McCarten hits the mark

Written By: - Date published: 12:04 pm, May 17th, 2009 - 23 comments
Categories: democratic participation - Tags:

Matt McCarten makes some very valid points about the lack of democracy within political parties in his Herald column today. Using the Lee fiasco as a stepping off point he talks about the dangers of candidate selection, and indeed all major party decisions, being made by a small group of party faithful.

Lee’s meltdown shows she was clearly unsuitable. She was put forward by her caucus and that raises real questions about democracy. The parliamentary leaders of National, Labour, Act and Green parties all effectively appointed their candidates. They could do this with ease because mass-member political parties no longer exist.

As membership has dwindled, control of parties has moved to parliamentary caucuses.

To be fair to the parties, membership participation has always been a thorny issue. In the late seventies one of the problems the Labour Party struggled with was getting Labour voters engaged in the party business and it was only under Jim Anderton’s presidency that this changed. Of course that effort rode on the back of Muldoon’s divisive governance and was subsequently shot to hell by the betrayals of the 4th Labour government.

But it is a big issue. The more disengaged voters there are the more the more swing voters there are and the less informed the general voting populace become. That’s fertile ground for the kind of big money, on-message, presidential-style campaigning we’ve seen increase in the last two decades and for the subsequent dumbing down of the political discourse and increased influence of large donors.

Part of the issue is that people just don’t have the time to engage anymore as working hours keep growing and the explosion of media platforms exponentially increases competition for citizens’ attention as consumers.

But just as big a part of the equation is the fact that the current situation suits the hierarchy of most political parties. Limited participation increases their individual power and reduces the amount of internal bargaining they have to do to achieve their policy objectives. Unfortunately, as Matt points out in relation to the error of Lee’s selection, that bargaining is a vital provider of checks and balances and in the long-term makes for a healthy party.

Matt’s answer is to use a voter-registration system similar to that used in the US to encourage people to take a stake in the the political process. I’m not sure that’s a silver bullet but it would certainly be a great help. Personally I’d be inclined to think that membership and activism can be increased by ensuring that any decision made by a party must be assessed against one question:

“How can we meaningfully involve the greatest number of voters in this decision?”

Any party that keeps asking that question and moving on making sure every answer to it is implemented will find itself in a very strong state after a few years.

Of course as Matt states:

When I raise the central decision-making and caucus control with senior politicians, they shrug their shoulders and say this is inevitable as the days of mass party membership are over.

A cynic would say the unspoken last line in each of these instances is “And that’s the way we like it.”

23 comments on “McCarten hits the mark”

  1. Swampy 1

    There were no 4th Labour Government betrayals. The MPs and senior party people all knew what Roger Douglas’s policy was well before the 1984 election. They all voted for it in the Cabinet. That’s people like Phil Goff, Labour’s current leader.

    • Nick 1.1

      Swampy, you are out of order here, talking crap as usual. There was no consultation, or general knowledge even amongst the MPs actively involved. The ideology of the right wasnt even part of their vocabulary, but they were seduced by the TINA principle, and the excitement of radical ideas that they had not thought through. Yes they too became cuplable. Douglas only ever did one “socialist” thing, that was to utilise whether he knew it or not the principles of Leninist cadre revolution, i.e a small vanguard group of dedicated radical fundamentalists driving events. You and the rest of the new right generation are the progeny of this, its sickening to see a generation bought up on this. Its more sickening to see the nasty old creep sitting their in parliament again.

  2. Ari 2

    I’m a little surprised he thinks the greens are suffering from this as well, given that we do pretty well on basing things around the grassroots membership as an issue of party principle, but I certainly can’t disagree we’d also benefit from mass membership.

    • Anita 2.1

      Was there grassroots endorsement of the shift in political behaviour signalled by running Norman in Mt Albert? In one stroke the Greens have shifted away from their commitment to local issues, to proportional representation, and to principled authentic electoral politics.

      I don’t know a single grass roots Green member who was consulted.

      • Ari 2.1.1

        I think it was a case of the other candidates standing down because someone very high-profile was asked by members to run and decided to go for it.

