Monday, August 28, 2006

The Pinochet argument

In his Sunday Star-Times column today, political commentator Chris Trotter argues that Labour's electoral overspending was justified because it prevented National from winning the election and restarting the Revolution. This shows an appalling contempt for democracy. The same argument - "those bastards will ruin the country" - was used, albeit from the other direction, by Franco, by Pinochet, by the Venezuelan elite, and by every other two-bit despot wanting to overturn popular rule. To see it coming from someone ostensibly on the left is more than a little jarring. With an attitude like this, you really have to wonder whether Trotter thinks we should have elections at all...

Democracy is not about what is "best for the country", but about what people want. It's not about making good decisions, but our decisions. This may result in the electorate making decisions that, to a disinterested observer, are mistakes. This is part of the process. If a Brethren-funded, BRT-backed, Brash-led National government's policies were even half as disastrous as Trotter suggests, then they would be de-elected at the first possible opportunity, and their term regarded as a warning of the dangers of electing radical market darwinists in future. And if they weren't, we can only conclude that people didn't think the policies were that bad compared with the alternatives on offer. Either way, it is for democracy to police itself, not for self-appointed "guardians" to do so by usurping popular choice.


A minor point, but using "darwinist" as a term of abuse doesn't do the cause of evolution much good.

I know using "Spencerist" doesn't have quite the same effect but it would be more accurate.

What you are implying had nothing to do with Darwin's views. On the other hand, his views on the origin of emotions have significance in understanding the political process.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/28/2006 07:46:00 AM

Neil: "Spencerist" might be more accurate - but no-one would know what it means. The point I'm trying to convey is that our NeoLiberals are social darwinists, though without of the racism, eugenics and odious crap about how BRT members are "fitter" than those on the dole (well, explicitly, at least). What they're advocating is transforming New Zealand into a society where the market is red in tooth and claw, and where there are no social safety nets, because they impede the market's ability to process information. There's a lovely quote from Simon Upton on this, and I'll have to dig it up sometime...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/28/2006 09:04:00 AM

I/S: your analysis is deeply misguided, and you are a filthy pinko commie.

But I congratulate you on having the moral fibre to stand up and say that Trotter's amoral picture of socialism at any cost, does not speak for you.

The fact is that the Left probably only won the last election because they stole it, and won't win the next one because they stole it last time.

Posted by Insolent Prick : 8/28/2006 09:14:00 AM

Trotter's comments are bizarre and surely he is now regretting putting his foot in his mouth in such a stupid fashion. He seems to have a hankering to be a totalitarian leader under the roly-poly (ok - fat) cuddly journo front.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/28/2006 10:36:00 AM

This "stole the election" routine isn't even good comedy, IP.

Posted by Psycho Milt : 8/28/2006 10:36:00 AM

It's good to see you speak from a position of principle I/S (and not uncommon I note).

I trust we on the right are capable of the same when our turn comes.

Posted by ZenTiger : 8/28/2006 12:15:00 PM

IP: what's wrong with the analysis?

Trotter's position clearly violates basic democratic principles of popular sovereignty and consent, and if you reject those principles, then I can't see how you have a leg to stand on in this argument.

But clearly, this is because I am a "filthy pinko commie".

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/28/2006 12:27:00 PM

"Democracy is ... about what people want."

"If a ... government's policies were ... disastrous then they would be de-elected at the first possible opportunity"

Assuming for a moment (largely wrongly in my opinion) that parliamentary representative government actually gives people what they want (rather than giving those with the purse strings what they want), then isn't the second comment contradict the first? How can potetially four years of "disastrous policies" be giving people what they want?

Sure, democracy, in the true sense of the word (e.g. participatory democracy), "gives people what they want," but I wouldn't be so quick to credit our limited form of democracy with such an attribute.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/28/2006 01:41:00 PM

Neil: it does however lead to exactly the right impression of what these people's views are, and why we should oppose them. Darwinian natural selection may be both true and pervasive - but that's no reason to model our societies on it.

