The 2008 general election produced the lowest voter turnout in NZ in over 120 years. So how could we fix this?
New Zealand’s intellectuals have preferred not to contribute to the debate that is going on about New Zealand’s future course of development. This means, specifically, that much of the argument is based on ignorance of how this society functions – simply because no one has bothered to provide the necessary information.
I was taught in the sixth grade that we had a standing army of just over a hundred thousand men and that the generals had nothing to say about what was done in Washington. I was taught to be proud of that and to pity Europe for having more than a million men under arms and spending all their money on airplanes and tanks. I simply never unlearned junior civics. I still believe in it. I got a very good grade.
—Kurt Vonnegut, Jr
(so as to avoid presumptions of political bias)
We should have civics in our schools. In saying that, I’m not thinking about some sort of “patriotism class” where kids are expected to pledge bemused allegiance to a flag, or where they’re taught the sort of nationalist exceptionalism they offer in some US schools. Instead, you’d be thinking more of what the University of Washington’s James A. Banks articulates, a place where:
students (can be) taught about and have opportunities to acquire…democratic values while at the same time learning about…realities that challenge those ideals, such as discrimination based on race, gender, and social class.
I was taught some civics – in odd ways. Ahead of the 1993 election and referendum, Ms. Gilmore bravely tried to instruct me and the other seven-year olds in Room 14 about political parties (it didn’t go too far beyond – Who is your MP? How old do you have to be to vote? What is the Prime Minister’s name?Which party is the government at the moment?) and the nuances between voting First Past The Post and Mixed Member Proportional. I remember I preferred FPTP because it was easier to explain and also I was playing with Cubex when Ms. Gilmore tried to go through MMP for a desperate fourth and final time. It was really noble (actually, it piqued my interest for a lifetime, but I think I was a bit of an outlier in that respect). But in the grand scheme of social studies – from primary, to intermediate, to high school – what do kids actually get? They could come out at the other end at the end of Year 13 and vote in a general election. Did anything at school help them make an informed choice?
The instruction could extend beyond Social Studies to History and Geography, and Economics and, especially, English. Even the socially worthy material we read or viewed came from overseas. It was remote and decontexualised. Cry, The Beloved Country. The Power Of One...Bend It Like Beckham. Even The Crucible was bungled – there’s lots of perspective on what it meant to 1950s McCarthyite America, but not a lot about why Miller’s play matters now. I quoted Kurt Vonnegut before, and hopefully it's not too much of a gloss to say that he was an ardent champion of civic responsibility and informed participation who ended up in the fitting position of his literary work framing a lot of the ethical and moral discussions had in American high schools (when they weren’t busy banning him). Why don’t we do the same thing with our authors and playwrights? Use them, not ban them.
I threw the word ‘discussion’ in there, pointedly. Because discussing ideas (and I don’t mean that gasping, impromptu “argue about anything on the spot!” shit that kids do for prefect brownie-points after school in Debating Club) isn’t something we get wired to do at school. There’s plenty of it in tutorials once you get to university, but anyone who’s ever taught or tutored a Stage One paper will tell you exactly how forthcoming and prepared their new arrivals are for the frank exchange of ideas and interpretations (ie: there’s not a heap happening beforehand to get most of them ready for it).
The idea that creating this sort of environment of mutual dialogue in learning is good enough for university undergraduates and not good enough for all high school students (some of whom will go on to more vocational study, some none at all) is snobbery at best. When you factor in the democratic rights each of those students have and the importance that they be able to exercise them in an informed way, it’s positively obscene.
I'll admit that the distinct lack of civic instruction and discussion in my schooldays suggests it was something teachers weren’t really sure how to factor in, or speak to. It’s possible that it was even a bit of a taboo, like talking about whose dad earned the most. Implementation of a curriculum that taught civics and taught young people to discuss and challenge the presumptions that informed that civics would obviously be a huge and complex undertaking. This is not the same as saying that an undertaking is impossible.
(As an aside, as I write this, Kerre Woodham concluded her Sunday Herald column by advising that we teach “political studies” in our schools to create better educated voters. Apart from the fact that she appeared to draw this conclusion from a wholly unrepresentative sample (her own elderly talkback audience), the fact that she saw the economic costs and benefits of asset sales being simply ghettoized into some umbrella subject called “political studies”, and the fact that she’s Kerre Woodham, this idea is pretty sound.)
Media coverage of political issue be busted, and it’s in everyone’s – including the media – to fix it.
You know what was a blackly funny bit in the election campaign process? When the media turned feral on John Key after getting copies of his café conversation with John Banks – making him “storm out” of press conferences, tracing the steps of each successive faux-pas with glee, leading on their websites and the 6pm broadcasts with the shiftiest and sweatiest images of him they could find – and then the public response was resoundingly in support of Key against them?
