“Democracy is the worst form of government,… except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”
Fellow toastmasters and welcome guests
This quote from Winston Churchill evinces our love/hate relationship with voting and government. There are many forms of governance with various levels of participation from Anarchy to Dictatorship. Our form of representative democracy gives us very little control over decision making but it has one big advantage. The possibility, probability and perhaps even certainty of regular and orderly changes of government. Because there is nothing that keeps a government in check more than knowing that sooner or later they will become the opposition.
Over the next 7 weeks we will have the chance to decide who we want to govern us for the next 3 years. This is our only chance to have our say, because after the voting is finished we go back to being passive recipients of government decision making – good or bad, competent or incompetent, benevolent or malevolent. So how can we decide? Are we hard-headed rational actors, or do we decide based on feelings? Do we like a party’s policies or do we even trust them to follow through? Do we know who is on a party’s list, or do we just vote for the leader?
Restructuring has hit parliament and the MPs are having to re-apply for their jobs. The roles are open to anyone. Now the parties and MPs are presenting their CVs and turning up for job interviews. It is a 3 year contract with likely extension if they show competence. The unsuccessful candidates will have to wait another 3 years to apply. Anyone who has served on an interview panel will know what to look for in a candidate, and what can go wrong if you choose the wrong person.
Democracy is hard! It is up to us to put some effort into the choice. If we go into the ballot box with no idea how we will vote then we are failing in our duty. We have not prepared enough and are likely to make an ill-considered choice. If we don’t bother to vote because we can’t put any attention to considering the options then we deserve any negative consequences. We have seen overseas with Brexit, Duterte, and Trump that elections can make a big difference. We have also seen elections where there is no real difference as the ruling party doesn’t allow it. Luckily in New Zealand none of the choices are likely to lead to disasters, but the parties vary enough that voting does make a difference. So it is worth our while putting some effort into the choice.
As toastmasters we should be listening to politicians’ speeches and evaluating them. We want to know how they are trying to manipulate us. What rhetorical devices are they using? Any awkward alliterations? Advertorial style metaphors? Hyperbole, puffery and exaggeration? Do they repeat themselves again and again and again and again? Is understatement likely? I think not!
Are they appealing to our minds, our hearts, our souls or our stomachs? Or do they appeal to baser emotions: fear, envy, greed or hatred? Are they concealing something? Are they trying to fire us up? Or put us to sleep? We should also be thinking about our listening skills. Are we hearing what they are saying, what they are implying, or what they are keeping silent about?
Do we remember what the government promised 3 years ago? Have they delivered? What are they promising for the next 3 years. What are the other parties promising? Do we trust them to deliver? What happens if circumstances change? (a war, a recession, an earthquake perhaps), who do we trust to be capable, flexible and honest?
I urge you to go out and listen to the candidates, read their manifestos, read the commentaries in the newspapers and talk to people you trust. You should have the opportunity to meet your local candidates. Go out and engage them in conversation. Most of them will be quite different in person to what you see on TV. Ask them the hard questions. Listen carefully and respectfully. No matter whether you like their policies, pretty much all MPs go into parliament wanting to make things better.
You might choose to stay away from political blogs. They will typically be biased in favour of or against some parties. The comments could make you want to give up the thought of voting. The newspapers, radio and TV DO have some bias. Try to recognise bias, and think around it, but also remember that it might be you that is out of step! There are good objective and well researched commentary sites, but really you should go to the sources (the candidates and the parties) and make up your own mind.
If you find someone or some party that you really want to be elected then think how you might help them. Consider joining the party or donating. Volunteer to help them with mailing or door knocking. Put up a sign on your front lawn and be prepared to talk to your neighbours about your choice. As a member of a party you get to do some work, but you also get to have some say in what gets done. Use your toastmasters’ leadership skills and join the local committee. Or better still use the speechmaking skills and become a candidate.
Most of us will not display that level of commitment to any one party or candidate. But still we can carefully weigh up the differences. Is it tax cuts or welfare? Business or environment? Regulation or deregulation? The differences are not always clear, but we should be clear about what we are looking for to be able to choose the best representative for us.
How do the promises of the various parties match our own morals and philosophies? What have they done in the past that has gone well or badly? All of us will have our own core concerns. Do we value honesty or are we prepared to accept being lied to for the sake of getting things done? Do we value openness in government or do we accept that the government knows best and doesn’t need to share the details.
Some people will say that it doesn’t matter who we vote for, because they are all liars, and they all put themselves first. “Don’t vote it only encourages them” some might say. But I think this is cynicism and just encourages the worst practices. While none are perfect, there are differences and you can choose to vote for the ones that best match your values. Competence and ability are required, as also are passion and respect.
In New Zealand we get two boxes to tick. One vote for the local candidate should go to the best candidate, regardless of what party they come from. Feel free to split your vote if you want! The second tick is for the party. Remember that the party vote determines who is the government, so be careful who you give that to.
You may decide that no party or candidate is worthy of your vote. Think carefully about this. We don’t expect politicians to be perfect. They are human after all. If you object to them all then perhaps you may choose not to vote. I would recommend going into the voting booth and writing “no confidence” on the paper. It will be recorded as an “informal” vote. It doesn’t count. It will go into the same box as those who intend to vote, but make some mistake. However it is recorded, and is not the same as just not bothering.
In other countries, in other times people have had to fight for democracy. In other countries, in other times ballots are accompanied by bullets and voting is dangerous, yet still people risk turning out to vote. In other countries, in other times people have carelessly given up the right to vote and then suffered the consequences. We are lucky. We can vote for the candidate of our choice without any risk to our safety or employment. Not voting would be disrespectful to our predecessors who fought for our rights and to those in other countries who would love to have our power.
The election is not really for the candidates. It is about us and our chance to influence the next few years in New Zealand. This is our chance to make a difference. The candidates are working hard to be noticed by us. The promises, the candidate meetings, the debates, the hoardings, the pamphlets, the kilometers of travel, the door knocking is all for us. They may ignore us for the rest of the 3 years, but now is our time.
Remember! We each have one vote, so use it and use it wisely.