NZ and the International Rule of Law: a Constitutional Convention.

Blog no. 147.

You can take a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. Likewise, in modern western democracies, you can give a population all the information that should arouse them to political action, but you cannot force their participation. They have first to be motivated, while at the moment, despite the looming perils that, unaddressed, will cause the demise of their societies, in most western democracies, the electorates remain largely inert and disinterested.

This short article describes the inertia and apparent indifference of the US electorate in the face of glaring social pathologies, which will have dire consequences for the future of their society. It describes a fast fragmenting society with its social cohesion being torn apart. It comments on school shootings every other day; an opioid epidemic of despair; declining life expectancy; a large population of retirees, who, lacking the norms of social security, having been torn from their social and geographical moorings, despairingly travel the country in search of part-time employment. ( There are plenty of other such signs of decay, not included in the article, inter al.; the extraordinary incarceration rates; the racial imbalances in the prison population and the militarisation of police armouries and attitudes.)

While all the above is taking place in US society there are no significant, unified communal expressions of political outrage and demand for change.

As the writer points out, this is the end outcome of the uninhibited pursuit of the neo-liberal policies of capitalist greed and winner takes all. The losers (the majority of the population) are left like beaten dogs, to slink into the shadows and quietly die. As the writer points out, the USA has travelled further along this road than any other nation, but those societies that allow their governments to follow the USA’s neo-liberal example will ultimately arrive in the same social shit-hole. The UK appears to be carrying on along a similar trajectory to the USA’s, New Zealand, however, with its recent election of an ostensibly more communally concerned government, might have had a narrow escape

An obvious symptom of American society’s deep malaise is the almost total lack of public concern expressed over the current multiple conflicts its government is indulging in around the globe. Geographically, the USA is probably the most secure from military attack of all the nations of the world. Nevertheless, there is almost total social acquiescence to the federal government’s diversion of around half its total tax-revenue to military operations and preparedness. This total ‘defence’ expenditure represents more than the combined total defence budgets of the next ten nations, including both Russia and China, and yet the two political parties in the Senate and Congress are united in voting yearly increases in this ridiculous excess. The Easter Islanders kept on erecting statues to the over-inflated egos of their tribal chiefs – until the last tree was felled and their society endured a total collapse. Herein lies a lesson.

There is a marked contrast between the US population’s protests against the Vietnam War, which forced its ending in 1975, and its current indifference. It now accepts without complaint the current diversion of its wealth into the pockets of the army of contractors, industrialists, spooks and other cynical spongers that live off its absurdly exaggerated military preparations. Likewise, it accepts with applause more than complaint the consequent murderous interventions of its armed forces in other unfortunate nations such as Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Lebanon, etc.

There is an obvious explanation for this passivity.  The current wars are fought by professional soldiers, insulated from the rest of society (many of them being, as in Rome’s legions, foreigners looking for citizenship at the end of their mercenary service.) In contrast, a significant proportion of those filling the ranks of America’s legions during the Vietnam War were conscripts drawn by lot from all ranks of US society. At that time, the possibility of having to spend its blood, where their government was spending its dollars, concentrated society’s mind most wondrously. It was the randomness of the draft lottery that seemed the most psychologically upsetting. Today, it would appear that the abolition of US conscription allows crony-capitalist industrialists and their bought politicians a significant degree of electoral impunity as to how they choose to dispense their munitions among the hapless humanity of other nations.

In my blog No 144, I proposed that, as with the Vietnam draft,  the committee, to be appointed to supervise the New Zealand government’s media output, should be chosen by lot. I wrote “Its content and editorial policies should be determined by a committee of trustees, neither elected nor appointed, but chosen by lot from suitably qualified members of the public, who have put their names forward. (There are many advantages to Sortition: diversity of thinking; freedom from party rivalry; freedom from corruption; freedom from nepotism and freedom from obligation to those that appoint them.)”

