Is our democracy in crisis?

Some ‘experts’ are claiming we have a political crisis due to a lack of trust in politicians. I don’t think it’s anywhere near a crisis, but there is certainly room for improvement – from politicians, from media, and for those involved in political discourse.

Stuff:  Politics in crisis and trust issues: How Kiwis feel about how the country is run

Nearly 40,000 voters responded to the Stuff/Massey University election survey in May and they got to have their say on their trust in politics. They’re not happy. Experts say it’s a crisis.

Not many New Zealanders think our political leaders keep their promises. More than half of us think our political leaders are out of touch. Even less think our political cared about the things they valued.

And now, the vast majority of us want change of some sort.

Of course people want change of some sort, there are many problems that need to be addressed, and dealt with better. And the rest of the world changes so New Zealand has to change and adapt.

New Zealand politics and democracy are in trouble and the system isn’t working, academic and political commentator Bryce Edwards said.

It may sound dramatic, but it’s a dilemma that’s been brewing for almost half a century.

The public once saw politics as “fairly noble and important” but support for politicians and trust in institutions had been eroding since the 1970s and 1980s.

“It’s a crisis of politics, it’s a crisis of democracy … when you have a million people that are eligible to vote choose not to, and even many of those who do vote are very dissatisfied with the system.”

If people didn’t vote because they felt alienated by not being represented, the crisis would get worse, he said.

Results from the Stuff/Massey survey showed only 17 per cent of those surveyed believed political leaders kept their promises.

I don’t think it should be described as a crisis, our democracy doesn’t look likely to be at imminent risk of collapse. It just needs to be improved – and overstating how bad things are doesn’t help.

The Stuff/Massey survey results showed:

  • 13% of people thought the political system was “completely” broken
  • 55% thought it worked but needed to change
  • 31% though it worked well.

I would bet that a number of those who thought the system was completely broken want a change that most people would strongly oppose. Those wanting revolution are not likely to be well supported. I don’t think a one party state, nor an extreme socialist state, would be seen as improvements by most of us.

In 2016, a study commissioned by Victoria University found:

  • 8% of respondents had “complete or lots of trust” in MPs
  • 10% per cent trusted ministers
  • 12% trusted local government.

Most of those impressions are formed from media coverage, and the media has similar trust problems.

“New Zealanders want a le4ader who will deliver”:

  • Radical change 22%
  • Gradual change 23%
  • Steady as it goes 54%

I suspect that if various types of ‘radical change’ were proposed there would be limited support for any one of them.

An Ipsos poll taken in May showed over half of Kiwis thought politics and the economy were rigged against them.

A State Services Commission working paper, Declining Government Performance? Why Citizens Don’t Trust Government, last updated in 2002, noted that it had been declining for 30 years.

It’s suggested causes included “greater expectations”. When the public was pumped up by pre-election claims, but politicians failed to follow through, that caused declining confidence in elected officials.

Greater expectations and overemphasis on negatives are problems with media as much as with politicians.

Writer of the book The New Zealand Project, Max Harris, agreed that New Zealand politics was in crisis.

“I’m pretty concerned that we don’t have [an] engaged public that can hold governments to account to make sure policy is good.”

Some politicians were taking the issue seriously, but not enough of the public were.

He said if distrust continued, voter turnout would drop further and who did vote would likely do so reluctantly.

Would our democracy be better of more people voted? We would have more people choosing from the same options, so what would actually change?

Despite all that, Edwards believed the problems could be fixed and said he saw changes occurring already.

“Not so much in terms of the trust but in terms of a return at the moment to an interest in politics and an involvement in politics.

“To me, it’s a wee bit like a re-run of the 1960s where people are being a bit more energised and excited in politics either through things they oppose or things that they’re in favour of.”

“People are taking more interest in this campaign than they have for many elections. I would predict that this year’s voter turnout would be considerably up on previously elections.”

He said he expected it to be “significant” – five or six per cent.

And we would still end up with a National led or a Labour led government, with some influence from smaller parties.

More voters are not going to uncover better politicians.

I think there are three key issues with our democracy that more voters won’t address.

