New Year’s Guide to Democracy

Christian parenting, feminist parenting, introduction to democracy, teaching teenagers civics

Pop quiz for those of you who live in, or are interested in, parliamentary democracies, like the United Kingdom, New Zealand and other such wonderful places:

  1. What’s the difference between Cabinet and Caucus?
  2. What’s the difference between Government and Parliament and the House of Representatives?
  3. Can you describe in a paragraph how a law gets made?
    [The answers, and the reasons this knowledge could make a difference to your life, are below.]

If you are the parent of a teenager, this post might be a good one to talk over with the young people in your life.

Probably the most influential law-maker in New Zealand’s history so far (along with Sir John Salmond) is Sir Geoffrey Palmer.

Among other things, he’s been Attorney-General (the government head of law-making) in the super-reformist Fourth Labour Government in the 1980s, responsible for shaping our legal system for decades to come.

He has also been Prime Minister (briefly), a law Professor, President of the Law Commission (a body he founded, two decades before!) and founder of the first specialist public law firm in New Zealand.

Having just published a memoir, he spoke to Kim Hill recently, about public understanding of our democracy. It’s a fascinating interview.

One thing he said was that he was always horrified that most first-year law students – among the brightest and most successful of school-leavers – couldn’t answer any of the questions at the top of the post. So you’re not alone if you weren’t crisply certain yourself!

I tutored first-year law students for several years and found the same thing. Probably one in twenty had enough understanding of such things to be able to read the newspaper and really understand what was going on.

Of course, it’s not their fault. Schools don’t teach it, and probably didn’t when their parents were at school, so everyone’s voting in the dark. This is not good for democracy.

The United States is so different from this – and I’d love to hear your point of view if you live there. Civics is a core subject, and every school student is expected to understand their incredibly complicated democratic system accurately.

Are you at the ‘who cares?’ moment? Fair enough. Let me convince you.

Somalia, Congo and Sudan are failed states, filled with violence, suffering and life expectancy numbers that wouldn’t get you to retirement. They used to have peace.

Zimbabwe used to have a democratic government, but now has a dictator who threw out the ‘rule of law‘ (the idea that law should be in charge, not the person with the biggest gun or wallet) and rigs elections to stay in power.

Christian parenting, feminist parenting, failed states, the importance of democracy

Demonstration against Robert Mugabe’s regime next to the Zimbabwe embassy in London, on August 12, 2006, photo credit Two Wings, via Wikipedia CC.

After multiple coups booting out elected governments, Fiji is still run by a military government that keeps stalling on setting up fair processes. Journalists go to jail here if they criticise the government.

When the United States democracy doesn’t work properly, millions of people around the world are affected by ‘government shut-downs‘ until the parties can play nicely together again.

Australia and New Zealand have had constitutional crises in recent decades that cost a great deal of money and sweat and risked sinking our economies, as unelected people assumed power. (Yes, truly!)

The distance between effective, transparent, representative democracy and failed state is surprisingly small and it doesn’t require guns or genocide.

Many of the things we depend on – clean drinking water, trustworthy police who won’t ‘disappear’ impudent citizens, and an economic system that lets people feed their families without hyperinflation, bribery or unreliable contracting – are part of a relatively recent, delicately negotiated social contract. We agree to trust each other and live by the same, sometimes inconvenient rules, in order to create this safe and prosperous place.

We keep our personal connection to this contract by voting for the people who will take charge of the details.

If people don’t know how to make their vote count, they lose faith in government. If that happens, we really aren’t far away from chaos.

In New Zealand, understanding the MMP (Mixed Member Proportional) voting system is hugely important for anyone who a) votes and b) wants to have their opinion on who should run the country reflected in the vote they cast.

It took a couple of MMP elections for most of the country to really understand, for instance, that it’s the party vote that is most important. We could do another post on MMP for the Kiwis if anyone’s interested – let me know in the comments.

