Democracies need constant reforms to stay strong.  New Zealand has the ability to do this

Democracies need constant reforms to stay strong. New Zealand has the ability to do this

Democracies need constant reforms to stay strong.  New Zealand has the ability to do this

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Democracy is a human right that in many ways underlies all other rights.

But the symptoms of a weakened democracy are all around us. Even here, in New Zealand, where we have one of the least corrupt and most stable democracies in the world, we are not quite understanding.

When I first entered parliament five years ago, there was little in the electoral law to guarantee equal access or universal suffrage. And there were even fewer protections against the rising tide of elites and foreign interference.

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Investigations found that our mixed-member proportional system (MMP) has reverted back to an American-style “two-horse race” in which the two largest parties consolidate power. Yet recommendations to prevent this from happening – and to ensure the sanctity of every vote, which is exactly what MMP intends to support – were buried by then Justice Minister Judith Collins.

New Zealand was also one of the few modern democracies in the world where prisoners could not vote. The supreme court ruled that this was a violation of the Bill of Rights Act. The court set up to investigate violations of our founding document, Te Tiriti or Waitangi, found that the deprivation of prisoners’ rights particularly violated the rights of Maori .

Young people between the ages of 16 and 17 have been guaranteed freedom from age discrimination for more than three decades, which the appeals court confirmed includes the right to vote. Yet, here we are, with parliament repeatedly refusing to lower the voting age.

For more than 150 years, the New Zealand parliament has reserved seats for the Maori. Every part of the country is covered by both a “general” electorate and a Maori electorate. Forty-five years ago, the government introduced the “Māori electoral option” whereby the Māori could choose whether to vote for Māori seats or for general seats. But successive governments denied the Maori adequate access to this system thanks to an arbitrary five-year rule for role change.

Dismissal is not just a historical problem. New Zealanders stranded overseas during Covid-19 have been banned from a meaningless rule requiring voters to go home at least once every three years to remain on the electoral roll. Our last general elections took place at the height of the border closures and, as such, thousands of people have lost their right to have a say in how their country is run.

The absence of an upper limit on the amount that can be donated to a politician or party has also made New Zealand democracy vulnerable to the influence of large sums of money. Democracy is for everyone, not for those with the deepest pockets.

Any MP in parliament who is not a minister is authorized by the rules of the New Zealand parliament to propose legislation. Those member’s accounts all go into our famous cookie box and are drawn at random so they can be discussed. Some of these bills pass and change the law, others don’t and fall at the first hurdle. And others move the debate to such an extent that the government itself adopts the proposal.

And this is where my democracy strengthening bill comes into play. With voice support from interested communities and experts, the government has taken parts of my bill in recent years and introduced them incrementally. The winnings were significant, including: the ban on foreign donations; lower the threshold for large secret donations to $ 5,000; the repeal of the general ban on voting for prisoners to restore the rights of prisoners serving a sentence of less than three years; allow Māori to change roles at any time (except in a by-election); and extend voting rights to overseas New Zealanders for the 2023 elections.

The government has also launched an independent election review that aims to further strengthen our democracy, with experts making recommendations by the end of 2023.

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Much more remains to be done. We still don’t have an upper limit for political donations. Young people sit outside democracy as they can work and pay taxes, drop out of school and protest their rights to a sustainable climate, mental health care, inclusive education and a host of other issues we decide in parliament. Problems that often have the most lasting impact on their lives. And where do we fit on the spectrum of human rights-based systems if our most basic rights can be denied on the basis of the moral judgment of the state? The full granting of the right to vote to prisoners is an indicator of strong democracy.

Strong democracies need frequently updated electoral laws. Updated to respond to independent reviews, reflect emerging issues, and increase accessibility and representation for policy makers.

Thanks to the cookie jar’s luck, parliamentarians will soon have a chance to build on recent changes and ensure fair and inclusive democracy for generations to come. My bill was drafted in May and will soon be at first reading in parliament. We ask the Labor government to support the bill at first reading so that it can go to a select committee where we can hear the public without the specter of party politics.

It would be due process. It would put democracy at the center of our collective work as legislators and representatives of the people.

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