        I can definitely say there wasn’t any pressure from the caucus, but whether that’s reassuring or not is a personal call I think. 🙂 I’m not hugely worried about it, but I hope we don’t put ALL our trust in the caucus members, even if I largely like Russel.

    • felix 2.2

      I have to agree with Anita here, Ari.

      The principle you describe is a big part of what attracts many of us to the green party, and the apparent abandonment of that principle in both the decision to stand Dr Norman in Mt Albert and the signing of the MoU is what is making many of us extremely uncomfortable lately.

  3. On the other hand, an emphasis on policy instead of personality would be good for voters. It doesn’t really matter who sits in parliament, as long as they implement their partry’s manifesto the voters have chosen

  4. IrishBill 4

    Ari, the Greens are in danger of going down the management path of governance too. That’s one of the reasons I was so pissed off about the MoU and the failure to take it to the membership. And before you argue that it was covered by the pre-election consultation I’ll point out that many Green members see that as the caucus using a technicality to avoid consultation.

    uroskin, I agree but the politics of personality is a good way to reach people who are too disengaged from politics to bother with policy. The problem is that it fosters further disengagement by increasingly turning away people with a policy interest.

    The real answer shouldn’t be pandering to the disengaged with marketing tricks based on personality politics but finding ways to reengage them into the process so we can have a proper broad debate on policy. So far the political will to do so seems to be missing from most parties.

    • Ari 4.1

      I don’t think it could’ve hurt to put it (the MoU) to the membership, no. You may have a point there.

      While I don’t disagree there are issues with the Green Party, I personally don’t think they’re of anywhere near the same scale, even if they’re part of the same problem.

  5. My own experience of political involvement in NZ over the past 25 years suggests most Kiwis are happy with “democracy” provided everyone agrees with them and things are done the way they want them done.

    Real life isn’t like that, so people will turn up at meetings, find that they are just one of the many there and everyone ISN’T hanging on their every word. The meeting will sometimes, or often, arrive at a decision they disagree with in part or whole….so they tend to decommit or simply spit the dummy and go around telling everyone camels are horses designed by committees. This sort of person prefers to dictate rather than listen and engage in a positive an constructive way.

    In my experience, Kiwi politics is infested with these immature people who want it all their own way. Sometimes, they rise to the very highest levels of their parties and set about “reforming” them so as to make them “more effective”. They do that by creating a situation that allows them to to dictate.

    National is the worst of the two major parties for this. Their members have very little say at all about what happens in the party. Their members elect only their local candidate and have no say about the list or its ranking or the leadership of their party. National wants to reduce democracy in Auckland to make it more effective. National wants to get rid of MMP so they can dictate more effectively to everyone. This is – in effect – the vehicle for the immature, negative, un/anti-democratic tendency that runs strongly in the veins of the Kiwi body politic.

    Most kiwis today are quite happy with this anti-democratic position. They aren’t engaged and few have any real experience of working positively and constructively for a solution that everyone can live with. Most Kiwis prefer to dictate.

    Melissa Lee is just one more indicator if the consequences of most Kiwis’ active hostility to democracy.

    Of course people won’t see themselves as hostile to democracy…..but what they actually DO gives the game away.

  6. Draco T Bastard 6

    Wrong, it wouldn’t matter who sat in parliament if they were doing what the people wanted rather than what they thought the people wanted. The only way to do that is participatory democracy – what representative democracy (elected dictatorship) was designed to prevent.

    • Draco T Bastard 6.1

      Gah, that was a reply to uroskins’

      It doesn’t really matter who sits in parliament,…

  7. I think we can learn from the ways that Barack Obama re-engaged the masses in political participation during his campaign. He used the internet incredibly effectively, particularly tools like Facebook. If that’s the future for NZ politics then I think it’s a good thing.

  8. toad 8

    IB, McCarten isn’t too far off the mark re the Greens’ membership (although it is a wee bit higher than his estimate). Which is disappointing – 158,000 people voted for the Greens at the last election, but only about 3% of them engage sufficiently to actually join the Green Party.

    Most of us Greens are desperate to increase membership, and to increase membership participation, because that is what will in the Greens, make decision-making more democratic.