First, what the public sees of politics generally and elections in particular are dominated by sensationalism by media and seeking sensationalism by politicians. Voters can’t change that (they tend to get turned off by it).

Instead of media looking at voters they should look at themselves and what they contribute to the problems.

Muck raking and exaggerating politicians are rewarded by the media. Why doesn’t media investigate that?

Second, MMP is a more democratic system but it is abused by political parties protecting their own interests. A threshold of 2% would remove most distortions and unfairness, and improve democracy and self interest.

Third, I think that relatively minor changes could be made to our parliamentary system that would improve engagement with the public. A better way of including the public in debate and a simple way of measuring public views on bills of public interest (in addition to the current public submission system) would inform the politicians better and include the public in the process better.

Our democracy is not in crisis, and it’s not close to being in crisis.

Some sensible tweaks could make a significant difference – not good for headlines but far more sensible than using  using claims of the sky falling to promote radical change.


  1. Corky

     /  August 31, 2017

    Democracy….what democracy?

  2. Gezza

     /  August 31, 2017

    I click on Corky’s comment in RECENT COMMENTS but nothing’s appearing? 😳

    • Gezza

       /  August 31, 2017

      Ok. All good! 👍🏼 Wasn’t worth clicking on. 😉
      Or seeing again. 😬

  3. Tipene

     /  August 31, 2017

    The cognitively dissonant victim mindset of the average Kiwi voter is very firmly entrenched, isn’t it?

    On the one hand, the majority of voters elect to retain representative democracy, conduct almost no due diligence on the policies that emerge from same, and focus on headlines, not detail.

    On the other hand, this same majority of voters decry having no meaningful voice, claim “quelle surprise” when a policy they don’t like becomes a bill becomes an Act becomes law, and demand “greater transparency of process” when the information they claim to be ignorant of was available to them all the time.

    Civil ignorance or apathy isn’t modern enlightenment – it’s still ignorance and apathy, and any motivated group with an agenda will be only too happy to fill the existential vacuum in the absence of the opposition to stop them.

    Congratulations, average Kiwi voter: you have achieved what you deigned to ignore.

    • Gezza

       /  August 31, 2017

      At least Jacindamania & Metiriacide have galvanised 24% more people into registering to vote already, Tipene.

      Last night’s debate was great. Lets put some of the blame on shite media – who have given up the proper role they ought to play in our democracy in favour of tripe trite, clickbait, self-stardom & low-brow infotainment.

      • Conspiratoor

         /  September 20, 2017

        Let’s just put it down to boredom G. From my discussions at the water cooler the voting pubic are not complicated beasts. Perhaps they are resigned to more of the same old and simply want to see a cherry perched atop the turd

    • Crisis – what crisis:

      It looks like the majority think things need a tweak at best, no matter what DR Edwards emotes.

      13% of people thought the political system was “completely” broken
      55% thought it worked but needed to change
      31% though it worked well.

      Radical change 22%
      Gradual change 23%
      Steady as it goes 54%

      Some cogitation on our perception of politicicians/politics:

      Our awareness, engagement or lack of same of Civics, governance
      Media hands on, rather than the old school “what goes on tour” hands off attitude to politcians
      Media reportage being brand savvy focussed – making everything about them
      Media reportage being blatantly partisan and lacking depth and intellectual rigour
      An utter lack of objectivity in the majority of political, issues based reportage
      Advocacy journalists and an egotistical belief they have a divine purpose to reform
      The immediacy of Social Media in general. Minimal reflection, 140 characters and instant gratification
      Blogging and the degree of confirmation bias within all of our political interactions

      Bryce Edwards is a primo example of the branded political commentator. He’s prolific, places his considerable Liberal, so-called Progressive bias above objectivity.

  4. Blazer

     /  August 31, 2017

    the TPPA is a good case study in how democracy has been compromised by this Govt.A Gov,who have really set precedents for ignoring protocols and obsfucation.

    • Corky

       /  August 31, 2017

      And that will continue until we have an air tight constitution that protects individual rights first.

