Democracy: What is it good for?

9:54 am on 27 December 2017

By Brigitte Morten*

Opinion - Every political pundit is patting themselves on the back as they reflect on 2017. In January, they all correctly predicted that Winston Peters would be kingmaker, that Andrew Little was unlikely to last the year as leader of the Labour Party, and that National would continue to be popular.

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Photo: RNZ / Kate Newton

Of course, we have had a change in Prime Minister this year but even if we hadn't, all of the above would still be true.

Elections are expensive. The Electoral Commission spent approximately $35 million on the 2017 ballot, not to mention how much political parties spent on their campaigns. Did we actually need to go through all the effort of an election to get a new Prime Minister? Couldn't we have just randomly drawn the winning MPs with Saturday night's lotto draw and given Winston the Powerball numbers?

Bu there is more to an election than just choosing who the Prime Minister will be.

Every election makes us have a conversation about what we care about as a country. In 2017, we asked ourselves whether farmers were still the backbone of New Zealand or whether we should we be charging them more to make their livelihoods from the land.

We asked ourselves whether we were more concerned about those with no housing or those trying to buy their first home. And possibly the biggest question about our future identity: whether we care more about being known as an open and welcome country, or whether we want to keep New Zealand for those who are already here.

Elections also tell us more about the people making thousands of decisions every day on our behalf.

The new government has had about seven Cabinet meetings by now - what did they decide, in these mostly secret meetings, on our behalf? Elections force politicians to parade themselves for us to make judgements on who they are.

Metiria Turei chose this election to tell us that she had defrauded the taxpayer; Bill English chose to tell us he liked spaghetti on pizza; and Gareth Morgan chose to tell us that he thought it was okay to say that a female leader was just lipstick on a pig.

While you may think that these statements all have significantly different degrees of relevance to government decision-making, you can't underestimate how important they were in telling the electorate about the people who would be making decisions for them.

Elections make sure we are heard. Winston Peters would not have made the removal of the water tax a coalition negotiation item if there had not been such strong opposition from farmers.

In 2017 mental health also came to the forefront of the national conversation. In a non-election year, it is likely there still would have been pressure placed on the government to spend more in this area, and in the Budget announced in May the National-led government did. But the election deadline would have also played a role in the additional measures announced by National in August, and that putting more counsellors in schools was among the first of Labour's election promises.

Yes, elections cost a lot of money and time. They can also be annoying - it can feel like they take over the whole year, and that no one is talking about anything else, or about the right issues.

But the cost of not having them is much higher. You may head into summer looking forward to not talking about politics around the barbecue, but in 2017, at least we can say we know more about our politicians, got to have a say about where New Zealand is going and got to actually change policy.

Brigitte Morten was a senior ministerial adviser for the previous National-led government. Prior to that she was an adviser and campaign director for the Australia's Liberal Party.