New Zealand: Fresh water requires fresh ideas

Nicolas Pirsoul, Policy Analyst and Research Assistant, and Maria Armoudian, Lecturer, Politics & International Relations, both at the University of Auckland, write:

While the primary industry sector undeniably plays a key role in New Zealand’s economy (5-7% of GDP for agriculture), its true contribution might look quite different if environmental impacts – and freshwater quality in particular – were taken into account.

Currently, New Zealand taxpayers shoulder the heavy cost of lax oversight and regulation of freshwater. While the public is aware of the issue of freshwater quality, arguably there is less awareness of the democratic deficit contributing to the problem.

In a liberal representative democracy such as New Zealand’s, political decisions result from elections. The three-yearly electoral cycle, however, tends to encourage symbolic politics geared towards winning votes rather than generating long-term solutions to complex problems like freshwater quality.

In 2017, for example, Labour campaigned on cleaning up our waterways. Its eventual plan, “Essential Freshwater: Healthy Water, Fairly Allocated“, appeared promising but is ambiguous and short on detail or substance. Some of the promised reforms have since been delayed.

Elections won’t help

With no real mechanism for public participation beyond the next general election or non-binding public consultation and submission processes, New Zealanders are left largely powerless.
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Smith and Dumienski: Citizens’ juries could reduce Auckland’s democratic deficit

Nicholas Ross Smith and Zbigniew Dumienski of the Politics and International Relations Department at the University of Auckland write at the New Zealand Herald, New Zealand’s largest circulation newspaper, arguing that using randomly selected juries to make some council-level policy suggestions may be a good starting point for organically growing a more democratic governance system:

A report by Bernard Orsman published in the New Zealand Herald on the state of Auckland City Council found that 88 of the 99 positions in the council’s boardrooms and executive teams were filled by “white men from wealthy suburbs.”

The reported demographic composition of the decision-making bodies in Auckland Council suggests that we are facing a potentially harmful democratic deficit. Yet, before anyone suggests quotas or other bureaucratic mechanisms aimed at diversifying the Council’s management structure, it would be good to consider a very different and far more democratic approach currently tried by our friends across the ditch: citizens’ juries as bodies that could breathe new, more democratic and vibrant spirit into our city’s old structures.

The democratic deficit evident in Auckland City Council is part of a broader trend in democracies worldwide, both at the local and national levels, which are increasingly seen as departing from the core democratic principles that they are supposed to uphold. Meaningful deliberations and political equality are the soul of democracy.

Increasingly, our electoral system is virtually devoid of the former and its outcomes suggest the erosion of the latter. Interestingly, such an outcome would have perhaps been predicted by the founders of democracy in classical Athens who were concerned that elections and campaigning contains in themselves anti-democratic and oligarchic seeds.
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