Anthony: Well, firstly, "what people want" isn't static; people can change their minds (as they tend to do about governments that have hung around for too long or whose policies turn out to bear little resemblance to their election platform). Unfortunately, elections only come along once every three years, so you may have to wait a long time before being able to express that change of mind electorally. Secondly, people can be mistaken about what sort of government will best serve their interests (and of course politicians try and encourage this). But as in the Burqa post, I'd say that those mistakes are ours to make, and if the politicians manage to pull he wool over our eyes, we should make sure that it doesn't happen again.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/28/2006 02:21:00 PM

Icehawk: Regardless of what is done about Labour's overspending, I think this emphasises the need to tighten the Electoral Act, require greater transparency, and have investigations into breaches of the law prosecuted by the Electoral Office rather than the police. Or introduce public funding, so that the rich can't buy themselves power.

One thing Trotter is right about is the hole in the law which allows parties to escape their own spending restrictions by using proxies to attack their enemies (rather than endorse them). And I suspect that if this loophole isn't plugged somehow, it is going to be used to the max by the Brethren and friends next time.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/28/2006 03:39:00 PM

the differene being the pledge card loophole WAS plugged.

Anyway - the Ex B one is a tougher nut because the Ex B can claim to be on a par with the Unions or like a party itself.

presumably the rules would be somthing like "you can't spend more than x amount per person on a campaign" (because surely you can spend on making a poster for your own house!). even then it seems awkward and an organizaion with many members (eg Ex B?) might be able to get around it 0r it will loos rather unfair.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/28/2006 04:05:00 PM

Anon: I'll leave it for the party hacks to quiible over the difference between the Brethren and the unions - but they're very clearly not a political party. Who were their candidates...?

That point aside, I don't think its a particularly tough nut at all. We restrict advertising around election time which endorses or appears to endorse any particular candidate, and we require that such advertising be authorised by a candidate and count against their electoral spending limit. We simply need to add advertising encouraging opposition to particular candidates or parties as well. It's a violation of free speech, but we already accept the principle that this is permissible in the name of having free and fair elections where money does not have a say. Provided free comment in the media is protected, I don't see that much of a problem.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/28/2006 04:46:00 PM

"We restrict advertising around election time which endorses or appears to endorse any particular candidate"

Hmmm... what about an opinionated piece in the letters to the editior? That's clearly individual free speech... fair enough. So we restrict "publications", after all the EB spent a lot of money to "publish" their distaste for Green policies. But what about blogs? They're also publications (albeit "new media" ones) that can be fairly opinionated at times :) ... would you support the censoring of political blogs to protect the "nuetrality" of an election?

It's something that needs resolving, but the term "restriction" is always a slippery slope when applied to peoples freedoms.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/28/2006 05:47:00 PM


Wow, cultural and scientific illiteracy runs amok. Charles Darwin is one of the most cited and least understood intellectual figures out there, so perhaps you shouldn't be too hard on I/S.

Posted by Craig Ranapia : 8/28/2006 11:42:00 PM

I/S, yes, but you're simply reiterating my point: parliamentary government is a very limited form of democracy; a very limited form of "giving people what they want" and often opposed to it (especially when you factor in all the undemocratic forces that come with a capitalist economy).

I agree largely with your definition of democracy, and the right of people to make mistakes, but I think we all too easily credit our societies with being democratic in the true sense of the word.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/28/2006 11:56:00 PM

Anthony: it's not perfect, but better that than having anyone who thinks they know better able to impose their will upon us whenever we want. That way lies Hobbes...

(And yes, I'm quite keen to see our democracy improved. That's one of the reasons I encourage people to participate in it...)

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/29/2006 12:03:00 AM

I don't have any doubt that you're encouraging people to participate I/S. In fact I think nz democracy would be much poorer without your blog.

The point I'm making, however, is that it's a mistake to think of democracy in NZ, or probably any country, as anything approaching substantive. And more than that, it's down right dangerous. There's no better way to do away with freedom than to create the illusion that it exists. Overstating the state of one's democracy can play a part in this.

Maybe the only form of democracy that will ever deserve the name in any meaningful sense is participatory democracy:

Posted by Anonymous : 8/29/2006 06:03:00 AM

In the your usual impractical of outrage you miss Trotters point completely I/S - which is Labour had a stark choice. Roll over and die in the face of the onslaught of big money and its puppets in the National Party or get in there and in the trenches and go toe to toe, fight back with every weapon it had, and deal with the consequences later. Unlike yourself, I prefer the compromise of getting my hands dirty in exercising real power for the good of the country to high-ground moralising in the blogsphere. You do a great job here, but stop your 20/20 hindsight hectoring of those that do the real world political stuff, you sound like some kind online fishermonger's wife.

