Is there something rotten in the state (of New Zealand/Aotearoa)?

If you happened to be in Wellington last week and were hanging out at Victoria University and a few other venues around town then you would’ve had the opportunity of catching one or more of Victoria University’s discussions on democracy. Simon and I went along to a few and found the events well organised and moderated, with articulate and informative presentations and intelligent questions and responses. Sort of like some of the best aspects of democracy really.

Of course, if you actually bothered to do a head count of the people who showed up, then may be the events weren’t exactly the greatest advertisement for the pulling power of democracy; which in some senses was the very point of the exercise, especially as far as young people are concerned. For example, as of the last election, just over 62% of those aged between 18-29 who were enrolled didn’t vote, and 36% of 18-24-year olds and 28% of 25-29 years didn’t enrol even though they were eligible to vote.

Further evidence that there is growing dissatisfaction with the current relationship between citizens and elites can be found in a recent Victoria University report and in a Stuff article based on an Ipsos poll. Key findings were that 57% have little or no trust in government and over 50% of people don’t think government is working for them.

It’s not only the increasing rejection of voting which indicates a growing dissatisfaction with the current political process. In recent years we’ve witnessed the rise of populism which is often characterised by a toxic mix of hatred towards minorities, calls to ignore the rule of law and an aggressive nationalism, the very opposite of what we consider to be the virtues of liberal democracy.

If, as it increasingly appears, representative democracy is on the ropes (but by no means out), some of the reasons for this might lie with the very system of representative democracy itself. A system where many of the important decisions which affect us are taken by our elected representatives but with little or no direct input from us the public. Representative democracy maybe the version we are most familiar with but there are some interesting variations out there which some say could help us overcome the weaknesses in our current system. Last Wednesday, Simon and I were fortunate to hear one of the world’s leading democratic theorists, Professor John Dryzek, talk about one of those alternatives: deliberative democracy. Unlike representative democracy, deliberative democracy makes public participation between elections central to decision-making.

Although deliberative democracy might not be all that familiar in New Zealand, in historical terms, it stretches all the way back to Greece and Athens. It has been one of the most important developments in political theory over the last 30 years and is beginning to gain more and more attention, especially as representative democracy runs into significant head winds. Supporters of deliberative democracy maintain that it could help address some of the pathologies of contemporary representative democracy. As James Fishkin and Jane Mansbridge explain ‘deliberative democracy … has the potential to respond to today’s current challenges. (It) could help revive democratic legitimacy, provide for more authentic public will formation, provide a middle ground between widely mistrusted elites…and help fulfil some of our common expectations about democracy. Closer to home our very own constitutional law expert Sir Geoffrey Palmer has called for more deliberative democracy in New Zealand in a recent video called ‘A Stronger Democracy’.

There are many definitions of deliberative democracy, however, I think the following captures most of the salient features. Once again Fishkin and Mansbridge: deliberative democracy is about ‘weighing competing arguments for policies or candidates in a context of mutually civil and diverse discussion in which people can decide on the merits of arguments with good information’. Most deliberative democrats don’t advocate replacing representative democracy but see deliberative democracy as a necessary supplement.

Deliberative democracy is neither wishful thinking or an academic fantasy. There is plenty evidence that it is gaining in popularity, even in the most surprising of places. From China (yes, China!) to Chile, Australia to Austria, Brazil to Belgium, and New Zealand to Nigeria, countries all over the world have experimented with different forms of deliberative democracy. Deliberative democracy includes many different methods: deliberative polls, citizens’ juries, citizens’ assemblies, consensus conferences and participatory budgeting, to name just a few. As different as many of these processes are, they all adhere to Fishkin and Mansbridge’s definition.

The fact deliberative democracy is a hot topic within academia and is being experimented with all over the world doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of sceptics and no shortage of critics. However, as Curato et al elaborate, the fact that there have been so many practical instances of deliberative democracy on which to base extensive academic research has helped to lay to rest many of its perceived weaknesses and dangers. Critics of deliberative democracy often complain that it is unrealistic and has no hope of being institutionalised, that deliberative democracy fora are only small scale and therefore lack legitimacy, that it is elitist and excludes different ways of talking (e.g. the use of stories), and that it lacks a theory of power and only seeks consensus decisions. However, as Curato et al point out, all these criticisms and more have been effectively answered by empirical research which has demonstrated that, under the right conditions, deliberative democracy can overcome these perceived limitations and that it has many positive democratic effects.

Deliberative democracy is not the only alternative doing the rounds. Plebiscitary democracy, as in democracy by referenda, is also gaining currency, Switzerland being the best-known example. Interestingly deliberative democracy shares some common ground with those who advocate referenda as a decision-making procedure: both want to put more power in the hands of citizens. However, that is about as far as the similarity goes because whereas deliberative democracy understands that citizens mostly don’t have ready-made preferences and attitudes to particular policies, and that making complex and far-reaching decisions requires time, good reasons and the balancing of interests; referenda encourage the fast, impulsive snapshot reaction generated by passions and instincts.

So, is there something rotten in the state of Aotearoa/New Zealand? Things may not have got to a Brexit or a Trump state of affairs here but there is no denying that liberal democracy even in ‘God’s own’ is in trouble. What path we choose to go down to address its shortcomings remains to be seen. Judging by the lack of interest by the major political parties, you’d think that (to paraphrase John Key) there was ‘no problem here, move on’. This, however, would be to ignore obvious and ominous signs.

Simon Wright and John Pennington are Partners at Public Engagement Projects. They are leading NZ experts in deliberative processes.