I have recently been reading two books. ‘Against Elections,’ by Dutch political philosopher, David Van Reybrouck and George Monbiot’s most recent attempt to divert the runaway train ‘Out of the Wreckage.’ Monbiot concentrates on ways in which the lumpen electorate can be galvanised out of their inertia and into taking an interest in, and actively protesting, the route down which they are currently being led.

Reybrouck citing the large numbers, who fail to participate in elections and the fast declining membership of western political parties, starts his book with a 1762 quote from Jean-Jacques Rousseau “The people of England deceive themselves when they fancy they are free; they are so, only during the election of Members of Parliament: for, as soon as a new one is elected, they are again in chains and are nothing.” He argues that modern, electoral democracies breed mass indifference. While political interest is focused on a narrow window at the time of elections, the electorate, being powerless to exert any influence between elections, is demotivated, feels it has no responsibilities and simply pays no further attention.

Reybrouck’s suggested solution is to draw lessons from the long-lasting and successful democracies of ancient Athens and the more recent Venetian republic in which the political leadership was chosen by lot. All citizens, being eligible to be suddenly chosen to shoulder such responsibility, paid considerable attention to the questions of the day. Though such direct democracy might work for smaller populations of no more than several thousand, it is hard to see it functioning effectively when millions of citizens are involved. However, Reybrouck describes the more recent developments in such ‘deliberative democracy’ Fishkin’s ideas have spread rapidly and had multiple applications as you will see from ‘cases’’ at this website.

The Assembly of Athens

In developing this blog’s arguments, the most interesting of Reybrouck’s examples are the five recent cases of assemblies of citizens drawn by lot and funded by governments to review changes in electoral laws and in the states’ constitution. These took place in Canada, Ireland and Iceland. Here is detail of the recent Irish constitutional assembly and its impressive achievements

After making available to the New Zealand public an honest and informative media, a constitutional convention, resulting in the creation of a truly participatory democracy would seem to be the essential second step in mobilizing the New Zealand population to come to its own rescue.

The USA’s constitutional convention

As Monbiot points out, the only four countries in the world without written constitutions are the UK, Israel, Saudi Arabia and New Zealand. Written constitutions may over time, become prone to being overtaken by events and developments. The grotesque political mismanagement of the USA is a case in point. Unsurprisingly (their constitutional convention having been held so long ago) the founding fathers never foresaw the development of citizens so rich and intelligence agencies so powerful that they could bypass their so carefully laid constitutional plans and usurp the formal government’s control.

However, the lack of a written constitution can pose just as grave a danger to its people as might their reliance on an inflexible written constitution that has passed its use-by date. With still no written constitution, the UK’s political life seems in disarray, its society in decay and its independence subject to American agreement.  A privileged plutocratic elite continues to rule the UK. (7% of all British children go to fee-paying schools, yet 50% of post-war Prime Ministers went to such private schools.) Much of its electorate is disempowered and disillusioned as elections continue to be conducted under an ossified and grossly unfair, first-past-the-post system that seems impervious to modification. (Monbiot calculates that out of 45 million UK voters, only the 800,000 or so, those who live in constituencies in which the outcome is not a foregone conclusion, have a vote which can be said to have any influence on government policy.) The BREXIT poll indicates the society’s growing vulnerability to manipulation by demagogues. The referendum taking the UK out of the EU will prove a disaster and is the consequence of giving everyone a vote with which to express their opinion on what they consider to be their best interests, but insufficient information and education to enable them to form one. Had the UK, as Switzerland for example, a written constitution embodying best practice in running referenda, this disaster would never have happened.

Israel, has not only failed to formalise its constitution, but has also refused to formalise its frontiers. As a consequence, next to its American ally, it has become the world’s foremost breaker of international law and instigator of armed assaults on its neighbours. Though it claims to be the Middle East’s only functioning democracy, it is fast developing into an acutely racist, sectarian, discriminatory, Apartheid state.

I won’t dwell on Saudi Arabia’s exemplary democracy and the wonderful informality of its constitutional arrangements!

