Byzantine complexity, Geoffrey Palmer

Democracy in New Zealand
Raymond Miller
Auckland University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781869408350

Democracy in New Zealand is a competent work by an experienced and well-published Professor of Politics at the University of Auckland. Clearly designed as a student text for an introductory course in politics in New Zealand universities, it reflects its author’s research interests in electoral systems, government formation and execution, political parties, interest groups, political representation and leadership. Miller’s more specialised comparative work with Ian Marsh, Democratic Decline and Democratic Renewal, was published in 2012.

In a book of this character, there is not much room for analysis, and much of the book is necessarily descriptive. It depends for much of its explanatory power on examples of recent political events. These make it harder to place a robust framework in the mind of the student. There is an interesting account of the furore in the 2014 election campaign caused by the release of Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics and the Dotcom events. Miller finds neither appear to have had “any measurable impact on public opinion”. He explains the Hager impact on the basis of research showing that many voters make up their minds how to vote long before the election campaign itself. Assurances given by the Prime Minister may have played a part. One telling observation Miller makes is that election campaigns in New Zealand “are in danger of becoming as cynical, vacuous and remote as they are in larger democracies”.

The book stays in touch with the literature of political science and cites the mainsprings: Robert Dahl on pluralist democracy; Maurice Duverger on political parties; Anthony Downs and V O Key on the theory that voters make short-term election choices based on self-interest; Ana Langer on leadership and personality; and the survey research of New Zealand scholars on politics is also reviewed.

The political science literature on New Zealand government over the years includes editions of Professor Richard Mulgan’s Politics in New Zealand to which Miller correctly pays homage, Dr Les Cleveland’s The Politics of Utopia, various volumes of readers on politics by multiple authors (one of which Miller himself was an editor of in 2001), the various editions of Hyam Gold’s New Zealand Politics in Perspective, and the early work of Austin Mitchell. We can also go back to the work of the first Professor of Political Science and Public Administration in New Zealand, Leslie Lipson, who published the Politics of Equality in 1948. Political scientist Kenneth Scott’s work the New Zealand Constitution was published in 1961.

Exactly where is the discipline of political science or politics heading? These scholars used to study institutions much more than they seem to do now. Voting behaviour and quantitative methodologies, following American trends, have tended to take over the field. Research based on insights from psychology, especially on political leadership, led them off in new directions, along with rational choice and public choice theory. I am far from convinced that the modern trends render up much of great value in explaining how we are governed or the nature of New Zealand democracy. How are decisions actually made? How does government really work? From where do we derive the values upon which the political system rests?  I opine that the study of political philosophy is often more helpful than voting behaviour. Endless focus groups and public opinion polling have robbed our politics of bold ideas. The ultimate issue is, what should students actually be taught? What contribution to New Zealand’s civic culture should the research and teaching on New Zealand politics make? Miller deserves credit for painting the big picture, and he succeeds. The book will do well, but further enrichment in this space for the future is required.

In New Zealand university departments, teaching and research centre around particular disciplines. Universities suffer from the same problems that government departments do. They are organised in silos, so when issues cross the boundaries they are not easily handled or, worse still, not handled at all.

Politics departments in New Zealand tend to be small and have to cover a wide range of subjects in their teaching. Research on New Zealand may not attract funding, and the range of publishing outlets for scholarly material on New Zealand is limited.

But in order to understand the byzantine complexity of how the New Zealand system of government actually works, as opposed to its structural simplicity, the insights of several disciplines are required, and the enterprise must integrate insights from them into a nuanced and sophisticated whole. Involved must be politics, constitutional and public law, history and political biography. Then there is the increasingly important literature of policy analysis and public administration. One of Miller’s aims is to keep the book as “an easily digestible introduction to New Zealand politics and democracy”. My point is that, while things in New Zealand may appear to be simple they are, upon close analysis, quite confused and complicated.

Miller has a chapter on the constitution. He correctly identifies New Zealand as one of three countries without a written constitution. He reviews the debate of whether New Zealand now needs a codified constitution and quotes at length the New Zealand Constitutional Advisory Panel’s summary of the arguments. There is, however, a substantial literature on New Zealand’s constitutional arrangements both in book form and in legal periodicals to which little reference is made. Constitutions are important. They establish the rules under which public power is exercised and politics takes place.

Political history and biography are rich sources of information on how the political system works or has worked at various times. I mention Barry Gustafson’s three biographies of Savage, Muldoon and Holyoake, and Bassett’s work on David Lange. Reading the biographical literature would teach the students much.

Parliament itself, as an institution, needs to be studied more closely if people are to understand how the system works. The two vital functions of  parliament comprise legislation and money – how laws are made and how money is raised and spent. In particular, the peculiar manner in which legislative power is shared by the cabinet and the parliament in New Zealand needs attention. Legislation is cooked up in secret within the executive branch in an untransparent fashion, often playing support parties off against one another. Then the product is thrust upon an unsuspecting parliament. The government’s legislative programme is not even available under the Official Information Act 1981, and this Act is now seriously degraded in its working, manipulated by the government to avoid political embarrassment. Discussions of this and other choke points in the system would have been helpful.

At least two further chapters need to be added to the coverage of this work to provide a bigger picture. The media plays a vital role in sending communications from the governors to the governed. The media needs separate treatment, its organisation, its ownership and the effects of the digital revolution upon the reporting of politics. The dumbing down of the media in favour of entertainment and the celebrity culture has had deleterious effects upon the coverage of politics. Newspapers, in particular, report politics as a sort of sporting contest. Many of the pundits have little understanding of what they are reporting upon. Television reporters feel able to make the most swingeing judgments about what is happening, judgments they are often quite unqualified to make. They do more commenting than reporting.  The work of the parliamentary press gallery needs some analysis. MPs gasp for political air to get what they actually say reported. In consequence, they say much less of a serious nature than they used to.  These days, minsters seldom seem to make serious policy speeches upon their portfolios. So a chapter on the media and journalists is essential. Blogs may be helpful, but even many of the educated public seem unaware of them.

The public service is a vital part of our political system that receives inadequate attention in this book. The performance and morale of the public service have been in decline for some years.  The system of cabinet government and ministerial responsibility cannot be properly understood without proper analysis of the interactions between ministers and public servants and some analysis of how the public service is organised and how that has changed.

New Zealand’s system of government and democracy has few firm anchors. The constitution evolves and mutates with events. We have a political constitution that is fragmentary and betrays its colonial origins. The constitution is so thin it will not easily survive the challenges of the future. We need a new one. Miller shows awareness of these issues, but does not really seriously engage with them here. In the future, New Zealand will need to overcome its failure to engage with our own constitution. The last time we did so on a thoroughgoing basis was in the agitation that led to the passage of the New Zealand Constitution Act in 1852.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer QC practises law in Wellington and is a Distinguished Fellow at the Faculty of Law, Victoria University of Wellington. He has published widely in the fields of constitutional and public law. His 2013 memoir was entitled Reform.

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