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Strengthening Democracy - Background

The initial idea behind this project was to encourage our young people to think about our democracy, threats to its integrity, solutions to those threats and to encourage participation in our democratic processes.  To begin with, a background paper drafting a number of ideas was undertaken. This is below.

Threats to democracy principally brought about through use and abuse of the Internet and voter apathy

1.  Foreign interference

Some foreign states specialise in interfering in democratic elections in other countries.  This may happen here but if it does, we do not seem to be made properly aware of it.  No doubt the government has protections in place to minimise the sort of interference but again people may not be properly aware of this either.


2.  Social media

Facebook, Google and no doubt other like enterprises and even countries gather a lot of information on individuals which makes it possible to influence/manipulate people into doing things that they wouldn’t otherwise do. 

Cambridge analytica specialised in the science of targeting a small number of swinging voters in key marginal seats to swing the outcome of an election or plebiscite.  Australians Crosby and Texter were early specialists in the space.  It is a growing “science”.

In a liberal democracy if one party makes extensive use of social media to further their electoral cause it seems likely that all parties will be drawn into doing the same.

3.  The danger of leaders going too far – idealism and the corresponding rise of extremist leaders

My concern is if the electorate feels its voice is not being heard and its needs are not being met how will this play out?  Where individuals feel they have lost control of the political environment then the electorate is vulnerable to a fear-based leader.  For example some people will see former President Trump, the former Philippine President and the current Brazilian President in this light. In New Zealand, in the normal course of events, our 3 yearly elections have a balancing effect.

4.  Apathy

The lack of engagement by voters, particularly young voters, is 1 of the biggest dangers.  The low turnout in the local body elections in 2022 are an example of this.

5.  Funding of political parties

Anonymous funding of political parties is obviously a concern.  It can lead to people being influenced by funding rather than the merits of a particular issue.  We have recent legislation being passed in New Zealand to encourage transparency which seems to be important.  Perhaps that has addressed the problem?

6.  Protecting our treasures

We have a great country with a wonderful democracy.  When you look around the world most people don’t have the benefit of a democracy like ours.  It is important to protect and preserve what we have

7.  How to do this

With traditional New Zealand media if untruths are told you can appeal to the appropriate oversight body such as the Press Council.  We have laws to protect people’s reputations based on the civil remedy of defamation.  We have a criminal law protecting people from criminal libel.

The Internet seems to avoid our traditional protections.  More and more people rely on the Internet as the source of knowledge.  Many Internet sources are anonymous.  Lies can be told and repeated unchecked.  It’s hard to sue an overseas (possibly anonymous) source for defamation.

So perhaps we need checks and balances that recognise modern methods of communication and social media knowledge sources.

8.  Freedom of speech

Freedom of speech is also to be treasured as part of our protection and it is also a fundamental right.  But there will need to be careful thoughtful protections built around it to deal with the dangers that are emerging.  As is often the case it’s a question of balance.


9.  Independent Electoral Review

The government recently established an Independent Electoral Review Panel to review our Parliamentary Electoral Legislation.  It has been asked to advise government on how to ensure New Zealand continues to have an electoral system that amongst other things is fair and produces a representative parliament.  It is to encourage electoral participation.  It is to deliver its recommendations to the government at the end of 2023.

Some of the topics mentioned on the electoral review website include:

  • voting age

  • political donations

  • voting methods

  • Māori electorates

  • Treaty of Waitangi

Despite the official closing date for submissions being 14 November 2022 I am hopeful that the work of the colleges can still be put before the independent electoral review.


10.  Moving on

There are some obvious practical areas to focus on which can only do good.  How do we improve the number of eligible voters who participate in the electoral process?  In particular, how do we help establish a habit of voting in young people?  We must ask young people particularly college leaders what they recommend we do to improve our electoral process and better safeguard it?

Should the Electoral Commission have a greater education function?

I think this is an area where we should be doing a lot more and I am hopeful that particularly the participation issue can be addressed on a broad front.

Peter Cullen

October 2022

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