To Vote or Not To Vote

25% of Aotearoa/New Zealand’s voting population did not participate in the 2011 election that secured the second term for the National Party. There are a couple of main reasons for such severe disenfranchisement of so many people.

Educational and economic inequalities are two major factors. Within large facets of society there is a fundamental lack of understanding regarding the purpose and operations of Aotearoa/New Zealand’s representative democracy, the way elections work, what it all means and how it relates to an individuals life. This is particularly prevalent within low socio-economic spheres of society – a lack of resources makes access to education more difficult.

However, it is not exclusive to low so-ec. This lack of understanding pervades the entirety of our society. The reason is very simple: even if we do make it to school, we don’t get taught anything about how democracy in Aotearoa/New Zealand works. You might glance over it if you study Social Studies or History in your final years of secondary school, but not really. Not to the extent that we would get anywhere close to understanding it. We don’t get taught how to vote; we don’t get taught about parties, policies, constitutions; we don’t get taught about economic and political theory; and we certainly don’t get taught anything about political philosophy. If you want to know about that kind of stuff, you need to either educate yourself really well, or go to University: cue wealthy parents and/or student loan.

Over the last century, Aotearoa/New Zealand has developed a strong capitalist economy and an enduring representative democratic system of governance. As such, the majority of the population is under the impression that this system is still functioning and providing the best possible results. When you have a politico-economic system cemented in the status quo, what need is there for philosophical, sociological, anthropological and politicological theory?

We've grown complacent enough to think that there isn't, when really it couldn't be more important. This complacency keeps such theory largely confined to lecture theatres, studies, museums and academic conferences. The employment opportunities for philosophers are slim. Why? Because the economic benefits of philosophical theory are not immediately tangible – philosophy does not produce commodities or services.

The vast majority of future students make their academic decisions under the influence of an economic hierarchy of disciplines – choices are made based on potential future income, rather than personal passion. The result is a severe lack of students experiencing exposure to the kind of information that is crucial for developing a strong understanding of how social, economic and political systems work.

What we end up with is a tiny group of specialized political experts, amid a mass of the benign politically ignorant. Out of the small proportion of the population that goes to University, only a small proportion chooses the Arts, and of them only a small proportion will study Politics. Meanwhile, the rest of the population is educated in politics through media sources such as television news and newspapers.

Aotearoa/New Zealand’s main news providers are woefully inadequate. The news articles are short, lack substance and interpretation, the facts are hazy, bias is common, advertising constantly interrupts, and the majority of the news reported on is simply sensationalized insignificance. We live in a democracy, yet except for specifically chosen/edited video clips, we never really see what is going on in Parliament, unless you’re one of the few people who watch Parliament TV.

Our political understanding is at a critically low level, threatening the functionality of our democratic society. A democracy is a governing system in which all citizens are active participants. As a collective, the population decides how the society is going to work. Aotearoa/New Zealand is governed by a Representative Democracy, as opposed to a Participatory Democracy. What this means is that, as citizens, our sole contribution to the operation of our Government is the voluntary act of voting every three years to elect representatives – very few of whom are a part of that small group of political experts. We vote for Prime Minister, ruling party, and electorate representatives. These are the only votes that are binding: the only thing that you can do in a representative democracy to participate in the governance of our society. After that, it’s hands off – the vote is tallied, the politicians take their positions, and then do whatever they want, so long as they do it discretely, with a kiss and a smile. As citizens, we can write submissions on Bills, and initiate Referendums. Neither are binding, and are regularly ignored. We can protest, but it rarely achieves anything except boost morale and inform other citizens. In terms of direct influence, voting is all we have. We simply trust that our elected officials will work to improve the society on our behalf. They make the rules, they decide the punishments, they direct the Police, they pay the spies, they make the trade agreements, and the treaties and the decisions to go to war. They decide the parameters within which we are allowed to live our lives. Without understanding how much our lives are influenced by the political dialogue and activity of Parliament, people become distant and disenfranchised from the democratic process.

We need to make basic political education a high priority, for without it we are susceptible to manipulation from the politicians who do understand the power play of status quo politics.

There is another, even more concerning, group of disenfranchised: those who choose not to vote on the basis of ‘no confidence’. It is a population quickly growing, and the message of this article is really for that movement. The thinking is that the politico-economic system that governs New Zealand is broken. It doesn’t work well anymore. It’s outdated. Politicians are corrupt, inequality is rife, life is hard. People are getting tired of not being listened to. People are getting tired of following rules and living under policies they never agreed to. The thinking goes that because it’s so broken, voting is meaningless. They’re all as bad as each other. It doesn’t matter who it is, they’ll all fall to the broken system.

