A few weeks ago, a parliamentary select committee considered a bill that will merge RNZ and TVNZ. This development serves as a reminder that the fourth estate is a critical element of a healthy democracy.
Despite the anchoring effect such a merger will have on the future of our media and thus our society, the underlying rationale, particularly in the face of a rapidly changing information environment, is unclear. It should act as a trigger for deep thinking about the shape of New Zealand’s democracy at a time when, as in other countries, trust in our institutions has been declining. And this is made even more timely by the start of a rather compressed consultation on some aspects of electoral reform,
Paradoxically, our democracy is both robust and fragile. Robust because we have had high trust in governmental institutions relative to other societies. This resilience is boosted by a desire for social cohesion – something that cannot be taken for granted in a world where trust in institutions and elites has been compromised by disinformation, inaction on many issues, a shift towards autocracy, and the rise of affective polarisation and personality politics.
But our democracy is also relatively ‘shallow’, and that makes it vulnerable.
New Zealand has many difficult issues to resolve. How, for instance, will we break cycles of intergenerational disadvantage? What will be the long-term outcomes of our grand national experiment of developing a multicultural society with its bicultural underpinnings? And what does Te Tiriti mean for every citizen in 2022? How do we balance top-down governance from central government with the desire for more local control?
In a world stressed by climate change, how do we adapt environmentally, economically and socially? How can we fix an education system that is clearly not delivering for all, and how should we think about and address a pandemic of youth mental health concerns? And what’s our place in a world of rapidly changing technologies?
These questions merit deep discussion that must be respectful, not polemical, to find consensual approaches that extends beyond the political cycle.
Answering them requires all institutions of democracy — including the media, think tanks, an intellectually free academia and civil society — to work well and be prepared to change with the circumstances.
Yet we have seen a shift away from civil debate towards ad hominem attacks, cancel culture and intolerance of discourse just when we need it more than ever.
Democracy is an evolving experiment in sustaining cohesive large-scale societies. The only real alternative is autocracy. In principle, democracy assumes there is accountability between citizens and those who govern, an accountability which is guaranteed by elections, and depends on a robust parliamentary opposition, and a robust and trusted fourth estate.
Transparency and truth are crucial, otherwise citizens rapidly become cynical and distrustful. So too is acceptance of rules about how citizens – whose circumstances, values, interests and world views differ – make decisions without overriding any group’s rights and interests.
The rise of disinformation and misinformation challenge these core attributes. When trust is undermined, information is not transparent and “dialogue” becomes tokenistic, it is easy for voters to assume the electoral system is a sham and the essence of democracy is lost.
Politics is vulnerable to such corrosive effects, as is the fourth estate, where commercial imperatives can lead to the conflation of information and entertainment and the promotion of controversy at the expense of facts.
Polarisation rather than consensus follows, a phenomenon we observe in the Northern Hemisphere and from which we are not immune, characterised by party loyalties trumping policy and stoking antagonism. We saw possible signs of that in the parliamentary protests earlier this year. And most of all, civil discourse on complex matters is replaced by polemic and personal attack. Genuine discourse on complex and difficult matters is thus avoided or rejected.
Although we may not be far down that path, we are at risk, which could be worsened if the outcome of the proposed RNZ-TVNZ merger reduces the independence of the public media. The vulnerability is increased by weak parliamentary conventions.
Our select-committee process is limp compared with other parliamentary systems, and partisan predictability is much more common than any drive for accountability. Further, the controlling party can and does block appropriate requests to support accountability from the minority at select committees. The lack of an upper house, which in some parliamentary democracies has a strong and independent revisory and evaluative role, makes New Zealand quite distinctive.
The small size of our Parliament means backbenchers cannot afford to offend their party hierarchy for fear of crimping their prospects. And in contrast to some parliaments, our party whips are adept at silencing in the House the diverse views hopefully heard in the caucus room.
This means the outcome of virtually all legislative process is predetermined and little negotiation takes place except at the technical margins, especially if there has been no prior stakeholder engagement. Today, such consultation is often abbreviated and tokenistic even when the atter is crucial.
The use of green and white papers to signal strategic directions before legislation is developed is largely missing despite their value in complex policy formulation.
The net effect is that we elect a strong Cabinet every three years that has enormous authority and little accountability beyond the electoral cycle, parliamentary processes remain weak, and the fourth estate is increasingly compromised by pressures of platform and social-media-based advertising. All this serves to weaken our democracy.
The balance between central government and local government has shifted in one direction at the very time citizens want greater agency, and that means greater reflection on the role of local government and its relative authority. There are solutions, from institutional change and the greater use of new methods of consultation, participatory and deliberative democratic techniques and a conscious effort to enhance parliamentary processes and increase accountability. Deeper reflection is needed on our democratic future and its institutions.
We must not be complacent if we are to sustain a cohesive approach to the future.