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Democracy in decline

05/01/2016

At the end of every year, people start to reflect on the year that was; their accomplishments, regrets, knowledge learnt and hopes for the year ahead. I have seen a number of best books of the year lists but thought I would offer you a short synopsis on some of the books I read in 2015. Of course this should have actually been posted in 2015 but I have taken some holiday after working as a writer for stoppress.co.nz and I am also afflicted by procrastination.

This blog has indeed roamed far and wide from its original purpose which was to review interesting books (interesting to me anyway). As I look back at my posts from this year (23 in total), there were two film reviews, two cricket posts, comment on the Chinese political system, comment on free speech and a mere three proper book reviews.

This brief post will not redress that now glaring imbalance but I should like to share some short thoughts on other books I have read this year which I shall do in a series of posts. This is an eclectic list and does not represent the best books I have read but memorable ones. Here is the first post which I share below.

Democracy in Decline by James Allan

I actually attended a launch of sorts for this book by University of Queensland Law professor James Allan back in 2014. Allan charts the decline of democracy in practice across the western world as it has been hollowed by supranational governance (think the European Union), legal judgements usurping majority will and bills of rights which curb democratic decision making.

Allan’s case studies are the five anglosphere liberal democracies: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. This is itself is problematic, as Allan acknowledges, because these countries do not start from the same base when it comes to delegated majoritarian decision making. The competitive federalism of the United States where power was delegated to the states (which de Tocqueville rather admired) stands in contrast with the centralised political system of the United Kingdom where power emanates from Westminster. Furthermore, the United States operates as a “representative” democracy (read limited) because the constitution was afforded the status of supreme law early in the nation’s history.

Allan makes the interesting observation that, while historically it was thinkers of the right who feared democracy would result in a “tyranny of the majority” as John Stuart Mill so famously said, it is now the left who appear no longer to support the democratic model of delegated collective decision making. He cites the case of gay marriage which was rejected by referendum in California only to be legalised by the supreme court. Over the last 18 months, we have seen how the issue of same sex marriage has played out in different jurisdictions with different processes employed; in socially conservative Ireland where the Catholic church is believed to hold considerable sway a full plebiscite referendum was held where the legitimacy of same sex marriage under the eyes of the law was approved, while in New Zealand democratically elected representatives passed by majority vote such legislation. Meanwhile, in the United States, a divided Supreme Court passed same sex marriage by ruling by 5 to 4 that the constitution afforded the right of same sex couples to be married wherever they lived in the United States.

The three processes for collective decision-making are entirely distinct and reached in different manners. Ireland’s example is the most democratic with respect to majoritarian decision making of letting the numbers count, New Zealand’s was an example of decision making delegated to elected representatives (some may object to the democratic bonafides of New Zealand’s MMP system in which list MPs can appear to serve party apparatchiks rather than constituents but we can put this issue to the side at present).
Meanwhile, the legalisation of same sex marriage in the US was clearly the least democratic whereby nine individuals in robes decided for the populace as a whole (more precisely five robed people disagreed with four robed people) on this social question. I do not wish to enter into the merits of the question of same sex marriage as I personally see no strong reason to deny same sex couples the entitlement to marry should they wish to do so but the concern is with the process. There was a passionate outpouring at the time with many people signalling their moral approbation for the supreme court’s decision but not so much deeper reflection on what the decision meant for democratic decision making.

For those who passionately believe in the rightness of the cause of same sex marriage, there is a question to be asked, would you feel your rights had been respected were one of those robed men to have not seen the light and voted against the notion of same sex marriage?

Or any particular issue which you value; whether you are pro immigration or anti-immigration, or pro abortion or anti-abortion or hold some qualified opinion in between.

I maintain a churchillian least bad frame when it comes to democracy and although it hold it necessary for the  resolution as far as possible in an imperfect world of collective social problems I recognise the massive flaws of such as system where an individual has little incentive to inform himself about the issues of the day.

Allan is also highly critical of legislated bills of rights as a whole which, of course by their usual position as higher law*, reduce the power of decisions taken democratically.

A third means of democratic decline which Allan points to is national governments signing up to international treaties and policy coordination at the supranational level all of which reduce the power of a vote placed in a national election.

Allan considers the trend worst in the US because of the trend of decision making at the supreme court level and the UK to face problems because governance has been passed upwards, most notably, to the European Union.

All of this is interesting and I think worthy of serious consideration but towards the end of his rather short book –it only runs to 167 pages excluding suggested further reading, notes and an index – Allan becomes repetitive and I thought he laboured his argument a bit instead of persuading readers that action is needed.

Nonetheless, the book is thought provoking and I think worth a read if the issue of democratic decision making interests you.

*New Zealand does have a bill of rights act but it is merely ordinary law and no other law is to be struck down solely by virtue of being inconsistent with that piece of legislation. However, the Attorney General is required to report to Parliament when a piece of legislation appears to be inconsistent with the BORA.

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