Government in New Zealand
9 — New Zealand Democracy
New Zealand Democracy
In His Modern Democracies, Lord Bryce attempts a balance sheet of democracy in New Zealand. On the credit side he lists: Honest government without bribery or election frauds; a tolerably efficient administration; an upright and competent judiciary; a pure and efficient unpaid local government; good public order and a general respect for law; an adequate provision of instruction in public schools.
On the debit side he lists these points: The average of knowledge and ability in Parliament is not high; it wants dignity; its debates neither instruct nor inspire the people. Though there is no pecuniary corruption in public life, there is a great deal of jobbery, especially in efforts to gain the favour of the constituencies. Financial administration has been wasteful—here, as elsewhere, democracy is extravagant. The growth of population is slow, partly owing to the desire of the wage-earning classes to check immigration. Too much land is in the hands of large proprietors.
But, as Lord Bryce seems to perceive, such an assess-page 138ment has the serious defect of assuming connections which are dubious or do not exist. It can hardly be argued, for instance, that the general respect for law in New Zealand is a result of democratic government.
The confusion inherent in this approach can be avoided by remembering that democracy is a system of government; that is, it is a particular method of organising men and women for action in furtherance of their aims as members of a State. Democracy, from this point of view, is not something to which absolute values can be attributed. It is an instrument which should be tested by suitability for a purpose—and that purpose is to translate the will of the State into action. To pass judgment on democratic government in New Zealand it is therefore necessary first to know what conception the New Zealanders have of the nature and the proper functions of the State.
The State, like the horse, does not exist; it is merely a convenient name for phenomena having common characteristics. It is moreover, a name which conveys a more precise meaning to the student of international law than to the student of politics or sociology. For international law concerns itself with States only in so far as they have common external characteristics; States are equal and alike in international law for the same reasons as citizens are equal and alike in municipal law. But the State, from the point of view of politics and sociology, is something the significance of which varies widely in time and place. Less than a page 139century ago, the foremost English political thinker believed that the State had no legitimate concern with the health of citizens. In the seventeenth century in England, the right of the State to enforce religious beliefs and practices was fairly generally accepted. In the contemporary world, the disunity of mankind is expressed by the remarkable variety of forms and meanings which the State has assumed. In France, the State and the nation are co-extensive. 'L'état,' says Esmein, 'est la personnification juridique d'une nation.' In Russia, the State is identified not with a nation but with a class; it is, moreover, impermanent, a scaffolding to be demolished when the building of the communist society has been completed. In Germany, the State derives its purpose and authority from a theory of race. The Italian State is declared to be a 'moral, social, and political entity.' In Southern Ireland, the State is a political application of the social doctrines of the Catholic Church.
Since New Zealanders, like most British peoples, have never made their political ideas explicit in a constitution, and since their political discussions are never on the plane of abstractions, their ideas about the State and its functions must be inferred from what is done in the name of the State. An obvious but important fact is that New Zealand is a State because of the Pacific Ocean. The people of New Zealand acquired the right to govern themselves not because they had a collective personality which imperatively page 140demanded political expression but because it was impracticable to govern them efficiently from Sydney or London. And if the New Zealanders of to-day were to be evacuated to England, they would not constitute a self-conscious minority demanding its own political institutions. There is a developing national consciousness in New Zealand; but it has not been sharpened as in European countries by the proximity of another nation across land frontiers or as in the United States by the need to assimilate large racial and national minorities. Moreover, the great majority of New Zealanders do not think of themselves as an independent unit in international affairs. So closely are they tied by sentiment and trade to Great Britain that they regard their national interests as inseparable from the interests of the British Commonwealth.
Without any background of nationality, religion, race, or class to invest it with an emotional aura, the State in New Zealand excites no passionate loyalties and has no marked transcendence over local or sectional interests. That it has acquired wide powers and a multiplicity of functions has been due mainly to its superior resources of organisation, knowledge, and wealth. An old-established society is to a much larger extent than a new society self-governing and self-providing; its customs are a substitute for state law, its accumulations of individual and corporate wealth provide services which would otherwise be provided by the State, and its leisured classes develop public page 141functions which would otherwise be carried out by paid officials. In New Zealand, the strength of the State is a consequence of the weakness of social organisation. The State in New Zealand provided education only after the churches had shown themselves too poor in money and administrative resources to carry out the task; it provided a hospital service only after the voluntary effort had failed; it undertook the construction and operation of railways because private capital was unwilling to face the risks involved.
The development of the New Zealand education system throws much light on the place of the State in New Zealand social life. The first settlers in New Zealand, though they were fully conscious of the need to provide adequately for the education of their children, had no very strong views as to how this should be done. It was only after the churches had failed, and after the Church-State partnership in education had been found unworkable, that full responsibility for national education was vested in the State. Even then, it was thought desirable to temper the power of the State in this field by a generous delegation of authority to local boards. But the local boards, like the churches and for similar reasons, gradually yielded their powers to the State. To-day, school education is a highly-centralised state service; and even the university colleges are coming more and more under state control. But the State has provided education in the same spirit and for the same reasons page 142as it has provided old age pensions and hospitals. In Prussia, in France, and indeed in most European countries, state education systems originated in a conscious desire to strengthen the State itself, to inculcate in rising generations a particular view of the nature and ends of political organisation. In New Zealand, the state education system has never become an instrument of state power; the State provides the schools, but with the political and social implications of what is taught in the schools it concerns itself hardly at all.
