Limit to participative democracy stems from character test

Jason Heale

Jason Heale
Auckland, September 19, 2022

“Democracy is not a spectator sport,” US filmmaker Michael Moore once observed, “it’s a participatory event.”

But who exactly should participate? And for what purposes? This is being debated at many levels in Aotearoa New Zealand, right now.

Why? White supremacist Philip Arps, who has done prison time for sharing Christchurch massacre footage on social media, put his name forward for election to the School Board at Te Arati College in Christchurch. There were calls to remove him from the list or to change the rules so that he would be ineligible.

Arps’ very distasteful candidacy coincided with local body candidates standing with visible (or concealed) links to Voices For Freedom, a group against vaccine mandates. Anti-misinformation organisation, FACT Aotearoa, identified around 5% of the candidates they “had concerns about.”

Baggy eligibility rules

Eligibility rules exist, but they are baggy. Arps’ jail time of 21 months was outside the two years that disqualifies him from standing.

“The criteria at the moment in this particular instance seems to fall woefully short of what the general population would expect,” the Secondary Principals Association President Vaughan Couillault told RNZ.

Yet tightening these strictures creates a de facto character test for prospective representatives. Questions quickly follow: Who decides what constitutes “good character?” How? What do we take into account? No one wants an Arps in charge, but whom might we be disqualifying?

The debate is not new.

The ACE (Administration and Cost of Elections) Electoral Knowledge Network (launched at the U.N. in 1998) has some suggestions for candidate criteria. These include the fundamental rights of all citizens: citizenship, being of age, and being in full possession of civil and political rights. They suggest that you may include other criteria, such as allegiance to certain societal norms or moral aptitude. However, they caution that “Any qualification, especially those based on … moral aptitude, and allegiance to societal norms, can be used in a discriminatory manner.”

They also suggest that these rules may have the opposite effect and exclude many people who would be willing and able to stand.

They warn, “In general, the imposition of too many requirements always carries with it the risk of creating legislatures or other elected bodies that are dominated by an unrepresentative elite.”

A character test

So, here is a character test of sorts for any proposed character test: Ask yourself, “Would I be happy with my ideological opposite wielding this power?”

The lesson from the school board election case is that we can trust the people. The vote went ahead. Arps got 2%, a total of 25 votes, over 100 votes less than the next closest candidate.

This is the point of representative democracy. Candidates put their names forward, share their views, and then the people decide who will represent them.

To complete the Michael Moore quote, we began with, “If we do not participate in [democracy], it ceases to be a democracy.”

Sure, we can change the rules of the game, but let us get as many people on the field as possible.

Jason Heale is Communications Manager at Maxim Institute, an independent think tank working to promote the dignity of every person in New Zealand by standing for freedom, justice, compassion, and hope.

 

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