    The Greens are the only party in which members actually make the policy. The Green caucus can’t railroad policy initiatives through, because there has to be an agreement of the party’s Policy Committee that there is a consensus of support among the membership – and the Green Policy Committee consists of 20 provinciallly elected members. Sure, the Co-Leaders and a caucus rep are on it too, but guess what, they don’t even have a vote.

    As for Green candidate selection in electorates, that is totally up to the electorates subsequent to a vetting process to admit potential candidates into the candidate pool. The one exception is by-elections, where a panel consisting of two members selected by the Green Party executive, one by the province, and two by the electorate makes the decision. The reason for this is that byelections have nationally strategic significance, so it is considered that their should be national and provincial, rather than just local, decision-making re the candidate.

    The Green list ordering is, unlike any other Party, voted on by the members by a postal STV ballot.

    So all is good with the Greens – at least in principle. All we need to make it more democratic is more members and more input from members.

    Oh, and as for the MoU with National – it was not just a “technicality”. That specific arrangement was canvassed at the Green Party’s 2008 AGM, and it was agreed that caucus should have the ability to make it as long as it did not involve an agreement to support or abstain on confidence and supply.

    And as far as policy is concerned, it does not contain any arrangement requiring Green MPs to vote against or compromise Green policy – if it did all hell would have broken loose within the party and members like me would have been advocating sitting Green MPs being declined admission to the candidate pool next time around.

    • Anita 8.1


      All good in theory but 🙂

      The Mt Albert candidate decision was more than just a candidate selection, it compromised fundamental principles for political gain. Wasn’t that a decision that the grass roots deserved a say in?

      • Ron 8.1.1

        Hang on, Anita. I think toad was pretty clear.

        The Green Party has already made their decision about the process of candidate selection for by-elections. It’s not a case of “In one stroke the Greens have shifted away from their commitment to local issues, to proportional representation, and to principled authentic electoral politics.”
        They haven’t “shifted”.
        They used the process that they have agreed on. There’s no compromise.

  9. toad 9

    Anita, the grass roots did have a say in it. The Mt Albert electorate had a floor poll on it, which voted overwhelmingly to endorse Russel Norman’s candidacy. I can’t say exactly how overwhelmingly, as I was a scrutineer, and the details have to remain confidential.

    Any Green Party member can nominate for any electorate, and in this case I’m confident that Mt Albert members considered, despite Russel’s lack of association with the electorate in the past few years (his workplace was a couple of hundred metres across the border until he moved to Wellington) that it was in the interests of the Greens and the broader environments/left movement for him to be the candidate.

  10. Rich 10

    The Mt Albert candidate selection would have proceeded as toad states – with the local members having a say. In the event, a call for nominations was made and only Russel was nominated. I haven’t heard that any other candidates were wanting to run and were pressurised out of it.

    Of course, one could suggest that the Greens should have either not contested the election or fought a low-key campaign to give Labour a clear run. But that would be denying Green voters a choice, really?

    • Ari 10.1

      There were other candidates who were nominated, but I believe they voluntarily withdrew themselves as soon as Russel was in the running.

  11. toad 11

    Yep, Ari, there were two. And they did stand down voluntarily once they knew Russel Norman was intending to nominate, despite my suggestion to one of them that he should stay in the running so no-one outside the Greens would suggest thet there was any pressure to withdraw – which there was not.

    Peculiarly, the two CAPTCHA wors I had to type to post this are “victory already”.

    Prophetic, perhaps?

    Rich, not contesting or giving Labour a clear run by standing a low-key candidate wasn’t a go for the Greens. The Greens could not predict the outcome of Labour’s selection, and if it had resulted in Tizard potentially coming back on the list that would have been a disaster for the left.

    Anyway, Melissa Lee is dog tucker now, so the battle for the seat is between Russel Norman and David Shearer. Whoever wins, it’s a good result for the left.

  12. forgive me, but we’re a little isolated out here, take a moment dear Standard readers. If you would click or copy and paste the link below

    captcha a corker : bluish occasions

    • Lew 12.1

      If you’re going to linkwhore, it’s marginally polite to at least have some coherent content. It seems to me that the reason you’re isolated is because you appear to have fuck-all to say.


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