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A Modest Proposal

I think many people would agree with me when I say that the democratic system of government we have is far from perfect. Sure, I agree, it is probably much better than other systems from the past: monarchies, dictatorships, empires, fascist states, etc, but it could still be better.

What are the problems with the current system? Well there are parties which promise one thing and deliver another, which make policies based on the short term and aim at popularity in the next election while ignoring the bigger issues, and which force elected members to follow the party line rather than do what they really think is right.

Here’s some examples. First of promises not kept: New Zealand’s current government promised no tax increases and then promptly increased GST. That was an assurance made before an election which was promptly forgotten about once they were in power.

And for short term thinking: not taking climate change seriously and crippling our current climate change mitigation policies even when they were inadequate to begin with. That is a clear example of ignoring the long term problem for the purpose of trying to win the next election. And yes, I know that one small country can’t make any real difference, but that is another issue.

Finally for doing the right thing: I’m almost certain that there were people in the National Party who were very uncomfortable with the prime minister’s “spy law” which was recently passed. All it would have taken is one decent person in that party to vote against it and it would have failed. I’m not saying our surveillance laws don’t need changed, just that it has to be done properly.

You might say that all of these issues can be corrected when the public votes out the party which is guilty of “breaking the rules”. But that can take years, and a lot of damage can be done before that action can be taken. Also, governments tend to take more extreme actions shortly before they lose power so the possible consequences are made even worse.

I think a lot of the problems we have can be corrected by fixing the last issue. We need to allow elected MPs to vote against their party if they really need to. They need to be able to participate in “conscience votes” on every issue instead of just those few which the party leaders don’t care too much about. And just in passing: if MPs vote based on their conscience on these votes does that mean they ignore it for all the others? In many cases the answer must be yes.

In New Zealand we have two types of MPs: those who were elected by getting the most votes in their electorate, and those who are taken from a “list” to ensure the correct ratio of MPs in parliament reflects the total vote. So a politician can be in power because his electorate voted for him or because New Zealand as a whole likes his party.

So it seems to me that politicians who were voted for by their electorate owe it to them to work on their behalf, whereas those who were on the list should work for the party. At the moment every MP is basically forced to vote on party lines irrespective of which system they were voted in with.

The problem is that even if they say they won’t, the party hierarchy will try to punish anyone who doesn’t do what they are told to, so maybe votes should be anonymous. Except, of course, knowing how our representatives vote on different issues is an important democratic principle so I guess that won’t work either.

Another problem is that smaller parties tend to get all their elected representatives from the list (the Greens in New Zealand, for example) so that party would have a greater number of MPs it can control than one where most came from electorates.

So maybe the answer is that all electorate MPs should be independent. That way they won’t be under any party’s control, and people can still vote for a party using their second vote anyway. If they want to maintain the old party system just vote for a party, and if they want to just vote for a local representative just vote for that person.

It would mean a somewhat chaotic system of course, because there would almost certainly be no clear majority block of power. But I think that is a good thing. To get any new legislation through a lot of negotiation and compromise would be necessary. And I think when something was clearly the right thing to do there would be enough support to make it happen. And conversely when there was obviously some immoral political purpose behind a new law (such as our new spy law) getting support would be nearly impossible.

So I think this modest proposal (and it really is just a small adjustment to our current system) would solve a lot of the problems we have. Sure there would be times when nothing could be achieved but in situations where there is no clear consensus on an issue, maybe that’s a good thing.

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