Max Rashbrooke

Overcoming obstacles to deepening democracy in Aotearoa New Zealand

Text of Max Rashbrooke's speech at Trust Democracy's AGM in April 2021.

You can also watch a video recording of Max’s speech and the discussion that followed.

Kia ora koutou. Ko Max Rashbrooke toku ingoa. Nō Inglitera ōku tīpuna. I tae mai ōku tīpuna ki Aotearoa i te tau 1843. I tipu ake au ki te Whanganui-a-tara. E noho ana au ki te Whanganui-a-tara. Ko tēnei taku mihi ki ngā tangata whenua o te rohe nei. Nō reira tēnā koutou katoa.

Thank you very much for the chance to speak here. Lovely to be addressing an organisation with a name that I think really addresses one of the one of the major issues facing us. Because I’m going to be talking about deeper democracy, a kind of democracy that really privileges the wisdom of the crowd and the give and take of public discussion, I’m going to try to keep my address relatively brief. No longer than the time allotted for Q and A, in the spirit of what we’re all talking about.

I’m going to be talking about what I see as some of the major obstacles to better and deeper democracy in Aotearoa New Zealand. I’ve highlighted six – I could highlight far more but these are the ones that have really stood out for me. They are:

  • a lack of information about how democracy might be improved;
  • a sense of apathy about the state of New Zealand’s democracy;
  • difficulties understanding the place of deeper democracy in a country that’s dedicated to power sharing;
  • the cost of doing things differently;
  • the direct opposition to it; and
  • the incorrect belief that we’re doing all of this already.

So those are the six obstacles that I’m going to talk about.

Before I get into that, I just want to say a few words about what I mean by deeper democracy. Obviously, that’s not a particularly technical or an academic term, it’s just an overarching phrase that I use to denote a way of doing democracy that is both more deliberative and more participatory. Obviously participatory democracy is a democracy in which more people are participating, as citizens, in the decisions that directly affect them. Deliberative democracy ensures that when people are making those decisions it’s done through public discussion, through listening, through reflection, through people adjusting their views in line with more persuasive arguments and better evidence.

I like to say that participation is what empowers the crowd, deliberation is what makes it wise. It’s what brings the scattered wisdom of the crowd to the surface. And I think when you’re doing democracy in ways that are more deliberative and participatory, you’ve got decisions that are simply better because more people are involved. They’re fairer: they’re more likely to favour the interests of those traditionally excluded from political processes. The decisions are seen as more legitimate because more people have been involved in them. And they are more open and more transparent.

So, I think these mechanisms have a lot of advantages, and I imagine I’m speaking – preaching – to the converted here. Also, probably a lot of you will be aware that these forms are increasingly being used all around the world. We’ve got climate assemblies in France and the UK. Participatory budgeting spread out of Brazil some time ago. You’ve got Iceland crowdsourcing a constitution – or trying to.

You’ve got all these innovations. Whereas here in New Zealand, at least in the sense of how our classic central government works, how the Crown works, we’ve used relatively few of these new practices. There have been some bright spots, and some people here in the room know more about that than I do, but relatively few. So, it’s really incumbent, I think, to think about, “Well, what are the obstacles? Why have these things not taken off in New Zealand – in Aotearoa New Zealand – in the way that we might have expected?”

Now the first obstacle, I think, and it’s a really obvious one but it’s worth stating, is just people’s lack of information about these different ways of doing democracy. In New Zealand very few people have heard about participatory budgeting, or crowdsourced legislation, or what have you. The ideas that underlie deliberation, discussion, participation, aren’t necessarily new, but the terms often are to people. That’s just a really obvious problem and it’s incumbent on all of us to get the word out there about these ways of doing things differently, and to explain their advantages.

The second big obstacle, I think, is apathy. That comes in a number of forms. For some people that’s probably actually a rational – well an almost rational – disengagement from the political system from people who feel – well who are very poor, or who feel marginalised; who have legitimately lost faith in the idea that the democratic system is going to change anything profoundly for them. They are of course not going to be immediately engaged in these discussions.

We live in a country where someone in the wealthiest one percent is worth on average 70 times the typical New Zealander. People sense those inequalities. They feel like a lot of decisions are predetermined by people with power, so they’re not engaged. Even amongst relatively engaged, relatively affluent, people there’s a different kind of apathy, which I think is a kind of complacency about how good democracy already is in New Zealand. There is this belief that we have “one of the best democracies in the world already.” Because, of course, we do very well on the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, on all these kinds of measures. And so, obviously, it has to be pointed out – for all these groups.

