How Healthy Is Our Democracy? Otago Academics Make Their Arguments

We are entering an age of radical politics, where extremism on the left and right will become mainstream and authenticity of personality will trump good policies in the hearts of voters, according to a panel of political experts which spoke at the University of Otago public lecture “How Healthy is our Democracy?”.

The panel was made up of former University of Otago Politics Professor Dr Bryce Edwards, ODT Political Editor Dene MacKenzie, Tree La Rooy of the Tertiary Education Union, and UN Youth Otago President Esme Hall.

Dr Edwards was bold in his assertions and not afraid of making predictions. He spoke of a “zeitgeist of radicalism” which he believed our culture was experiencing, pointing not only to the election of Donald Trump but also the relative successes of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. “We’re seeing policies which until very recently wouldn’t have been touched by mainstream parties getting real support.” He didn’t think there had been any major swing to the left or the right, but rather against the safe, PR-driven conservatism of the past couple of decades. He was particularly impressed by Meteria Turei’s admission that she had misled WINZ over her living situation while on the benefit, saying that even though it was essentially admitting to an illegal act, voters had started to show positive response to authenticity and honesty, anything that doesn’t sound overtly ‘political’. “It’s the most interesting thing I’ve seen the Green Party do, maybe ever”. He said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets a very good response from it”. He was also bullish about Winston Peters and New Zealand First’s outsider appeal and racial populism. In a recently leaked Labour Party poll, NZ First registered at 14 percent. Dr Edwards says he “wouldn’t be surprised if they end up even higher than that by the end”.

Dene MacKenzie, ODT, spoke about the rise of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’, two common attacks coming from the Trump camp. He said that, in terms of genuine fake news made up by fake online organisations, New Zealand was not at much risk. “We’re just not a big enough market to make it a worthwhile industry.” But he was concerned about the frequency with which politicians, namely Winston Peters, were personally attacking reporters (something Critic has experienced in recent weeks), as well as the control parties were seeking to have over journalists. “Media organisations are getting smaller, meanwhile the PR industry is growing. It’s making it harder for reporters.” He then proceeded to get in an argument with an audience member who was convinced that the “neoliberal agenda was slowly destroying the future of this country,” which he refuted by repeatedly (and falsely) claiming that New Zealand had the lowest unemployment in the OECD (latest data from Q1 2017 has us 10th).

The lecture concluded with a discussion driven by Esme Hall and Tree La Rooy about the concerning lack of political awareness among young people, and why high schools need a greater level of civic education to ensure the engagement of young voters.

This article first appeared in Issue 16, 2017.
Posted 10:48am Sunday 23rd July 2017 by Joel MacManus.