Thursday, June 05, 2014

Labour and democracy: a tale of two countries?

Yesterday David Cunliffe denounced 'coat tailing' as a danger to New Zealand's democracy, and promised to end the practice if he leads the Labour Party to power in this year's election.

Under this country's current electoral system, a party must normally win five percent of the vote before it is entitled to list MPs. But if a party manages to win an electoral seat, then the five percent threshold is waived, and list MPs can coat tail into parliament. In the 2008 election, for example, the Act Party fell below the five percent threshold, getting only three and a half percent of the vote. But Act's candidate Rodney Hide won the seat of Epsom, which meant the threshold was forgotten, and the party could claim five list MPs. The recently formed coalition between the Mana and Internet parties is intended to help members from those organisations to coat tail into parliament.

David Cunliffe's statement was in some ways unsurprising. Labour has consistently argued that coat tailing damages democracy, and has already drafted legislation that would abolish the practice.

But Labour's commitment to democratic process seems a little less sure when the party ventures abroad. At the same time that David Cunliffe was denouncing the distortion of New Zealand's parliament by coat tailing, his party's spokesperson on foreign affairs was in New Zealand's closest neighbour, talking about the preparations there for a general election.

After meeting members of Tonga's parliament, David Shearer posted a message on facebook about 'Tonga's transition to democracy', and described his time in the country as 'very constructive'. Shearer looks forward with apparent confidence to the election that will be held across Tonga in November.

But Tonga's upcoming elections should be cause for concern, not confidence, because they will be run according to radically undemocratic rules. In 2010, after years of protest marches and strikes by Tongans wanting democratic reform, and after negotiations brokered by New Zealand, the Tongan constitution was amended, and the rules for the composition of parliament were changed. Under the new rules, two thirds of the seats in the country's parliament were to be elected by popular vote, while the remaining third were reserved for the country's tiny class of nobles.
The constitutional amendments of 2010 were hailed by New Zealand as a victory for democracy in Tonga, because for the first time a majority of the seats in the Tongan parliament were to be chosen by popular vote.

But the flaws in the new system were soon apparent. At the end of 2010 Tonga held a general election, and an extraordinary seventy percent of the seats open to commoners were won by candidates belonging to the Friendly Islands Democratic Party, which has campaigned for decades against the hegemony of the country's nobility.

Unfortunately, a third of the members of Tonga's new parliament were nobles, who were not surprisingly very hostile to the Democratic Party. The nobles were able to put together a government by mating up with the handful of popularly-elected candidates hostile to the Democratic cause. Once it was clear that the nobles would be forming Tonga's next government, several Democratic MPs disappointed their constituents and accepted prestigious ministries in exchange for giving the new government their votes.

Tonga's 2010 election represented a travesty of democracy, not a transition to democracy. The nobles' government has been almost universally perceived as corrupt and inefficient, and Tongans have been waiting impatiently to throw it out of office. Last year teams of Democratic Party activists began holding daily gatherings in the central business district of the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa, as they worked to enrol voters and spread their message of change. The newspaper Ko 'e Kelea, which was set up by the Democratic Party's founder and long-time leader 'Akilisi Pohiva, has never been more popular. Young artists and musicians use their work to push the democratic cause.

But Tonga's democrats are worried about the upcoming general election, because it will be held under the same unfair rules as the 2010 contest. Even if the Democratic Party once again wins a huge majority of votes, it may be cheated out of power by Tonga's nobles, who will once again be guaranteed a third of the seats in parliament. Democratic MPs have in recent years repeatedly used parliamentary debates to propose changes to their country's constitution that would diminish or abolish the power of the nobility; again and again, these proposals have been frustrated.
It is unlikely that Tongans will submit quietly to another illegitimate government. The strike that closed the country for more than a month in 2005 and the pro-democracy march that turned into a riot and destroyed a third of central Nuku'alofa in 2006 give us a hint of what the future may hold, if the will of the people is not allowed to prevail in Tonga.

If the Labour Party is worried about the relatively minor damage that the practice of coat tailing does to New Zealand's democratic process, then it ought to be apoplectic about the perversion of democracy in New Zealand's closest neighbour. David Shearer should be publicly condemning Tonga's government and warning about the consequences of another stolen election, rather than making misleading facebook posts about a non-existent 'transition to democracy'.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

have u considered tonga maybe is just a little unsuited to nz-style democracy?

4:24 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you considered that you are a fool?

10:32 pm  
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