Democracy Under Pressure

Julie Haggie
Chief Executive Officer TINZ

The strong and stable New Zealand democracy in which we take great pride is under extreme pressure. Pressure not just on systems, but on relationships between government and the people.

Through voting we recognise a social contract with decision makers – turning our individual power over to elected representatives, and obeying the laws set by them. The government promises to execute this trust faithfully, and we can pull them up on that.

The COVID pandemic responses have tested this social contract, with many divergent views driving our behaviour:

    “The state cannot direct me on my personal choices”

    “My community has its own authority independent of/equal to/more than the state”

    “I/we trust the state to manage power, with checks and balances”

    “We need the state to be more authoritative”

    “Don’t care, it’s irrelevant.”

People also give a proportion of “social licence” to others – to belief systems, public or inspirational leaders, and social ideals. Not surprisingly various actors want and have exercised influence over both personal and broader social licence, to influence people on ideas, causes and beliefs.

The balance for each of us, in accepting influence or trying to influence others, is to keep in mind the overall value of a resilient democracy. This is one which can assist us to collectively absorb pressure, overcome challenges, and innovate. It enables consensus and compromise, and provides legitimacy.

The risk of jettisoning institutions and norms that are core to our democracy is that it leaves us open to autocratic forms of control with consequences affecting life outcomes. 

The graph below, which is published by the Conversation and uses the Freedom House classification of countries shows that democracies had significantly fewer COVID deaths per 100,000 cases than authoritarian regimes such as China and semi-authoritarian regimes such as the Philippines.

COVID testing our democracy

The necessary but extended response to a public health emergency has put pressure on the social contract and on our democratic resilience.

  • Prioritising public health has generated restrictions on personal freedoms, and the extended use of that has eroded public tolerance over time.    
  • Public health measures have undoubtedly saved lives, but not dying is normal and invisible. More visible is the impact on business viability and personal incomes. This impact varied considerably for each person and community. For many this has reduced the level of trust in policy positions and leadership decisions.
  • Restrictions and anxiety about personal and community health have a polarising effect by pushing us into corners of support or opposition.    
  • Fast paced decision making and pivoting responses to the changing landscape has blurred the separation of powers between the legislative and Executive arms of government. This brings unease to some.
  • At the moment some of us can only count blessings, and some of us are counting the cost.    
  • In the face of uncertainty and constant pivoting, social media platforms have become a petri dish for those who are disapproving, disheartened and disingenuous. 

New Zealand is perceived as a top performing democracy. This is reflected in global indexes, such as the Corruption Perceptions Index and the EIU Democracy Index

Varieties of Democracy Index

But we are not immune to the loss of democratic resilience. The just released Varieties of Democracy Index is an informative read. It takes a multifaceted view of the health of countries.

NZ ranks 5th overall and scores in the top ten worldwide in most elements of the Liberal Democracy Index - such as Electoral Democracy, Participatory components and the Liberal Component.

But we rank 22nd in the Egalitarian democracy component which measures social equality in civil liberties, how power is distributed and equality in education and in health care.

New Zealand also has a poorer ranking in the Deliberative component which measures whether public reasoning is inclusive and focuses on the common good.

NZ’s rank in this index slipped from 34 to 38 in 2021-22. This makes me think that while New Zealand’s pandemic response has definitely saved lives, one trade off is exacerbation of  the feelings of ‘us’ and ‘them’ percolating in our communities.

The Varieties of Democracy Index has found that the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2021 is down to 1989 levels – the last 30 years of democratic advances are now eradicated. Together, autocracies now harbour 70% of the world population – 5.4 billion people. Signalling “toxic polarisation”, the deliberative aspects worsened substantially in 32 countries – another massive increase from the count of 5 countries, ten years ago. And autonomy of electoral management bodies (EMB) was blatantly undermined by governments in 25 countries over the past ten years.

In New Zealand we have much to value and to treasure in our democracy.  It is not perfect, but definitely better than the alternatives.

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