    • yaaawwwwnnnnnnnnnnn…. you mean the TPP started by Phil Goff under Saint Aunties Helen and Heather? And the final agreement shaped by the career staffers at MFAT Blazer, with a focus on NZ as a whole? That TPP?

      I know Lefties need short memories on anything associated with their chosen party/ies so they can erase their own indiscretions and to never,ever forgot what their opposition have done, but you live in a dual universe of unique proportions….

      • Blazer

         /  August 31, 2017

        no not that TPP….wrong…again…the present negotiations for the TPP ,that do not include the U.S have not even been reviewed by this lazy ,narrow minded Govt.Groser so called wunderkind negotiator rolled over on everything.

  5. sorethumb

     /  August 31, 2017

    Despite all that, Edwards believed the problems could be fixed and said he saw changes occurring already.
    Edwards is part of the problem, through his position he (miss) represents a public opinion:
    “Both in New Zealand and globally, the best of the left-wing tradition has always rejected small-minded nationalism, xenophobia and racism. In fact, leftists of an internationalist tradition have always favoured globalization and getting rid of national borders and barriers to migration. Progressive advocates of globalization of course do not defend a handful of rich imperialist countries, including New Zealand, dominating the world’s economy, but instead advocate an integrated and radically egalitarian world economy where production is based on social need and not on private profit. ”[/quote]

  6. sorethumb

     /  August 31, 2017

    Parr (2000) writes “[T]he views of New Zealanders are not conducive to the population of New Zealanders becoming more diversified globally.”
    From localism to globalism? New Zealand Sociology, 15(2), 304-. 335
    and now we are in a situation where the government, academics, public service, business interests, journalists are like nurse Ratchet in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, trying to manipulate a recalcitrant public. While they replace us.
    Trump stood up to them all -he showed there is a them and us.

  7. Bryce and his fellow Lefty intellectuals are never happy: their Platonic Philosopher King centric ideas have always failed as they drift into totalitarian abuse. The whole democracy frustration they express is because we have a voting system that stops them getting the power they need to enforce their viewpoint – people have seen socialism in the raw operating around the world and it delivers death, broken economies, poverty and repression. See Cambodia under PP, the USSR, CHina under Mao, Venezuela right now under Maduro….

    The further left you go – the worse it gets and the big ger the failure…

    This was amusing – The numbers stated around “is it broken” show a completely different view from the headline:

    “The Stuff/Massey survey results showed:

    13% of people thought the political system was “completely” broken
    55% thought it worked but needed to change
    31% though it worked well.”

    So 86% think the current system works with a majority thinking it needed a tweak, but basically works…

    Lefty academic cum opinion shaper cum journo headline on story “Politics in crisis and trust issues”

    Disconnect much?

    The Media and their complete abdication of standards in reporting and headline writing are a huge piece of the problem. Balanced reporting, in depth analysis backing up reporting? Don’t look too far for it – its basically not there unless you pay a real premium for it via Politik or NBR AND then read numerous articles to filter out the slants ….

  8. PDB

     /  August 31, 2017

    And for some reason people thought the standard of parliament would improve when they decided to include a heap of non-elected list MP’s into our parliament? We’ve had examples of MP’s being voted out of their electorate because they weren’t performing only for them to remain in parliament due to the list.

    FPP was broken but MMP isn’t the promised land either.

    Situations like the Alamein Kopu one made a mockery of MMP – she got in on the list due to the party vote and then left the party mid-term to go independent & then form her own party. When she got elected onto the list she was also a candidate for the Te Tai Rawhiti electorate where she only got fourth with 5% of the total vote. List MP”s under MMP should have no personal mandate considering they only make parliament due to a vote for their party, its leader and it’s policies.

    Though I know some on here disagree once a maximum amount of list MP’s is met for any one party (say 7 list MP’s) the remainder should be turned into a number of parliamentary votes for the leader of that party/the party itself to use as they wish. This would reduce the amount of deadbeat list MP’s (and reduce costs on the taxpayer) clogging up parliament which struggles to attract our best people in the first instance.

    The threshold for entering parliament should also be reduced to 4%.

    • Blazer

       /  August 31, 2017

      quote of the day…from right wing commentator CS.a.k.a-Whaleoil..

