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‘Tweaking’ democracy: political change needs majority support to endure

12 May 2022

| Author: Chris Trotter

The political drama surrounding the Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill may soon be going on tour – nationwide. At the heart of the play is a tight-knit group of well-meaning Pakeha, working hand-in-glove with local Māori to right the wrongs of the past and deliver on the promises of te Tiriti by any means necessary.

Standing athwart the road to justice are the local politicians and townspeople of Rotorua. And, behind them, the entire colonisation project. Wait a minute – I’ve seen this movie before. More years ago than I care to calculate, I sat in Wellington’s old Paramount Theatre and watched Billy Jack. Written and directed by Tom Laughlin (1931-2013) who also took the starring role, the movie had acquired something of a cult status among the politicised youth of the early 1970s. It isn’t hard to see why. Billy Jack has it all. Native Americans versus white supremacists; radical intellectuals versus rednecks; peace and love versus violence and hate. Most of all, however, the movie has a compelling – almost mystical – hero. Billy Jack is a Vietnam vet who has seen through his government’s lies. He is also a crack shot, a black belt, speaks quietly under a steely gaze and kicks the asses of the reactionary townsfolk who try to shut down the ‘Freedom School’ run by Jean, his paramour. Funded by the National Student Film Corporation, the movie was, unsurprisingly, a bona fide hit on America’s revolutionary campuses. As a movie, Billy Jack hasn’t aged all that well. But the ideas that informed it have gone from strength to strength. Most particularly, the idea that progressive people and their progressive projects constitute islands of rationality and good-will in a sea of deplorable ignorance and prejudice. To advance a progressive agenda it is, therefore, necessary to back it up with power. In the absence of a gun-toting Native American revolutionary, the progressives’ weapon of choice is a political apparatus under their control. And this, in real life, as in the movie, is where things begin to come unstuck. As one movie critic noted of Billy Jack: “I’m also somewhat disturbed by the central theme of the movie. Billy Jack seems to be saying the same thing as [Laughlin’s earlier movie] BornLosers; that a gun is better than a constitution in the enforcement of justice.”Now, it is rather difficult to look upon Rotorua’s mayor Steve Chadwick as a gun-toting revolutionary, but no one can dispute her mastery of standing orders. From the very beginning, this former parliamentarian’s quest to change the ‘representation arrangements’ of her district council has been distinguished by a dextrous handling of the processes of democratic deliberation. Lacking her experience and familiarity with the parliamentary processes of central and local government, the opponents of this always-controversial plan to even-up the voting power of Māori and Pakeha councillors had rings run around them by the mayor and her allies. Radio New Zealand’s account of the latest contretemps, sparked by the mayor’s determination to discuss Attorney-General David Parker’s damning judgment against the Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill in secret, precipitated the angry resignation of one of Chadwick’s councillors and loud protests from others. It was a masterclass in procedural leadership from the Chair, every bit as ruthless and effective as Billy Jack’s well-placed karate kicks. The problem with these tactics is that from the point of view of persons unschooled in the arcane arts of parliamentary manoeuvre, they all-too-easily come across as a high-handed attempt to stifle free and open debate. But, being in command of the political apparatus and knowing how to use it can advance a radical agenda only so far. Without the majority support of those it touches, political change cannot endure. In the absence of popular consent, top-down reforms remain fragile and temporary. Perhaps the most startling aspect of the Labour government’s roll-out of the co-governance agenda is its lofty disregard for the opposition it is generating. Not even its steadily declining level of voter support – as registered in the latest opinion polls – has persuaded Labour that it isn’t only the Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill that requires ‘pausing’, but the whole co-governance project. In this respect, co-governance has a lot in common with Rogernomics. In the second term of the fourth Labour government it was not uncommon for Labour MPs to tell Labour Party branch members that they would rather be voted out of office than heed their demands for an end to the government’s free-market reforms.

So certain were they of their economic policies’ rectitude that the Rogernomes were willing to see their party torn apart rather than negotiate a durable compromise. The principle of co-governance shows every sign of having enthralled Labour’s caucus as completely as neoliberalism. To call a halt to the roll-out of the Three Waters project or the Māori Health Authority might be politically expedient but it would also be, in the judgment of many Labour MPs, morally repugnant. It’s as though Labour is determined to enact these changes, no matter how unpopular, and then dare National and its allies to repeal them. In the case of Rogernomics, such sacrifice was nowhere near as noble as it appeared. Labour MPs knew that what they had built, National was not of a mind (‘decent societies’ notwithstanding) to dismantle. Indeed, in relation to the trade unions and social-welfare spending, they were confident that Jim Bolger’s government would go much farther than Roger Douglas ever dared. Which moves me to wonder whether Labour knows something the rest of us don’t. Perhaps it is convinced that against the staunch opposition of the nation’s senior public servants – seconded by the nation’s professors and newspaper editors – National will not be willing to follow through on its promises to roll back Labour’s co-governance reforms. When all is said and done, co-governance seeks to unite the elites of the Māori and Pakeha worlds under the aegis of a Crown freed from even vestigial democratic constraints. A conservative party’s dream, one might almost say. Except, such an outcome would entail imposing the will of a minority upon that of the majority which, as the people of South Africa will attest, is not an easy thing to do – or keep doing. The Rotorua District Council (Representation Arrangements) Bill’s sponsor, Tamati Coffey, may talk about ‘tweaking’ democracy; Māori Development Minister Willie Jackson may happily proclaim the arrival of a version of universal suffrage that no longer permits ‘the tyranny of the majority’; and even the Deputy Prime Minister, Grant Robertson, may consider it acceptable to ‘adapt’ core democratic principles to ensure “better outcomes for Māori” but it is highly unlikely that the rest of the country will concur. The only thing worse than the tyranny of the majority is the tyranny of a minority. Such a state of affairs has proved to be a bridge too far for even that most staunch defender of te Tiriti o Waitangi, Dame Anne Salmond. In her eyes, the true fulfilment of the treaty must never be construed as a permanent partnership of Māori and Pakeha elites overseen by the Crown. On the contrary, its promises point to universal equality and a continuation of the radical democratic spirit that characterised the political life of Māori before colonisation. Writing for the Newsroom website on 2 May 2022, Dame Anne makes her position crystal clear: The Attorney General’s intervention is timely, with his reminder that the rights to equal representation and freedom from discrimination are fundamental constitutional principles in Aotearoa New Zealand. “No New Zealander should be asked to accept that, by virtue of their birth, they are less worthy than any other. And the chances that if they are asked, they will agree, are vanishingly small, because to do so is to surrender their dignity as a person. “As it states in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.’ “No ifs, no buts, no exceptions.” Like the kids in the ‘Freedom School’, Labour’s MPs have allowed themselves to be convinced that the ‘townspeople’ are their sworn enemies, whose evil intentions can be thwarted only by Billy Jack’s politically correct violence. But even Tom Laughlin understood that force alone resolves nothing. His movie ends in negotiation, sacrifice, and reconciliation. As one tin soldier rides away – in handcuffs – political reality reasserts itself. Separation and conflict can never be the answer. Not for Billy Jack. Not for Labour. Not for any of us. ■

Chris Trotter is a political commentator and writer of more than 30 years’ experience. He is the author of the Bowalley Road blog ■

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