Firstly, the transformative power, I think, of deeper democracy. You look at the way that participatory budgeting in Brazil has engaged really deeply with people from poor communities. It delivers spending that is profoundly much more pro-poor than classic political decisions. On the other hand, in terms of that sort of middle-class apathy, I think we have to point out that although our political system works relatively well in terms of being free and fair: open elections; independent media; and all these kinds of things, actually, we score much less well on measures of political culture and measures of political participation. So just starting to chip away at that complacency and that apathy.

The third major obstacle, as I said, is – I think – a lack of clarity about the place of these sort of deeper forums of democracy in a country that’s dedicated to power sharing between Māori and Pākehā. And that’s the question about, “Well, if we’re pursuing a country in which Māori can generally exercise tino rangatiratanga, including the ability to make political decisions for Māori by Māori, how does that fit in with creating some of these deeper democratic forums, like citizens assemblies, that people might want to see?”

I want to be really clear here that the obstacle is not the ambition for power sharing, which I think is extraordinarily important. The obstacle is our lack of clarity about how we resolve the place of deeper democracy in Aotearoa New Zealand. To give just one obvious example, if we held a citizens’ assembly today at a nationwide level, it might have a hundred people. Māori would be 15 people in that citizens assembly, would be again in the minority, would again run the risk of having their views overridden by the Pākehā majority.

So, understandably, this is causing people some difficulty in trying to work through these issues. I haven’t been on the front line of those discussions. If there’s anyone here from Te Reo o Ngā Tāngata – The People Speak – I’d be very interested to hear their perspective on this. But I know that people from the Pākeha side are struggling to work out what’s the appropriate solution here. While I can’t – obviously – speak for people on the Māori side, just from reading what people are saying, there’s obvious scepticism about some of these models. You know, an understandable desire to focus on building the institutions that are by Māori, for Māori; and all these kinds of complexities. Not least because I haven’t been on the front lines of these discussions, I don’t have an absolutely clear answer. Nor would it probably be appropriate for me to try to pose that here, in this way. I suspect the answer lies in some kind of combination of different forums and different institutions.

It could be that if you want to run a citizens’ assembly, for instance, you run that in parallel with a more purely Māori-driven process. Or that your citizens assembly is reporting to bodies that are separately Māori and Pākehā. Or some other combination of those. Or finding other ways of amplifying the Māori voice within those discussions. Or it could be that, [having] been influenced quite a lot by the Matike Mai report, the process led by Margaret Mutu and Moana Jackson, which – as some of you will know – talks about the need for a rangatiratanga sphere, where Māori make decisions for Māori; a kāwanatanga sphere where Pākehā make decisions for Pākehā; and a relational sphere where two cultures work out the policies that affect all of them. It may be that citizens assemblies have a role of fitting in to the kāwanatanga or the relational sphere. Potentially. Like I said, I don’t have all the answers there, but that’s a really significant issue that has to be addressed.

A fourth major obstacle, again this is a very obvious one, is the cost of doing democracy better. Citizens’ assemblies in particular are very expensive compared to, well at least are perceived to be very expensive compared to, other forms of doing things. Participatory budgeting processes take a lot more work on the part of local councils: going out to communities, asking them to make these trade-offs, scaling up neighbourhood meetings into ward meetings, and then city-wide meetings. They’re much more involved processes. We face the sort of the tension, the conflict, that I think a lot of these processes would logically work best at the local level, because people’s expertise in their own lives is most relevant there, but at the same time local government is the most underfunded sector of New Zealand government, and is in a very weak financial position to make these kinds of investments. I think the answers here are going to involve things like, frankly, central government stepping up to the plate more. Doing things perhaps like what the British government has been doing in the last couple of years, which is creating an innovative democracy fund that local councils can apply to, to run these kinds of deeper democracy processes in their local area.