      ‘[Now, can we please dispense with all the myths, ideas and conspiracy theories. You need to understand that Bill English’s government is rotten from the top down.’

      • Gezza

         /  August 31, 2017

        It would be the quote of the day if it was:
        1. True, and
        2. Was talking about his own website team.

  9. Blazer

     /  August 31, 2017

    regurgitating the usual….’ delivers death, broken economies, poverty and repression’…..take a look at the U.S.A ….highest incarceration rates in the world,ghost towns,food stamp culture,ludicrous gun laws,and a militarised Police force with racial bias.

    • God you are a caricature Blazer… love it! “USA BAAAAAAAAAADDDDDDDDDDDD…. why…. caaaaaaaannnnnnn’tttttt ….. you …..seeee ittttt……!!!!”

      No rebuttal of the point re the sample given of deep socialist countries with appalling records – just a look over there remark….. brilliant!

      • Blazer

         /  August 31, 2017

        selective ..Mao is long gone,what about China today?PP long gone…was the Confederate Govt of the South…repressive?Think before you make ..generalisations FFS.

        • Hahahahaha… don’t like being reminded of where you ideology leads ay Blazer? But happy to trot out all the free market problems…

          Suck it up princess – cause you sure like dishing it out….

      • Gezza

         /  August 31, 2017

        What to do, what to do 🤔

        Wait ..

  10. Brown

     /  August 31, 2017

    I’m of a view that the problems with politics became entrenched when having one’s nose in the trough became a career that paid well and the door opened to the social engineering types who previously couldn’t afford to give up the menial work they were suited to.

    I think the system is terminally ill and eventually we will face disaster because personal accountability for decisions (apart from those that criticise the current narrative) is being removed. We have to have ethics and a moral compass to underpin democracy but neither are obvious.

    • Anonymous Coward

       /  August 31, 2017

      “problems with politics became entrenched when having one’s nose in the trough became a career that paid well”

      So it became a problem when Whale Oil told you it was?

      • PDB

         /  August 31, 2017

        I would have thought ‘nose in the trough’ is a fairly common expression, not a distinctly Whale Oil one? Unless I’m missing the point you are making?

        • Anonymous Coward

           /  August 31, 2017

          I’ve always seen it as a ‘Slaterism’.

        • Anonymous Coward

           /  August 31, 2017

          He didn’t invent the word ‘feral’ either but he has influenced what it has come to mean, and how it is used in 21st century NZ – especially when used on NZ blogs.

          • Gezza

             /  August 31, 2017

            Nah. Nose in the trough is so old & well-worn it’s petrified.
            Slater using it only putrifies it.
            Still used by plenty of people who’ve never heard of the fkr.

            • Anonymous Coward

               /  August 31, 2017

              I read it as ‘trougher’.

            • Gezza

               /  August 31, 2017

              Ok. Your perception is distorted, for a start, because it actually four words – but you’re seeing it as one word, which isn’t spelled like any of them.

              Secondly, “trougher” is probably older than the woodlouse too.

      • Brown

         /  August 31, 2017

        No. I have read some old NZ history and can see the development for myself. I’m not a consistent Slater fan despite visiting WO.

  11. sorethumb

     /  August 31, 2017

    perhaps the number 1 problem is lack of clarity. We have too much “brighter future”
    Odds are there are less than 1000 people who know what this country needs. Take the Savings working Group (for instance). My guess is that whatever is out there is constrained by the media and the media is controlled by ideologues and vested interests.

  12. Is democracy in crisis because trust in politicians is falling or is it something more pervasive then that? Your blog makes some really valuable points about how this erosion of trust is affecting democracy and becoming a much more widely held belief.

    We agree with you that this problem has a lot more to do with symptoms then root causes as many experts and pundits are positing. The remedies you raise are valuable however how do you believe solutions such as more self-monitoring within the media can be implemented? Do you also believe that these solutions will effectively enrich democracy participation from young people who across the world are switching off from democratic engagement?

  1. Is our democracy in crisis? — Your NZ – NZ Conservative Coalition