Democracy remains the sole form of good governance

First of Two Parts

I want to pay tribute to the continuous work, over a lifetime of 70 years, by my, your, our friend Sir Anand, as a lawyer, judge, ombudsman, and Governor General.

He is now Chairman of the Commonwealth Foundation.

When I reflected, in the cold light of day, on the topic I had given myself, I wondered who would want to hear about such an arcane and seemingly academic subject.

Therefore, it is perhaps more of a tribute to Sir Anand that you are here tonight, than anticipation of the Lecture itself.

I stand before you not as an academic, with countless papers published on the topic of democracy but as a practitioner of international politics for more than 25 years.

I have played an active part in many countries to develop, enhance and modify democratic institutions in order that people are well served by their leaders.

Despite its faults, I remain totally convinced that democracy, at its very best, is the only form of government that can truly deliver on its promises.

Oxygen needed

However, the problems besetting democracies in some parts of the world tells me it is now in need of a timely burst of oxygen.

Most of the countries with high standards of living are democracies and new countries (rather than old) have adopted democracy more readily.

Democracies tend not to go to war with each other.

Democracy comes in many shapes and sizes. It is not easily possible, nor desirable, to export democratic institutions from country to another.

However, the principles underpinning the various forms of democracy are the same.

Founding principles

The three foundation blocks of a democratic dispensation are universal – a legislature, an executive and a judiciary, independent of each other but interdependent.

The Legislature must be the result of regular free and fair elections, where all the people feel they are represented; it helps create a government, it makes laws, makes money available to the Government and debates the issues of the day.

The Executive that governs day-to-day must be answerable to the Legislature for everything it does.

The Judiciary, well versed in the law, has the role to interpret, arbitrate and uphold the rule of law as expected by the Legislature.

True Pluralism

This is what is meant by pluralism – there are choices and a wide spread of decision-making. It seems straightforward and commonsense to us in New Zealand but is not always so in other countries.

Why do democracies sometimes stumble?

Partly it is historical; there are many societies that have grown and developed over generations; societies that have always looked to one all-encompassing leader. That person may well have suited the times and challenges but would almost inevitably have been dictatorial.

True democracies may have a strong leader but not a dictator. They have other principal leaders, all of whom have a role within certain parameters.

These are the countries that believe in and practise the separation of powers, meaning that there are many leaders who have their own generally unimpeded responsibilities.

Subverting democracy

However, not all follow the rules, or they try to claim some cultural imperative not to.

In my experience, leaders, or an executive, who suppress the legislature, prevent it from meeting, undermine or fire independently elected citizens indiscriminately are not just breaching democratic principles, but destroying the real and fundamental foundations of their democracy.

A Legislature that refuses to let the government govern has the result, as often seen in Italy. You see this arise when you hear of a President or Prime Minister who fires a judge or fails to provide them with retirement benefits, or when judges decide that they disagree with the law and create their own. They are all guilty of subverting democracy.

These examples are real but extreme. But I even served a Prime Minister who pushed a Legislature to the limits of acceptability, which made some people happy and others embarrassed. When he lost a court case that was not a happy day.

These essential elements of democracy are not always appreciated by those who just want results.

People who call for the Government to ‘do something’ are often asking the Government to encroach on the freedom of others or just break the law.

First, let me make very clear that people who go into politics are not shrinking violets. They are ambitious, aggressive, determined and have a powerful urge to win.

Yes, they push the boundaries, take risks, and make huge demands on colleagues and civil servants. That will never change.

The discipline and challenge is to ensure that one dominant personality does not in the end make every decision as when things go badly and against them, as they always do with the swings of public opinion; they will pull down the pillars of the temple with them.

The other institutions have to be as strong and as resilient.

Looking around the world at those countries struggling to be democratic, the biggest failing is allowing a leader, President or Prime Minister to get away with dominating the other institutions to the point of their irrelevance.

You have it before, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Russia, Belarus, many Central Asian Republics, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, Equatorial Guinea, Fiji and Egypt to name a few.

(To be Continued)

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