Posted by Sanctuary : 8/29/2006 09:07:00 AM

Sanctuary: I don't think anyone out there misunderstood Trotter's point. But if the means to keeping power is the loss of a free and open democracy bound by the rule of law then I would rather not go into battle.

Posted by Anonymous : 8/29/2006 11:24:00 AM

Sanctuary: so, how do you feel about ballot fraud? Vote suppression in rural districts? Tapping the opposition's phones? A bit of thuggery to stop opposition voters from making it to the polls? Arresting opposition politicians for "sedition"? A full-fledged coup so you can continue to exercise real power "for the good of the country"?

That's where your "getting your hands" dirty idea leads. To Rove, to Nixon, to dictatorship, and ultimately, to Hobbes.

Make no mistake, I want Labour to fight and fight hard for power. But not by breaking the law and undermining ourdemocratic system. And the fact that its apologists are willing to piss on those things because they are so sure they are Right is simply bloody scary.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/29/2006 11:28:00 AM


I was referring to your analysis in general, which is that of a filthy pinko commie, rather than on this issue in particular.

I suspect what is most an affront to you is Chris Trotter's insinuation that Labour could only have won the election illegitimately. As somebody with great, but misguided, faith in the power of world socialism as an idea, the knowledge that Labour lost on the idea so had to cheat on the methods must be very difficult to swallow.

I'm not very comfortable with banning third-party organisations from voicing their views during an election period. The EBs are no different from unions. If you're going to ban one side, you have to ban them all.

I think the real issue is transparency. An initial solution might be to require third-party organisations to be registered with the Electoral Commission if they are going to play an advocacy role during the campaign period, and account for all their spending during that time. That protects free speech and transparency.

Posted by Insolent Prick : 8/29/2006 01:20:00 PM

IP: Actualy, its the that he thinks that it could possibly be acceptable to do so. As I keep saying in posts about Taito Phillip Field, there are some things more important than being in government.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/29/2006 02:09:00 PM

Anon: while we restrict election advertising, we also protect the media's ability to report and comment on the campaign, and the right of the public to make their views known through things like talkback radio and letters to the editor. I suspect non-party blogs (like this one) fall into that category.

I am also uncomfortable with banning organised third party advocacy during election campaigns. But the Brethren are just a foretaste of what is to come; now that the loophole, we are going to see more of it - and given the viciousness and frustration in our current politics, things have the potential to get very dirty indeed. And then I look at the US, where the Republicans used "independent" organisations to swift-boat candidates and suppress the vote, and where victory goes to the richest candidate or the one who can use the most proxies to bypass campaign limits... I really, really don't want to see our democracy sink to such a level.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 8/29/2006 02:30:00 PM


The EBs are not a new development in New Zealand. Unions have spent large on elections for years and years in New Zealand, well outside the purview of the electoral commission. Some business groups have done likewise.

You either stop them, or you allow them to do it. If you allow them to do it, you either opt for transparency (a requirement to register with the electoral commission as an interested party, and require them to declare all spending related to promoting their cause in an election, or not.

What was different this time around was that a Christian conservative group was advancing its views in the election, and that the liberal Left disagreed with their right to advance those views.

The EBs are no different from unions, business, or environmental groups that have a particular interest on policy-making in New Zealand. You cannot simply target one group just because you disagree with their philosophies. You either allow them all to campaign, or none.

Even you would have to admit that union spending during the campaign was far greater than the EBs, and that the unions have a far closer relationship with the Labour Party than do the Exclusive Brethrens with the mainstream National Party.

Posted by Insolent Prick : 8/29/2006 02:42:00 PM

Thanks Insolent Prick for again pointing out the real reason that Labour is p*ssed about the EB and is attempting to get National blacklisted in the public eyes over it.

Labour has been using the "loophole" via the Unions and union propaganda as long as there has been spending limits. Now they are scared because the opposition has found people willing to do the same against them.

Posted by Unknown : 8/30/2006 01:38:00 PM