Monday, August 25, 2008

Trotter versus democracy

So, according to Chris Trotter, I'm mentally ill for calling him on his undemocratic tendencies. I guess that barb struck home, then.

To explain myself further, Trotter is simply being sniffy and arrogant about the Greens ETS consultation. Sure, we live in a representative rather than a direct democracy, but that doesn't mean that parties are free-floating entities. The purpose of a party is to represent its constituents (another concept Trotter seems to have problems with). Obviously they should use their judgement and any special expertise when doing so, but at the same time, its nice for them to check every so often on what those constituents actually think, rather than arrogantly assuming they know best. This is especially important on such a fraught issue as the ETS, where there are genuine divisions among Green supporters over whether it is worth supporting or not and on the degree of political pragmatism which is acceptable, but its a good general principle to have as well. Involving people in the political process is always a Good Thing. It's treating us as adults entitled to an opinion, and taking the idea of democratic citizenship seriously. So the Greens' consultation should be praised, not condemned, and I think our political system would be a lot better if more parties followed their lead and actually talked to us once in a while.

More troubling is Trotter's attitude to electoral democracy and the rule of law. Despite characterising himself as a social democrat, he makes excuses both for overthrowing governments by force and for evading electoral spending limits. Neither attitude is consistent with democracy.

On the former, the overthrow of the Chilean government on September 11 1973 wasn't wrong because (to put it crudely) Allende was on the left and Pinochet was on the right; it was wrong because usurped and denied the will of the Chilean people, as expressed through free, fair, and democratic elections. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to Fiji. Fiji's electoral system is far from perfect, and should be improved - but it is good enough to convey popular legitimacy. The Fijian government was not engaged in wide-scale human rights abuses or genocide; it was simply pursuing policies the military leadership did not like. I didn't like them either, but there was still absolutely no justification for a coup.

On the latter, the purpose of electoral spending limits isn't to prevent the right from buying elections, but to prevent anyone from doing it, on the basis that money interferes with a free vote. The fact that in 2005 National was quite legally evading those restrictions by spending up large before the three-month limit kicked in highlighted the fact that the law was in desperate need of reform, but it did not justify breaking it. As any kindergarten teacher will tell you, two wrongs don't make a right, and "they're doing it too" is no excuse. Neither do I accept his argument that violating electoral law was necessary in order to "head off a cash-rich National Party poised to inflict enormous damage on New Zealand society". This is dangerous logic, which has been used to justify a hell of a lot more than electoral overspending, and its more than a little reminiscent of Kissinger's infamous "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people".

The link between the two positions (in fact, all three) is arrogance. Trotter thinks he knows better than the Fijian people what sort of government they want, and he thinks he knows better than the New Zealand people what sorts of policies we want, and he's quite willing to countenance extreme measures to impose his vision on us. That's not democratic - in fact its the exact opposite. Democracy is predicated on the moral equality of all people - everyone has interests, and no-one's interests count for more than anybody else's, so we get "one person, one vote". Once you give that away, and start saying "your interests are illegitimate so we can overturn them if we don't like them", you're giving away the farm. And of course you don't have a leg to stand on if it happens to you (and here I note that Trotter would be screaming to high heaven if the BRT hired Blackwater to overthrow the government and give itself a tax cut. But that just shows his hypocrisy).

In a democracy, the proper judge of the consequences of electing a particular party is not Chris Trotter, but the electorate as a whole. Sometimes we get it wrong and we make a mistake, just like we did in 1990. But that's our right, and the joy of democracy is that it is self-correcting: if we make a mistake and elect a government which does things we really don't want, we chuck them out and get someone better - just like we did in 1999. It's an imperfect system, but its far, far better than the alternative of coups and self-appointed philosopher-kings deciding what's good for us and what we "really" want without bothering to actually ask.