But I think we also need to make the case for investment in these kinds of processes. I think we can think of them as forms of infrastructure: democratic infrastructure. Here in Wellington, we’re of course having a huge debate about the state of our water pipes, and the disastrous lack of maintenance of those. We’re seeing what happens when you don’t maintain your infrastructure: it degrades and then you get fountains of water popping up here, there, and everywhere on the streets of Wellington. In a similar way, if you don’t invest in your democratic infrastructure you get a rundown, poorly maintained democracy that starts to blow holes: it doesn’t work as well as it should do. I think we can also – particularly for more conservative people – make a cost-saving argument. Yes, these processes are more expensive up front, but there’s some evidence that they lead to savings further down the track after all. I’ve seen this locally. There is nothing more expensive than going ahead, as a local council, making a decision without engaging people properly, doing the wrong thing, then having to dig it all up and do it all over again. I think these forms of deeper democracy, like participatory budgeting, involve greater transparency, greater scrutiny of decisions. I think that’s likely to lead, in the long run, to more cost-effective decisions as well. So, there are some good arguments there to be made.

The fifth major obstacle that I think we face is outright opposition to doing things differently, particularly from politicians. Again, people from groups like Te Reo o Ngā Tāngata, have experience of this; of the difficulties of trying to engage politicians, and facing quite a lot of pushback. There is, of course, a sense in which I think politicians will find this threatening, because although these forms of deeper democracy would actually always exist as a complement to traditional forms of representative democracy, politicians often don’t like giving up any power at all. They can be nervous of the consequences, nervous of losing control of the agenda, or just simply feel threatened by the whole process. For me, the key thing is to make it clear to politicians that this is not about doing away with their role. It’s just simply creating a different role for them. One in which they spend more time as the facilitator of the community search for solutions, rather than the deliverer of solutions. That’s not always going to be an easy sell, but that is the reality. I think the point that can really be made for politicians is that this is also a really profound way to increase long-term trust in them. Because although trust in government in New Zealand is relatively high, certainly for a western nation, actual trust in MPs themselves is very, very low, as I’m sure you’re all aware.

Conversely, I think there’s good evidence – particularly from some of the deeper democracy practices that have been carried out in the United States – that citizens who take part in these processes come out of them with greater trust in government and the system generally. Especially if those processes involve them engaging in some way more deeply with politicians. People come out of those forums measurably more likely to say, “Yes, I trust politicians. Yes, I have trust in this particular policy. Yes, I have more trust, just in the system as a whole.” So, there’s a real long-term benefit for politicians if they’re willing to take that little step into the unknown, and possibly give up a little bit of decision-making power in the short term. I think that’s a really important argument to make.

The last obstacle that I’ve really seen out there is the one that I call, “We’ve already done this.” It’s a belief I’ve encountered that governments – and particularly local government – are doing things right already. So when I wrote a piece last year about the situation with housing in Wellington, and what I think is the very – almost a toxic – oppositional debate, if you can call it that, between people who want greater densification and people who don’t, I proposed a method that I think there’s some evidence has worked in places like Seattle, where councils work really deeply with communities that are earmarked for greater density of housing.

By giving the communities control over that process they actually find a way for the community to come up with plans for densification that are what the council needs, but which residents themselves can live with. Now when I proposed this, one of the overwhelming responses was, “Oh, but we’ve already consulted with the community.” So, a lot of people think they’re already doing things right, when of course what they mostly will have done is a sort-of tick box consultation process, maybe something slightly better than that, but probably not much better in reality.

This sort of circles me back round to where I started. This view is a combination of a lack of information, a lack of actual understanding about what these new forms of democracy might mean, combined with an apathy, a belief that things are already being done well. So, I think the challenge there is not to demonise existing forms of consultation, which can of course be done well. There is a role for just your classic consultation process. But the challenge is to make clear how different it is from the things we’re talking about. How different it is, and not just in terms of participation, but in its lack of deliberation. The single person, sitting by themselves in front of their computer, filling out the consultation online, is very different to someone who’s listened to a whole lot of arguments in a citizens’ assembly or citizens’ jury and has come to a really deep, informed, considered position. So, I think we have to point out the differences between these ways of doing things and just gently try to shift politicians further up those ladders of participation and deliberation.

So, those are some of the key obstacles as I see them. I’m sure those aren’t all of them. I’m sure there’s plenty of others that people have encountered. Those are just some of the ones that have been most visible for me so far, observing the scene in New Zealand. I think that these are real obstacles, and we have to confront them. But I hope it hasn’t been too downbeat a talk. I hope at every stage of the way I’ve given some hints about how I think we can move through these objections and these obstacles. 

I know that’s something you’re dedicated to, and I’m looking forward to continuing this conversation in future years. Thank you very much.


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