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Democracy and the Internet

Paul Brislen, Editor. 14 August 2017, 8:41 am

It's a crazy time in politics not just locally but on a global scale.

While our own parties form and reform like blobs of mercury, in the US the political system built on antiquated expectations of how people live (not to mention where) has delivered falling voter engagement and a voter turn-out stuck at around 55%.

The UK is no better with the decision to leave the EU "won" by just shy of 52% of those who voted, but those voters only accounted for 27% of the voting population as a whole.

Clearly voters do not feel represented by the people they vote for and that has to be a concern for both governors and governed alike. If we aren't electing representatives who reflect who we are and what we want, why are we bothering to elect representatives at all?

Perhaps the lack of engagement isn't the fault of the representatives, of the parties or the pollsters. Perhaps the way we manage ourselves is changing and the need for representation isn't quite the same as it used to be.

Once, not so long ago, everyone worked for the government. If you were a teacher, a broadcaster, a pilot, a judge, a phone technician, if you built roads or supplied printing services odds were you worked for a government department of one form or another. That's all changed now. Privatisation saw to that, for better or worse.

And, in the era of price controls that saw parliament debate the price of butter (probably apocryphal, but certainly absolutely plausible), each year's Budget announcement drew hundreds of thousands of watchers, eager to see what the price of petrol, or alcohol, would do for the year ahead. These days, Budgets come and Budgets go and most people go on about their business uninterested and largely unaffected.

Add on top of that the feeling of disassociation that appears rife among younger voters and the lack of connection with an electorate that many have and we have to ask whether having a parliament and a body of representatives isn't going the way of having a monarch living on the other side of the world who does more than rubber-stamp decisions made at a local level.

Consider what happens when politicians start enacting laws that simply don't reflect the world around them. Take the Copyright Act and the wonderfully awful "debate" that saw MPs on all sides of the House demonstrate just how little they really understood what they were doing. If they don't understand that law and its impact on the public, what confidence do I as a voter have that they understand other laws and their impacts? I don't know enough about the health sector, for example, to really argue about any new legislation that is introduced - I have to trust my representatives are doing a good job. That trust, it seems, is wearing thin.

The role central government plays in our lives is increasingly less important and less vital, which begs the question, why bother with it at all?

Do we, in the 21st Century, really need to choose someone to represent us based on where we live, for a period of three years? Do we really need to outsource putting up our hands to one person for all decisions that will be made?

I took one of those online tests to determine my political views last week. Stripping out personality, I answered a series of questions that would put my views alongside stated policies from various parties. Did I want to see more migrants in New Zealand or fewer? What was my view on the death penalty? Did I think the retirement age should rise or remain the same, and so on.

I was surprised to see my views mirrored policies from a range of parties from both sides of the political divide. Not only was I a red-flag waving Communist but also a dyed-in-the-wool Conservative, albeit one with Libertarian tendencies.

How is one representative going to capture all of that and make a fist out of putting my case forward, let alone the thousands of constituents they represent? Simply put, they aren't and they don't even bother to try.

Which brings us to the internet.

One thing the internet does very well is cut out the ineffectual middle man. Just look at the industries that have been disrupted by the internet to see what I mean. Classified advertising was clumsy and oafish and difficult. Selling your bike? Put an ad in the paper but be aware that for months after you've sold it people will still be calling about it.

Or travel agents. Want to book a flight? I'm the expert who will help you, except I'm paid by one particular business group so will only tell you about my deals, not all of them.

Or real estate. Or journalism. Or taxis. Or accommodation.

The list is extensive and I can't help but wonder if we aren't going to add "politician" to it any time soon.

Wouldn't it make more sense to choose a politician who represented my views on an issue-by-issue basis? Or choose to hand over some of my voting to a representative when I don't care terribly much and keep my vote for my own use on issues I know something about or about which I give a damn?

We'll cover these issues and many others at InternetNZ's panel discussion, "Democracy and the Internet" on August 22nd at AUT's Wellesley Street campus. With me to debate the issues will be Nicola Kean, producer of TV's The Nation, Karl Kane, director of the Design+Democracy Project at Massey University and Ryan Ko, director, New Zealand Institute for Security and Crime Science at Waikato University.

Details on the event can be found here and a livestream will run on the night itself.


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