It’s basic narrative stuff. For three years-plus, John Key has been presented in the media as a charismatic, likeable leader with streaks of pragmatism that always trump ideology. He talks like one of us, he treats abstract disasters with a blasé optimism, he treats concrete disasters with a vaguely manly heaviness and gravity. Occasional gaffes and incompetence from his Cabinet and Caucus are treated as vaguely episodic problems which Our Hero must resolve – and does, with no repercussions ever shown.
No way are you going to change your mind and decide that dude’s a dick all of a sudden just because the Herald and TV3 suddenly start putting the heat under him for a few days. If anything, their attacks are malign and vindictive. They’re the bad guys. Thus it was that what in any other developed democracy would have been the repellent spectre of a leader authorizing police raids on the free press immediately before the election became a likeable but frazzled guy finally dealing to some slimeballs who had it coming.
You don’t have to like it personally, but you can see why ordinary people weren’t too outraged. You could say that if those ordinary people had a stronger sense of the importance of a free press and what police seizing material gathered by the free press potentially symbolizes, maybe it would be different. You could also say that if myriad NZ media outlets failed to generate any sense of the importance of the free press through their own output in recent years, then that’s tough shit for them.
The Teagate thing is a symptom rather than a cause, the result of what happens when reporting disassociates personalities, strategy and polls from society itself and fails to provide the public with a clear picture of what all these actors are deciding, and what their decisions mean.
Or to put it another way, here is how a regular member of the public would describe Star Wars:
There’s this bad empire led by this guy in a black suit called Darth Vader, right? They want to oppress and hurt people, and crush the prosperity and freedoms of lots of communities on lots of planets. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo lead a rebellion of people who believe that the empire is corrupt and does lots of cruel and tyrannical things. Eventually after a long struggle they defeat the empire and everyone is free.
Here is how a political pundit would describe Star Wars:
The Grand Moff Tarkin is looking like he will be facing dissent in his Cabinet and demotion after handling a scandal facing his coalition partner Boba Fett badly. Boba Fett got a DIC fifteen years ago and now serious questions are being raised on the Grand Moff’s ability to manage his coalition partners, one of whom has been polling under the 5% threshold since a long time ago far far away last April. In the beltway the word is that Darth Vader’s steady hand on the campaign has been invaluable in showing the galaxy that the Grand Moff has the interests of ordinary galactic citizens at heart. And a recent poll that shows that the Emperor Palpatine is still most preferred Emperor on 59%, with Jabba The Hutt a distant second on 13%, will suggest that that strategy is paying off. The question will be whether Stormtrooper #546 will be at number 13 or number 15 on the Empire’s party list come next year. Some tout him as a future leader, but Massey University’s lecturer in political marketing Clare Robinson said it best when she said that he sweats too much and looks uncomfortable on live television. Also a bunch of planets got blown up wiping out millions of people.
Thrilling stuff, huh? I don’t want to labour the point too much, but it’s not an understatement to say that NZ political journalism has become obsessed with minutiae and trivia while world-shaping and important things are (always, at some level) happening. If you’re not up with the play on said minutiae and trivia (ie: if the second passage didn’t make sense, or if you hated the new Star Wars films too), you’re likely to stop holding any emotional, social or psychological stake in the whole thing. Starting with the people who are paid to write about this sort of thing (because you can’t stop big fat nerds from continuing to blog about asinine things if they’re already doing it for free) this has to change.
(I have no idea if an actual political journalist will ever read this, but if somehow they do, and they wind up thinking something like – “oh, that’s all the other journalists. I’m great!” – no. 95% chance it’s you unless you’re Gordon Campbell or Colin James. Change your game up.)
This follows on a little from the media issue above. In his 2007 book Republic.com, Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein posited:
I urge that in a heterogeneous society, such a system requires something other than free, or publicly unrestricted, individual choices. On the contrary, it imposes two distinctive requirements. First, people should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unanticipated encounters, involving topics and points of view that people have not sought out and perhaps find quire irritating, are central to democracy and even to freedom itself. Second, many or most citizens should have a range of common experiences. Without shared experiences, a heterogeneous society will have a much more difficult time addressing social problems; people may even find it hard to understand one another.
The fascinating but very long excerpt is well worth-reading, if you have the time. It’s located squarely within the context of the American system, and what it means to guarantee free speech under the First Amendment of the US Constitution, but there’s a lot to be taken from it to consider in other 21st-century democracies.
