Ardern’s government has failed to generate significant gains in growing trust
Max Rashbrooke is Senior Fellow at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University of Wellington-Te Herenga Waka. He is a regular opinion contributor for Stuff.
OPINION: In Jacinda Ardern’s deservedly speech at Harvard last week, the best line came when she spoke of the need to “ensure [that] difference, the space where perspectives, experiences and debates give rise to understanding and compromise, does not rather become division – the place of entrenchment, where dialogue drifts apart, solutions shatter and a rift between us becomes so deep that no one dares to cross side”.
The rhetoric was impressive, the sentiment commendable, the analysis precise. In particular, the Prime Minister once again drew our attention to the profound irresponsibility of social networks and algorithms that promote the most extreme contentpushing viewers toward division, not difference.
However, for all that, the address had at least one major flaw. It’s not just that the Prime Minister was vague about how these algorithms could be improved, or that his much-vaunted Christchurch appeal only slightly changed an internet still plagued by hate speech. The regulation of global social media giants, after all, is not something she controls.
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What’s happening in Ardern’s own backyard is more troublesome. Or rather, does not occur. Another theme of her speech was trust: the foundations of a strong democracy, she noted, include trust in institutions, experts and government – something that “can be built over the decades but destroyed in a few years”.
What has the Labor Party done, however, to significantly boost confidence in government? The Prime Minister’s own leadership has, I think, been largely positive for democracy, never more so than when it embraced kindness and shunned hate, following the attacks on the Christchurch mosque. But he’s a product of his own style and personality, and he’ll go with her when she leaves politics.
The deeper question is whether Ardern has changed anything in the structure of government that will outlast his term in parliament; if there is a lasting and substantial alteration of public processes. Unfortunately, I don’t think there is.
Noticeable, albeit minor, improvements can be reported. Many more Cabinet documents are published (which would be unfathomable in many other countries), as well as ministerial journals. This allows us to better understand how the government makes its calls and who influences its politicians.
Public Service Minister Chris Hipkins said his fellow ministers were showing up on selection committees far more than their national predecessors had. The promised creation of a register of the beneficial owners of New Zealand companies will also boost confidence in public life.
It’s not enough, however. Distrust of government – or anything else – may not be as bad here as it is in the United States, for example. There may not be a crisis. But we cannot be complacent, given the democratic deficits that exist and the growing attempts to instil mistrust, manifested most obviously by the occupiers of parliamentary grounds.
Reporters say government abuses of the Official Information Act – delaying answers to questions, redacting information and other subterfuge – are more serious than ever. Statistics purporting to show more requests being processed on time may simply reflect the fact that officials requested more extensions.
And all of this concerns only one half of the relationship between rulers and ruled: the dissemination of data from the former to the latter. More important, perhaps, is what goes in the other direction – the ability of the public to engage in shaping policy decisions that affect them.
A strong democracy can, as Ardern said in his speech, rely on “debate and dialogue,” but it also depends on political participation. If we want to build trust in government, that government needs to be much more open and responsive to input from citizens.
This would mean, at a minimum, involving citizens more in the design of the services they use, so that things happen with them rather than to them. Beneficiaries and frontline Work and Income staff should be able to co-design how welfare offices work, rather than having these things handed down to them from above.
It would also mean adapting foreign innovations like participatory legislation, in which ordinary individuals work together to suggest laws and even draft new constitutions. Or citizens’ assemblies, in which a demographically representative group of people are selected to discuss a major issue and make recommendations that define or influence policy. Or community-directed budgeting, in which residents hold public meetings to debate, and then directly allocate, a portion of a city’s infrastructure budget.
All these things are happening right now in other countries. They work, they deliver better service, and they build trust. They provide spaces for citizens with very different perspectives to meet, listen and learn, and find consensus.
Yet Labor had taken no notable steps in this direction before the pandemic, and there are few signs of greater momentum now. If the Prime Minister wants to leave a substantial legacy, that has to change.