OPINION: Have you ever felt that politicians are completely cut off from reality?
From government ministers dancing on the head of a pin about a labor shortage crippling healthcare (and other sectors), to downplaying the stress of rising cost life or unaffordable housing. Deliberately ignoring the climate crisis.
Or stubbornly pretending that giving tax cuts to the wealthy will leave less room for rising health, education or social housing costs.
No wonder people are turning away from mainstream democratic politics.
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Populism is less the product of economic or cultural issues than the result of a sense of disconnection and disrespect. Marginalization and the belief that their contributions to society are not recognized lead to disillusionment.
New Zealand was largely spared the rise of this political trend, which rocked Britain, France and Germany and saw insurrection in the United States. We have popular leaders, but fewer populist politicians.
But we are not immune. It is increasingly evident that people are losing faith in existing democratic institutions.
Falling voter turnout is a long-term trend – it’s too early to tell whether a surge in registrations in 2020 has halted the fall. Apathy is particularly acute in local government elections.
Misinformation, portraying Covid-19 health measures as a battle between the individual and the state, has escalated. Paul Spoonley, professor of sociology at Massey University, recently spoke of the country entering a “social recession”, a period of disengagement and a peak of social stress.
Certainly, the pandemic has put additional pressure on political systems. Institutions such as parliamentary question time and select committee hearings have been suspended for periods.
Daily press conferences swung the rhetoric in favor of the incumbent government. Frustrated and disenfranchised citizens massed in Wellington, occupying Parliament grounds for three weeks.
Rising threats against MPs have prompted more security measures and raise questions about the risks of campaigning in next year’s general election.
So, to borrow an overused Covid-19 recovery phrase, can we rebuild a better democracy? The government is already considering lowering the voting age and the length of parliamentary terms.
But can we go even further? The “deliberative wave” is a notion that has gained momentum since the 1980s, but has become more fashionable recently.
Essentially, deliberative democracy is about bringing together ordinary citizens from all walks of life to debate complex issues. Relieving our deputies, so to speak.
In New Zealand, it is being pioneered by the Trust Democracy think tank, which recently proposed installing randomly selected people in Parliament to represent the quarter of the entire eligible population who do not vote.
The Irish government convened a Citizens’ Assembly in 2016 to consider thorny issues such as the Constitution, abortion, an aging population and climate change.
Three years later, in Ostbelgien, Belgium, a Citizens’ Council was created to complement their elected parliamentary chamber.
There are now forms in Austria, Switzerland, Poland and France. They even experimented on the other side of the ditch. From 2013 to 2016, juries of Australian citizens deliberated on alcohol-related violence, bike safety, pets, water management and even nuclear waste storage.
Absent from the heat and noise of referenda, these “mini-publics” have proven to be an important tool in addressing core issues that have polarized communities or been shunned by professional politicians.
There are risks in ensuring that they are genuinely deliberative and not infiltrated by interest groups. Without the impetus of elections, they don’t always come up with proposals that get majority support.
And second, do we want to absolve MPs from having to face the tough decisions we elect them to make? There is a danger that parliamentary politics will become even more superficial.
But with the increasing complexity of policymaking and the inability to find solutions to some of our most pressing problems, it is certainly worth considering integrating deliberative processes into the policymaking cycle. .
Can we take politics out of politics and give it back to the people?