It is one of the wonders of the modern world that the democracy that past generations fought and died for is regarded as of little consequence by those who currently enjoy its benefits.
While many parts of the world are still struggling – and suffering – under forms of government that fall short of the democratic ideal, we take it for granted at best and at worst do nothing to sustain it.
Yet sustain it we must. Democracy is a fragile flower. Without proper sustenance, it will easily wither and die. We cannot simply assume that it will always be there, whether or not we bother to give it any attention.
It was Francis Fukuyama who observed that even the most repressive regimes could not survive without the support – perhaps passive and tacit – of a large part of the population. Democratic government, treated with similar passivity, can just as easily be supplanted by something that falls far short of genuine democracy.
That is why the current crisis about dirty politics is so important. It is not, as so many commentators seem to assume and assert, a distraction from the real issues that should decide the forthcoming election result; it raises exactly the kind of fundamental issue that the election should be, must be, about.
The whole point of democracy is that we should put in place a government that properly represents our interests and that we can trust with that power. Democracy is not just about elections; it is about being able to make the elected government accountable for what it does in office.
It is essential, if democracy is to be a reality, that our elected representatives should tell us the truth and should not use the power of government to serve their own ends rather than the country’s. We should be vigilant in ensuring that this is so – and we should act swiftly if it is not.
The charges that are now accumulating against the John Key government could not, in this context, be more serious. Put briefly, there are now unavoidable questions that must be answered.
Did John Key and his ministers pervert the country’s security intelligence services so as to serve their own party’s interests rather than to protect those of New Zealand? Did they use that power to discredit their political opponents in a concealed, underhand and partisan way? And, having done so, did they then consistently lie to the New Zealand public in an attempt to conceal the truth?
These questions arise, not because of some “left-wing conspiracy”, but because the evidence is now overwhelming that something has gone seriously wrong. It wasn’t a left-wing conspiracy that arranged for Cameron Slater to get unprecedentedly quick and preferential access to a security report prepared by the SIS – access that had already been denied to other more mainstream media.
It wasn’t a left-wing conspiracy that induced John Key to deny that he knew anything about that arrangement, in the face of the growing evidence that he had been specifically briefed on it by the SIS Director. Does anyone really believe that the Prime Minister (and the leader of TeamKey), who is also the Minister for the SIS, was left in ignorance of a surprising SIS decision to release at short notice a hitherto protected report about the Leader of the Opposition to a notorious right-wing blogger in the middle of an election campaign?
And it wasn’t a left-wing conspiracy that induced the Inspector-General of Intelligence and Security, concerned as she no doubt is to maintain the integrity of the SIS, to begin an official inquiry into the whole sorry saga. Her decision is powerful evidence that these issues must be treated seriously, even if the time taken to complete a review could conveniently defer an outcome until after the election.
So far, the reaction of the voters to this unfolding drama has been one of bemusement. Early opinion polls suggest that those who have grown accustomed to trusting John Key are reluctant to have their faith shaken.
But, in a democracy, it is important that we demand high standards from our government and are ready to act when the evidence shows that those standards have not been met. A government that abused its power and that lied – in the most deliberate and formal way – to those who voted them in would not be fit to stay in office.
The questions that have now been raised in all seriousness now demand answers. When we get those answers, and that cannot now be far away, the ball will then be in our court.
If we are not prepared to bestir ourselves, but prefer to turn a blind eye, we would not only be acquiescing in the perversion of democracy in the here and now. We would also be betraying the legacy bequeathed to us by those who fought and sacrificed to guarantee the freedoms we now enjoy.
21 August 2014