But I chose three questions for today that are relevant beyond New Zealand. Here are the answers:

  1. Cabinet is where the power lies. It’s the senior members of the governing party or parties, each of whom is a Minister of something. They meet weekly to make all the biggest decisions, in secret.
    Caucus is all the elected members of a given party. The Labour caucus is all the Labour MPs.
  2. Government is the party or parties in power, because they control a majority of the House of Representatives so can win things that are voted on there. So we talk about the Coalition Government or the Fourth Labour Government.
    The House of Representatives is all the MPs (120ish in NZ). The House votes on things, usually along party lines, so if you have a majority there, you can run the country.
    Parliament is the body that can make something into a law, and it is the House plus the Queen, who, through her representative here, the Governor-General, signs a new law into existence.
  3. Either the Government or a single Member of Parliament proposes a new law, called a ‘Bill’. The House of Representatives considers the draft Bill in a few different stages, including having a Select Committee (made up of MPs) hear submissions from the public about it. Changes are made along the way. The Bill gets voted on, and if it passes, the Governor-General signs it into law.
    [See some more detailed explanations at the NZ Parliament website.]

And here’s how that the fact of you and your friends and kids having that knowledge could make your country better:

  1. It’s important to know who has power.If you care deeply about something like euthanasia, national standards, the spending of the country’s foreign aid budget or folic acid in bread, you’ll want to lobby someone who is in the room where the decisions are made, not someone else. Your own MP might want to help, but if they’re not in Cabinet, they probably don’t have much say.
  2. It’s important to know who to criticise :)It’s all very well to complain about ‘the government’ but who do you mean? Who should you be trying to influence or oust?A bit of clarity in our terms can help us target our discontent. Or, you know, our heartfelt praise…
  3. It’s important to know how to have your say – and when.The Select Committee stage of law-making, where the public can make submissions, isn’t just a formality. It really does make a difference to whether a Bill passes and to how each bit of it is expressed.These days there’s a lobby group for everything, so there’s probably someone doing the hard work for you on whatever issue is closest to your heart. Take half an hour to cut and paste from their material into a personal submission. Tell law-makers what you care about and why. It might actually change the world.

So… how’d you do? What about the other folks around you – work colleagues, flatmates, friends?

Am I right that this is important stuff? If not, what do we need to know about democracy?

Christian parenting, feminist parenting, introduction to democracy, teaching teenagers civics

This is part of an annual series of New Year’s Guides. If you’d like to suggest a topic or offer to write a guest post on pretty much anything, please leave a comment or get in touch privately. So far we’ve had a pretty wide range, from English to nappies to smoking (quitting, that is). 

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7 comments on “New Year’s Guide to Democracy”

  1. Steph Reply

    Ha! I have to confess that as a first year law student when I realised there was a whole paper on “statutory interpretation”, I had to look up “statute” in the dictionary just to check I actually knew what it meant.
    I definitely think we could teach some of these basics better in schools.

  2. Alex Reply

    Interesting stuff, and I agree it’s important. It always depresses me when people wheel out the fact that people are more likely to vote for some reality tv show than in an election. I’ve no idea if that’s really true, but it wouldn’t actually surprise me. Part of the problem with the UK’s set up of first past the post is that although it’s arguably more transparent who you’re voting for, in an awful lot of constituencies your vote won’t make a difference because of how entrenched the incumbent party often is.
    I did ok on your pop quiz, by the way (as I should, given my civil service background!), but didn’t know the term ‘caucus’ – don’t think we use it here, and I clearly haven’t watched enough US political dramas!

    • not a wild hera Reply

      Interesting about ‘caucus’ – I didn’t know that. How do you refer to that grouping? Maybe ‘the parliamentary Labour party’ as opposed to all the other non-MPs who belong to the party?

      I agree that FPP is definitely a problem. Biggest shame of the Lib Dem coalition fiasco was the fizzing of any momentum on electoral reform, I think. The NZ experience is definitely that MMP makes Parliament more representative and makes your vote count.

      • hjejh Reply

        ‘fizzing of any momentum on electoral reform’- or to put it another way, people didn’t much like it and we voted against it.
        Anyhow it was a good post Thalia. I remember an election meeting in 2001- it was plodding along and the chairman (David Aaronovitch) chided the bored-looking audience: ‘Remember, they don’t get to do this in North Korea’.

      • Alex Reply

        Yes, I think ‘Parliamentary Labour Party’ is what we’d say. A bit long-winded, though!

        There are, in my opinion, very many candidates for the accolade of the biggest shame of the Con-Dem coalition. The appalling way the referendum on proportional representation was mis-handled is certainly one of them.

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