Fundamentally, the thinking is right. The system is broken. Our democratic governance system is not satisfactory, and it is not producing the results we need to maintain our species-wide development. Representative Democracy is a governance system that stomps hand-in-hand with Neoliberal Capitalism. Together, they form the politico-economic system that governs Aotearoa/New Zealand – along with the United States, Australia, Britain, the EU, Canada and many, many more. The same political dissatisfaction amongst the citizenry can be observed growing in all of these societies. The movement of Non-Voters is a symptom of these failing systems.

Yes, the system is broken. Yes, we need to talk about how we are going to improve and revolutionise our democracy and our economy. Yes, we need to work on building institutions and invisible structures that exist beyond the confines of status quo thought. Yes, we must continue building the future we need, because our Governments are failing to do anything worthwhile on our behalf. Yes, vested interest dominates our democracy. Yes, voting does very little.

Voting does very little. But it does something. New Zealand elections are still free and fair – the counting machines have not been tampered with yet. Fundamentally it comes down to who has the best marketing campaign, but the votes do still dictate who becomes the ruling party. Whether the ruling party fails to uphold its promises or sells out to vested interest is another problem in itself.

It does little, but voting is the only thing we have. All the failures of our democracy stem from a severe lack of citizen participation. What we desperately need is not less citizen participation, but more. We cannot afford to have the people who are educated and experienced enough to understand the systems failures withdrawing from the only mechanism we have at our disposal to directly influence this failing system. We can at least guide the failure, instead of sitting back and watching it collapse, sending shockwaves through the lives of everyone we know and love.

Building new systems is of the utmost importance. By all means devote your life to it, but at least while you’re doing so, cast a vote once every three years to try and mitigate the erosion. It’s going to take a bit of time before the growing sustainable systems take over – at least a couple of elections. We need to use the only thing we’ve got to apply the only real leverage we can.

When you do not vote, you are not casting a vote of ‘no confidence.’ You are casting a vote of ‘disenfranchised’. Nobody knows why you didn’t vote, when the tallies are counted. All they know is that there were a million non-voters. There is no way of knowing how many of those one million chose not to vote because of ‘no confidence.’ It’s nothing. It’s pointless. It’s counter-productive. It is understandable, if you are frustrated with the system failures, but all it does is facilitate the breakdown of democracy. It means that the current ruling party is more likely to win – because it’s never the ruling party’s supporters that choose not to vote. All of those people keep voting. They’re happy with what’s going on. It’s only the opposing side that loses votes. In Aoteroa/New Zealand, right now, that opposing side is bigger than the ruling side, by quite a lot. Given the non-voters in the 2011 election, it works out that the National Party garnered the support of only 33% of the voting population. It is a sad kind of democracy in which the group of people making all the decisions for six to nine years has only a third of the populations support.

We should have an option to vote ‘No Confidence,’ and that is something we need to talk about, but for now we don’t. Perhaps someone will run as a blank, silent candidate for ‘No Confidence’ – it could be a good start, and an interesting indicator. You could express a kind of ‘no confidence’ by voting for any of the minor parties. If all those who opposed the incumbent ruling party voted for the minor parties, they could probably all form a large multi-party coalition and take the rule. Maybe. And if they did, things would have already started looking a lot more like a pluralistic government than the current bi-party mentality that dominates.

You can do what you want with that vote – there are a lot of options. We may as well try something new. A worthy goal would be a Government that operates on the basis of collaboration of all parties – every one of them has something valuable to offer. It’s been a Labour-National ping-pong match for too long, and that’s part of the reason people are getting fed up. They’re both as responsible as each other for the current unsatisfactory state of Aotearoa/New Zealand. Neither of them has been working very well. We need to try something new, if just to shake things up a bit. Try something new, because the old ideas are failing. If it fails, we try something new again. What we should not do is wait around while this old thinking falls apart.

Build new systems to render the old obsolete. Integrate, don’t segregate. What we need to realise is that when the Neoliberal Representative Democracy we live within is revolutionised (or failing that, collapses), the new system will need to be able to transition smoothly into a position where it accommodates for all citizens. It will make it a whole lot easier if the Government over the next decade/s work equally hard to develop a sustainable infrastructure before things get really chaotic. The only way we could hope to directly influence the way that Government operates is through that one tiny, inadequate vote. We need all the tools we can get our hands on to survive the next ten, twenty, fifty years. Don’t throw this one away.

- Jack Tangwyn, 03/09/2014

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