Sunstein’s argument is that once upon a time, in smaller communities pre-mass communication, these common experiences were something we all encountered, and part of these were unanticipated encounters we didn’t expect in advance. A preacher in a park square, a demonstration for workers’ unity handing out leaflets at the rotunda. Rowdy town meetings, even. As society expanded and interconnected, we started needing general interest intermediaries. For most of the 20th century, this was newspapers, magazines, radio and television broadcasts. We still experienced common, world-shaping events through these, and we would find ourselves reading, listening to or watching alternative viewpoints we wouldn’t have gone out of our way to take heed of, evaluate, or expose ourselves to (unanticipated encounters through media, basically).
The Internet is a very different place, and more and more we’re hurtling toward a sort of utopian ideal of total consumer sovereignty, or “the Daily Me” – a complete personalization of one’s communications network where he or she can determine with growing accuracy what she will and will not encounter. As the filters themselves have become more refined, we’re even further towards this idea than when Sunstein wrote about it four years ago (Google Reader delivers you what you already know you want on a feed, the all-customisable Facebook lets you not hear from the friends you might happen to disagree with from time to time, unless you seek them out yourself by clicking on their profile.)
Sunstein seems to say that this is bad, because being able to avoid exposure to thoughts, ideas, views and experiences we might once have serendipitously encountered atomises a society and frays the ties that bind it together. The results: extremism, or partisanship, are unhealthy for democracy.
I’d throw a couple of considerably less scholarly cents in the ring and suggest that “the Daily Me” doesn’t simply confine people somewhere to the left and the right on a political spectrum but actually allows a lot of people to opt out altogether. If you feel total apathy towards all manner of current affairs, we are reaching a stage where you don’t have to accidentally come across it ever again. The only other thing I’d mention is that the fracturing of civic virtue actually happens under the watch of a number of large multinational media and technology companies, with significant commercial interests of their own. Without being alarmist (seriously – I hate conspiracy bros, and I don’t want to come across as one) it would not necessarily be in those companies’ interests to encourage active, cohesive political debate and movement at a grassroots level, either within or across states. Whatever.
Sunstein says you can’t force individuals in a free society to consume a certain cultural product (you must read this paper, you must attend this talk, etc). I’m inclined to agree – just because for some crazy reason an ordinary New Zealand citizen is not inclined to understand or follow the incisive satirical wit of Jim Hopkins, doesn’t mean we should force them at gunpoint.
However, the idea that a plurality of free speech should be ensured, where necessary, by positive action on the part of the state, is a sound one. It distinguishes between consumer sovereignty and political sovereignty in a scenario where the former stands to undermine the latter’s ambitions of self-government and freedom. Sunstein's examples of where the state might do this are things like some form of comprehensive voluntary self-regulation by the communications sector, or disclosure of commercial and public interest activities by outlets and broadcasters, or ‘must carry’ rules on popular or heavily partisan websites – or subsidized free speech through public broadcasting or in the online sphere.
The last of these speaks strongest to me, especially given the wind-down of TVNZ 6 and 7 and their effective, populist, and pluralistic programmes while an overwhelming commercial imperative (the most at the loudest for the cheapest) that drives local content on the other channels, including those that ostensibly still serve as state broadcasters (one Outrageous Fortune for every hundred Julie Christie-vaginal-spawn-reality-show-hybrids). At a time when technological changes and the stats of participation show a dwindling of civic engagement (and thus, free speech), the government is downsizing its contribution to a democratic cornerstone rather than maintaining it. Unlike Sunstein, critics here in NZ have no black-letter constitutional argument to resort to. Instead, again, we just have to expect democratically-elected leaders to enable the fundamental tenets of the system that let them get there.
(These little parenthesesed italic bits weren’t meant to be an ongoing thing, but Sunstein also seems to give the academic wunderkind equivalent of your blokey uncle looking up from his Double Brown and giving a faint nod of approval to the idea of ‘direct digital democracy’ in here – that is, people setting out to use the new technology to enhance free speech and discussion (though of course he cannot condone the constitutional ramifications). It’s an idea, but I’m not sure that if you just implemented it formally in NZ tomorrow it would achieve that much that was genuinely representative and effective. It’s a neat idea – it’s just not the one silver bullet, though it could alongside a raft of other changes.)
So, no one solution. Obviously. Sorry. But I think these would be a set of things that worked well in tandem, toward the goal of a more engaged and participatory NZ populace. I basically ran through them in a rough order of feasibility, but I believe any of them could assist in arresting the decline.
And any idea that, properly studied, indicated a chance to enhance voter turnout in our elections (not guaranteeing mine would) should be one that democratically-elected politicians of any kind should support. Should they not, they are, in all seriousness, ‘the enemy’ – and those who happened to support them while also claiming to support a healthy democracy would need to reconsider where they stood.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.