the New Zealand Labour Party declared that the Party “believes that democracy is about more than just voting once every three years”. However, the ways in which the public at large can participate in government or influence government decisions between elections are limited, and have not noticeably changed under the present government. Hōhonu kakī, pāpaku uaua, (Long on words, short on actions) as my copy of Scotty Morrison’s book wanted me to learn.

Furthermore, this situation seems, by and large, to be accepted as simply the way we do things here. A Ministry proposes a policy initiative and the public are given a few weeks to make submissions in writing or in person. Select Committees hear a few submissions from those sufficiently competent and articulate. Anybody can make a submission, but only the capable and those with skin in the game actually do so. The current system is inherently biassed. Under the Open Government Partnership some attempts have been made to make the process less intimidating, but not to change the process itself. Compared to the organised lobbying power of the business sector, civil society at large is weak. Brian Easton, quoting Bruce Jesson, describes New Zealand as “a hollow society”, because government created non-Māori society, and has always driven things from the top. In recent decades, civil society has been further hollowed out, with the exception of iwi who have managed to remain self-organising. The Business Round Table and the like have not been similarly disempowered, and consequently their relative influence on affairs has increased.

This is not to ignore the huge and successful efforts being made by a wide range of groups to push government and industry towards effective responses to our climate and ecological emergencies, but Government appears to see no need actively to consider measures to develop institutions articulating a more representative and deliberative voice of the public.

The Public Service Commission’s Long-term Insights Briefing

In the notes which accompanied their invitation to give feedback on the Long-term Insights Briefing of the Public Service Commission, in a section on System challenges and opportunities, are the following point:

“Globally and within New Zealand there are calls for more meaningful ways for people to be involved in decisions that affect them. Many people are wanting Government to make decisions and design services with them rather than for.”

The notes also suggest that, to maintain trust in today’s difficult circumstances and in the face of dangerous misinformation campaigns, Government should invest proactively in preserving trust.

In the section relating to submissions, there was a bullet point list of questions which might help guide the thinking of submitters. One of these was “How do you think people expect to be involved in government decision-making in the future?” Despite the statement quoted above, the number of people actively seeking more meaningful ways of involvement in government decisions in New Zealand is quite low, and certainly not widespread. Indeed, how can people at large expect something outside of their experience? If there were to be some serious out-of-the-box thinking as part of the Long-term Insights Briefings, it might be that such thinking in fact left the public pleasantly surprised.

Out-of-the-box

And it does not have to be that far out-of-the-box. We only have to look across the ditch to see how extensive the use of, for instance, deliberative mini-publics is becoming there. Indeed, looking at the many thousands of examples of such processes around the world, which have grown out of the early experiments in participatory budgeting developed by the Brazilian Workers’ Party in the 1980s, it is hard not to find much to excite and admire. It is a bit of a mystery why nothing of the kind has yet been tried here. Maybe one reason is that it costs more time and money to commission and run such processes, when compared with giving the public a few weeks to send in feedback on their own time and at their own expense. Maybe also our decision-makers are just as much in the dark about the possibilities offered by such deliberative processes as is the public at large.

A country-appropriate approach

Clearly, under Covid, our government has been greatly occupied with guiding and controlling our response, but still manages to allocate large sums of public money to other matters. Back to investing in our democratic infrastructure. Instituting a trial or trials of representative deliberative processes, adapted and designed to fit with Te Tiriti and the customs and procedures of our various ethnicities and cultures, would cost at most a few million dollars, given that everything about such processes would be essentially new to New Zealand. Nothing to give the Treasury nightmares here.

If some form of deliberative mini-public was found to be an effective way of being able to “harness the ideas, knowledge, wisdom and skills of the non-government sector”, to quote again from Labour’s 2019 Policy Platform, then they could be more widely used. Costs would fall and an ever-increasing number of members of the public would gain experience.

Some reminders about deliberative-mini publics

Whilst there have been many different implementations of deliberative mini-publics, and there is a great deal of information on the web, it is perhaps appropriate to point out the key characteristics which are common to all successful implementations:

  • They are commissioned by public authority and paid for by the public purse. The commissioning authority sets the issue or issues to be addressed, but does not run the assembly;
  • They seek to be demographically representative of the public at large, and do this using some form of stratified civic lottery;
  • Invitations to take part are directly delivered to individuals, or sometimes to households, by any appropriate means. Delivery in person by recruitment staff has the advantage that questions can addressed on the spot;
  • They usually consider one issue at a time, chosen because it is politically difficult or controversial;
  • They follow a standard set of stages;
  1. agreeing on procedure;
  2. learning about the issue, usually from a briefing paper;
  3. hearing from experts, stakeholders and others, about their ideas and reasons for them;
  4. questioning and seeking further information;
  5. deliberation in small groups, then all together as consensus emerges;
  6. preparation of a report with recommendations.
  • All of the steps above, including the drafting of the report, are under the control of the assembly itself;
  • The logistics of the assembly, including recruitment, are handled by independent contractors. Deliberations are assisted by independent facilitators to ensure proceeding are not dominated by any group or individual. Assistance can also be offered by the independent facilitators in the structuring of the report, but the wording is that of the assembly.
  • Because of the need to go through the steps above, deliberative mini-publics are commonly run over a series of weekends, well spaced. This is slow-form democracy.
  • To ensure as far as possible that there are no obstacles to taking part, participants are usually paid a fee of some kind, in addition to having travel and other expenses covered, and being housed and fed as appropriate, and this is made clear at the time the original invitations are sent out.
  • Following the submission of the assembly’s report, the commissioning authority responds publicly and in detail to the recommendations, having undertaken to do so at the outset.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle in making deliberative mini-publics have impact lies in the mindset of the commissioning authority. If that mindset is that the decision on whether to implement remains firmly in their hands, which of course constitutionally is actually the case at present here, then disillusion for the public looms. If, on the other hand, the commissioning authority chooses to move out of their comfort zone and demonstrate trust in the wisdom of the public as assembled, then they may boldly choose to say that they will, to use the words of the IAPP’s Spectrum of Public Participation, “incorporate your advice and recommendations into the decisions to the maximum extent possible”.

The climate crisis

Given the recently announced delay in the Government’s action plan following on from the report of the Climate Change Commission, and the outrage over this, should this hot potato now be handed to a citizens’ assembly, as XR have been demanding since their formation? A Citizens’ Assembly would be free to consider what is best for the country, and all experience elsewhere suggests that the participants would take this task extremely seriously. The Government should undertake to lay the Assembly’s report before Parliament for debate before making any decision. The notion that our response to climate change, to making real and rapid reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions, can be achieved essentially painlessly is absurd. The notion that little New Zealand will have no substantial effect on the global situation, while technically the case, is morally bankrupt if used as an excuse to do nothing much. What was Labour’s slogan in 2017? Let’s do this.

[1] https://thedig.nz/transitional-democracy/government-upgraded-democracy-2-0-in-aotearoa/

https://thedig.nz/transitional-democracy/democracy-2-0-what-is-on-offer-in-ge-2020/

[2] Brian Easton (1999), The Whimpering of the State – Policy after MMP, Auckland University Press, p.97.

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