Karl du Fresne on democracy


I’ve always thought democracy is a pretty good sort of system. Not perfect, of course, but as Winston Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

In other words, it’s the best we’ve got until somebody comes up with something better.

Well, it seems someone has. In Masterton, of all places.

You probably thought, like me, that democracy works because it gives us the right to choose our representatives and to get rid of them if we don’t like them.

But Masterton District Council has decided that’s flawed, or at least not appropriate for Masterton. The council wants to improve democracy by appointing iwi representatives with voting rights to two of its standing committees.

Yes, you read that correctly. They would be appointed, not elected. But like elected councillors they would have the right to vote on matters affecting the rest of us.

Whatever this is, it is not democracy. It’s something else for which we don’t yet have a term.

Perhaps we could call it part-democracy or near-democracy or almost-democracy until someone comes up with something better.


I don’t want to sound alarmist. The appointment of iwi representatives to two council committees isn’t likely to be the end of the world.

The genuine councillors – the ones actually elected by the people of Masterton – would still be in the majority. And it’s possible that iwi representatives would make a sincere attempt to make decisions in the best interests of the entire community. But that’s hardly the point. 

Democracy is a package deal. It doesn’t come with optional extras that you discard if they don’t happen to suit you. And the danger is that once you start subverting democratic principles, even with the best of intentions, anything becomes possible.

So very well said.

If there’s no longer a rigid rule that the people who make decisions on our behalf must be elected by us and accountable to us, reformers will soon find other ways to “improve” the system – all in the interests of fairness, of course.

This is how democracy gets undermined – by inches and by degrees. Ultimately someone might decide that voting is a clumsy and inconvenient process and that democracy would be much more efficient if we got rid of it altogether. It’s happened in plenty of other places.

Sadly it has.

Is it possible that 100 years hence, queues of international visitors will line up outside Masterton Town Hall to gaze admiringly at a plaque that says: “Masterton – the Place Where They Fixed Democracy”? Somehow I doubt it.

I understand the worthy intent behind what the Masterton council is doing. In an ideal world there would be more Maori in local government. But it’s fanciful to interpret the Treaty of Waitangi as imposing an obligation on councils to provide seats for unelected iwi representatives.

You can be fully supportive of having more Maori involved in local government, but also think this is a terrible idea.

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