In Search of Equilibrium


In Search of Equilibrium


As the current Labour government rushes through legislation under urgency to remove the provision of binding referenda in setting up Maori Local council wards, the narrative is, as usual, unsurprising.

The 2002 legislation allowed "a tiny minority of voters, just 5%, to force a public referendum and veto council's decision".  Of course omitting that the referendum requires a majority vote to be successful.  Simon Bridges MP for Tauranga, proud of his Maori heritage said it was insulting 'to suggest he, and other Maori needed special treatment' to gain seats of representation.  Willie Jackson admonished Bridges for not being Maori enough in his campaign to win the Tauranga seat.  Maori Party co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer has simply labelled anyone who dares oppose race-based representation as a racist.  (Stuff)

To live in a society with total freedom would be to live with anarchy and the probable disorder of a lawless society, because any laws made will in some way restrict the freedom of the people.  To create a purely egalitarian society, there would be so many restrictions placed upon the people, that enforcement of them would create a totalitarian regime.   Winston Churchill once said, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.’  While democracy is not a perfect form of governance, it seeks to balance the principles of equality and freedom for its citizens.  Removal of freedom under any explanation is still removal of freedom, even with the questionable creation of equality.

Freedom can be seen in two ways, negative freedom which upholds negative rights, the right not to be coerced, impinged upon or killed, and positive freedom, freedom to act, which upholds the right to move freely, to attain goals, to associate and join groups.  Positive freedom argues to achieve freedom people need to be provided with resources and skills to be able to choose to participate (2). Leslie Lipson (3) states that ‘we can enjoy negative freedom when we are not subject to someone else’s compulsion – only then can we exercise positive freedom’.  Without freedom, people have nothing.

The basis of freedom in democratic society is political freedom.  In New Zealand the political freedom of citizens is protected by the Bill of Rights Act 1990 giving protections such as, section 12; the right to vote in a free and secret ballot, section 19; the right to freedom from discrimination, section 17; the right to freedom of association, and section 14; the right to freedom of expression (4). This gives New Zealand citizens political rights to participate in the constitutional elements of democracy, to belong and contribute as members of a democratic community, the right to stand for political office and the right to disagree with Government, to express those disagreements with protest or dissidention. 

The Bill of Rights Act 1990, section 12; gives citizens the right to vote by equal suffrage, all citizens regardless of wealth or social standing have the same number of votes and all votes are of equal value.  This political egalitarianism gives all citizens equality of opportunity in terms of political power and influence in an election and is a basis for New Zealand’s democracy.  Equality of opportunity, also known as procedural equality, is the level playing field from which all citizens can choose to, or not, act.  Equality of opportunity is ensured when negative rights are upheld for all citizens by the governing state.  Critics of this approach argue that equality cannot be achieved merely upholding negative rights, that to achieve true equality, disadvantage must be removed to create equality of outcome.  The former National party leader Don Brash in his often labelled 'racist' 2004 Orewa speech on Nationhood, spoke of ‘one standard of citizenship for all’, upholding the idea that equality of opportunity is egalitarianism, because to give advantage to one group will disadvantage another group, curtailing their freedom.  Margaret Clark argues that ‘whenever a state goes down that route, liberty is necessarily compromised’.  Restricting freedom of a group or individual is the end of their democracy, the constrained become disenfranchised.

Democracy relies on competitive elections, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, right to petition, and the right to protest.  It also relies on rules to govern the electoral process, to keep everyone honest and to give candidates and parties an equal chance to gain a mandate into office. 

The basic human rights that democratic government must protect are the twin pillars of democracy, freedom and equality.  Finding the balance between the two can be achieved by upholding the freedoms and negative rights that provide equality of opportunity for all citizens. This will allow all citizens have the power to participate fully in the democratic system, a system that only works democratically with full participation.  Anything else is undemocratic.



Archives New Zealand, ‘Women’s Sufferage Petition’,, (29 March 2008).

Brash, Don, ‘Nationhood’, Orewa Speech,, March 2004.

Cheyne, Christine and O’Brien, Mike and Belgrave, Michael, ‘Social Policy in Aotearoa New Zealand: A Critical Introduction’, Third Edition (Australia: Oxford University Press, 2005).

Clark, Margaret, Our Country: Our Choice, Central Government in the Future. Futures Thinking Aotearoa,, 1 April 2008

Duncan, Grant, Society and Politics: New Zealand Social Policy, (New Zealand, Pearson Education New Zealand, 2004).

Heywood, Andrew, Politics, Second Edition, (Hampshire, Palgrave Macmillan, 2002). 

Ministry of Culture and Heritige, Gleneagals Agreement: 1981 Springbok Tour,, (29 March 2008).

New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990,, (29 March 2008).

Palmer, Geoffrey Palmer, Unbridled Power: An Interpretation of New Zealand’s Constitution and Government, Second Edition, (Auckland, Oxford University Press, 1987).

Wilson, Margaret, ‘Political Parties and Participation’, in Simpson, Alan, (ed), The Constitutional Implications of MMP, (Wellington, Victoria University of Wellington, 1998).








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