Voting: a duty and a privilege

Tomorrow, New Zealanders will head to the polling booths to cast their votes in a general election, the outcome of which will determine the direction and emphasis of government in this country for the next three years.

For several weeks now the choice of that direction, with accompanying explanatory footnotes, has been the subject of competing campaigns run by the participating parties. The campaigning will continue until midnight tonight and thereafter cease, according to the requirements of the Electoral Act. Political commentary will resume only after 7pm tomorrow as the votes are counted and the country watches and waits to see how it has chosen, what potential alliances might be formed, which individual politicians are the surprise winners and losers, and what percentage of the public exercised their democratic voting rights.

It is one of the great ironies of life in Western liberal democracies that this latter right, fought for and fine-tuned over centuries, is taken so much for granted by so many people. In the Western world the general trend in election turn-outs is downwards, while the clamour in the developing nations - and those which have suffered under the oppressive regimes of dictators and military rule - is for meaningful suffrage. Indeed, the revolutions of the Arab Spring, still playing out on the squares of Cairo in Egypt, and on the bloodied streets of Syria, and which have seen the overthrow of Muammar Gadaffi in Libya and the deposing of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, are in essence the struggle for what is now regarded as an essential human right.

In New Zealand, the figures have trended downwards over the past 50 years - from a voter turn-out of 90.26% in 1960 to 79.46% in 2008. This is sometimes mirrored by an impatience with politicians of all colours that veers between disdain and contempt. It is true that in some of its "formal" manifestations the ceremonies, procedures and antics of MPs can range from the arcane to the juvenile. It is also true that, politics being the art of the possible, what is achieved in government often falls short of what is promised; and that self-promotion, self-confidence and the "gift of the gab" are requisite attributes.

Notwithstanding an entrenched "cultural" disposition towards their ilk, few genuinely understand the challenges and pressures under which modern members of Parliament work. Most must forsake a settled home life for a schizophrenic weekly commuting existence that sees them part of the time in Wellington and part of it in their home electorates. The toll on families, marriages and other relationships is considerable. So too is the strain imposed by modern technology and also by the 24-hour, seven-days-a-week, news cycle: for those in higher office there is no such state as "off duty". And despite the abiding cynicism of the day, most seem to enter the political realm out of a sincere concern to contribute. Their vision might be applauded by some and considered entirely wrong-headed by others, but this is the nature of mature democracies in which ideas and designs for collective living are put to the test.

This year's election is of particular import. The ballot papers tomorrow will offer more than simply a choice of parties and candidates; they will put to the public of New Zealand a referendum the outcome of which could change the entire voting system. It will seek a mandate on whether the public is content with MMP and, if not, which of a range of alternatives are preferred.

Should MMP obtain majority support, a review will subsequently be held to investigate and address some of its oft-identified shortcomings. If it does not, there will be a contest between MMP and the most preferred alternative in 2014.

This choice, as many commentators have observed, is in many respects more important than candidate or party: its ramifications could last a great deal longer and fundamentally change the nature of New Zealand's democracy. That said, voting in any election should be considered a duty and a privilege. Tomorrow provides the three-yearly opportunity to discharge both. Citizens get the government they deserve. Those who do not bother to vote can hardly complain later at the outcome.


Add a Comment


Our journalists are your neighbours

We are the South's eyes and ears in crucial council meetings, at court hearings, on the sidelines of sporting events and on the frontline of breaking news.

As our region faces uncharted waters in the wake of a global pandemic, Otago Daily Times continues to bring you local stories that matter.

We employ local journalists and photographers to tell your stories, as other outlets cut local coverage in favour of stories told out of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

You can help us continue to bring you local news you can trust by becoming a supporter.

Become a Supporter