In New Zealand, the recent nine years of National party government well illustrate that a country needs to be well governed as well as well administered. This period saw New Zealand well administered by its civil servants, but misgoverned as a virtual dictatorship by an inner core of arrogant and ideologue Cabinet Ministers. This cabal’s rule was characterised by its opaqueness, its secretiveness and the contempt with which the concerns of those ‘losers,’ who lacked wealth, were treated. Members of Parliament, including National’s’ own back-benchers, had little say in determining policy.

Open government in NZ

Over the years of National’s neo-liberal government, the social fabric of NZ society deteriorated at a rapid pace. Inequality of wealth and opportunity became ever more apparent. Without any search for a popular mandate, and on American request/instructions (through Waihopai and Echelon, America has a stranglehold on NZ foreign policy) the country was involved in America’s wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria (to a far greater extent than the public have been permitted to know.) Government functions, such as the running of prisons were placed in the hands of corrupt multi-national companies. To please their American ally, the National government avoided trade deals with Russia and Iran, while doing all in its power to enter into a TPPA on America’s terms and in the face of multiple protests from large sectors of NZ society. New Zealand’s farm-land and companies were sold to overseas interests at an unprecedented rate and only an international outcry forced the government to legislate against the use of NZ as a tax haven for the global elites of wealth and crime. Other symptoms of malaise were everywhere apparent.

Large segments of The New Zealand electorate were left feeling disempowered, disillusioned and disinterested in a political system in which their opinion counted for little or nothing. The new, coalition government that replaced National was left to face multiple domestic crises that had been barely addressed: environmental degradation, housing shortages, teacher shortages, health care, immigration, etc.

On the international front the crises are less obvious, but far more serious, climate change, nuclear proliferation, the breakdown of the international rule of law and always, lurking in the background the threat of the next global financial crisis. This, given the way the USA conducts its global financial responsibilities, is a matter of ‘when,’ rather than ‘if.’

In overcoming these multiple crises, the challenge facing the new government is how to mobilise the nation’s participation and generate an active interest in how it is governed. Only then will it gain the legitimacy, acceptance and support for the difficult and often painful policy decisions, which will need to be taken as the crises develop.

Had New Zealand had a best practice, participatory, democratic constitution, this recent period of misgovernment could well have been avoided. Now, New Zealand urgently needs to call a constitutional convention tasked to develop a written constitution incorporating the most modern ideas of participatory and deliberative democracy. Like Van Reybrouck, Monbiot, drawing from multiple constitutional experiments and practices around the world, offers several insights into the choices open to such a convention, both in how it should be established and the questions it should debate.

He quotes Porto Alegre in Brazil (population 1.4 million) as an example of ‘participatory budgeting’ in which the citizens, not their elected councillors, determine how the city’s substantial infrastructure budget should be spent and argues that the principal of subsidiarity could be deployed to allow decisions on the expenditure of a significant portion of national budgets to be delegated to citizens at a local level. He quotes the stable (though lacking in transparency) government of Switzerland, as having an exceptionally high approval rating. This he attributes to multiple and sophisticated referenda (no simple ‘yes/no’ questions) and the way in which the government goes out of its way to advance the political education of the voters. Educated voters are competent to form intelligent opinions and appreciate actually participating in the political process, which greatly benefits from their intelligent input. Monbiot also describes experiments in on-line voting conducted in Iceland and Brazil. There is no shortage of ideas for developing the vibrant participatory democracy that New Zealand currently lacks and would so greatly benefit from.

Recent Irish constitutional convention

Such a constitutional convention, together with the proposed media reforms, would have the power to transform New Zealand’s political life and enable its governments to function with greatly increased legitimacy. It would then be well positioned to take the difficult decisions and make the bold moves that are going to be required if New Zealanders are not only to save themselves from the multiple dangers ahead, but also serve as an example to help other threatened nations do the same. It is only when significant numbers of other nations have done the same that the international community, of which New Zealand is a part, will have a best chance of escaping the perils of international anarchy, nuclear war and climate change.

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