Friday, August 24, 2007

John Key and democracy

In his speech on Wednesday attacking the Electoral Finance Bill, John Key cloaked his criticisms in a passionate defence of democracy. There's a number of ironies in this. Firstly, there's the obvious point that Key seems to have stayed silent when other New Zealanders were speaking up for democracy in South Africa, East Timor, and right here at home during the 1993 campaign for electoral reform; instead, his newfound interest only seems to have been sparked when the ability of his rich mates (those same rich mates who vigorously opposed MMP, I might add) to undermine our democracy by buying elections is threatened. But secondly, there's the example he used. In his speech, Key praised New Zealand's democracy, pointing out that we were one of only 27 "full democracies" in the world:

Next year, like many of you, I will be watching the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. I want you to remember when you see the flags of almost 200 countries come marching past that only 27 of those countries are full democracies.

Only 27 countries, encompassing only 13% of the world’s population, are full democracies, with universal suffrage, with free and fair elections between competing parties, with freedom of association, and with freedom of speech. New Zealand is one of those countries, and New Zealanders are part of that 13% minority.

This 27 (actually 28) full democracies comes from the Economist Intelligence Unit Index of Democracy [PDF]. Interestingly, the country whose election finance laws we are ripping off, Canada, rates higher than us. The country Key would have us emulate in the area of third-party spending, the USA, rates lower than us. So while claiming that he wants to defend our democracy, Key actually wants to move us down the rankings towards a US-style cloaked plutocracy - yet another example of National's "bait and switch" tactics, where the policies work in exactly the opposite directions to the slogans and PR.

But it's also worth exploring Key's new-found fervour for full democracy. Contrary to his assertions, it's not just about universal suffrage, free elections, free association, and free speech - it's also about whether there are effective checks and balances, distributed media ownership, and a government which refrains from invoking new threats such as terrorism to curtail civil liberties - all things we do badly at. Does Key has anything to say about this, or how we might improve our democracy? Another criteria is the level of public faith in political parties - something hardly helped by Key's continuing pursuit of a policy of strategic emptiness and unwillingness to be pinned down on what he actually stands for. Finally, there's also the level of faith in government - something the Electoral Finance Bill would enhance by preventing rich groups from buying power and influence, but which Key thinks should be shredded. Some democrat!

It would be nice if John Key was really interested in democracy, but from his past and present behaviour, it doesn't seem like he is. Instead, his only interest in it is as a rhetorical prop, a "yay-word" to distract the public from his real goal of allowing the rich to continue to buy elections. And that is a deeply undemocratic position to take.