From one point of view, it is not to be regretted that the State fills so small a place in the spiritual and emotional life of the New Zealand people and makes so small a claim on their loyalties. The world has enough and to spare of assertive nationalism and its political manifestations. If the State in New Zealand does not rise to metaphysical heights, neither does it shut out the sunlight. Nevertheless, it may be doubted whether the New Zealanders can much longer maintain the paradox of a State which, although it regulates economic life almost as minutely as the Italian State, makes no imperative claim on their allegiance. If, like the Athenians or the Chinese of antiquity, they regarded commerce as an occupation for the lower orders of society, if they gave the distribution of goods and services as little consideration as they give to the disposal of sewage or to the supply of water, then it would be possible to relegate control of their page 143economic affairs to an authority with no more right than a drainage board to deal with problems of faith and morals. But in New Zealand, where a man's social status and political alignment are mainly determined by what he earns and how he earns it, economic loyalties are basic loyalties. And the focus of these loyalties is outside the State—in the trade unions and in the various organisations which represent the capital-owning classes. The result is like a game of football in which the players on both sides are constantly appealing to a referee whose ruling they are nevertheless unwilling to accept as final and binding.
The history of the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act of 1894 is an example of the ambiguous attitude of economic interests to the State. That this act, at first regarded as an interesting but unpractical experiment, has survived for forty-five years goes to show that a majority of employers and employees are normally willing that the State should regulate the process by which wages and hours of work are fixed and should arbitrate between them when direct negotiation fails. But it is important to note that employers and employees use the conciliation and arbitration system established by the act as a matter of convenience and with reservations. Neither side has ever been willing wholly to abandon its freedom of action or to accept the State as the supreme authority in industrial disputes. It is for the individual unions to decide whether they will accept the procedure under the page 144Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act; and their attitude to the act, like that of the employers, depends on whether the awards of the Arbitration Court appear favourable to them. Both sides have at times condemned the court violently; both have at times warmly commended it. Moreover, it is often enough the case that a union, even after it has registered under the act, thereby legally binding itself to accept arbitration if conciliation fails, will use the strike weapon, secure in the knowledge that it would be both difficult and embarrassing for a government to enforce the law against it. State regulation of industrial disputes has been accepted mainly as a matter of convenience and not because of any widespread recognition of the view, set out in the Italian Charter of Labour, that such disputes, if allowed to reach the strike or lock-out stage, are a threat to the security and well-being of the State.
The attitude of New Zealanders to the State is not unlike the attitude implicit in the preamble to the American Declaration of Independence. The State appears to them, as it appeared to the American colonists, a convenient method of organising for the furtherance of certain objects, having no validity except in relation to those objects. The claims of the individual on the State are certain rights which he possesses as a member of society; the claims of the State on the individual are such as are necessary to enable it to safeguard these rights. The New Zea-page 145lander of to-day would probably agree to the proposition that the fundamental rights of the individual, as a member of society, are 'life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness'. But whereas the American colonists believed that the State, to secure these rights, needed only to maintain order, to organise defence against external enemies, to guarantee the equality of citizens before the law, and to guarantee freedom of speech and writing, the New Zealander of to-day has a vastly wider and more positive concept of the conditions necessary to enable the individual to enjoy his fundamental liberties. A declaration of the rights of man drawn up by the New Zealanders of to-day would include, besides such rights as are implied in the American Declaration of Independence, some such enumeration as the following:
The right to education according to capacity; the right to such medical and hospital treatment as is necessary to safeguard his health; the right to work at a reasonable rate of pay, or in default of this to be maintained by the State; the right to be maintained by the State in old age, sickness, or widowhood.
Now, the key to most of New Zealand's problems of government lies in this, that when the concept of the rights of the individual is thus enlarged, the State can no longer realistically be regarded (as it is traditionally regarded in English and American political philosophy) as an association for the negative purpose of removing hindrances to the individual's happiness.page 146
To the English democratic reformers of the early part of the nineteenth century, liberty meant political liberty and the task of safeguarding it was principally the task of preventing arbitrary action by the State. The English system of democratic government, in essence and in origin, is a method of restraining authority. The New Zealanders have long ceased to regard liberty as merely a right to free expression and an immunity from arbitrary restraint; they believe that liberty is as much restricted by ill-health, bad housing, poverty, and lack of education as by the abuse of political authority. In other words, they regard the liberty of an individual as a function of his general social environment. Or, to say the same thing in different words, the State in New Zealand is concerned not merely with the political liberties of the individual but also with his welfare.
Nor is this conception of welfare any static thing. The basic assumption of every political programme that has been put before the electors of New Zealand for more than half a century is the assumption that the material welfare of the nation and of its individual citizens can be progressively increased through the use of the power and resources of the State. No word occurs more frequently in political programmes than the word 'prosperity'; and a political party, seeking to justify its record in office, will always resort to statistics of wages, savings, export returns, and other accepted indices of national wealth. 'I will not be page 147content,' said one New Zealand cabinet minister recently, 'until every New Zealand working man has the standard of living of an American millionaire.'
This assumption of the State's obligation to maintain and extend the material wealth of the community is not, however, accompanied by any clear or consistent idea of the relations which should exist between the State and the agencies for the production of wealth. Power to increase the wealth of the community implies control over those agencies; but the New Zealanders are far from accepting this logic or from committing themselves to socialism except as a remote and shadowy objective. Their attitude is that an industry is best left alone if it is making profits and not conducting itself to the detriment of society; if it falls on evil times it may legitimately, and without prejudice, call on the State for assistance. To accept assistance from the State is not, however, to accept state control or ownership. Thus, the Primary Products Marketing Act of 1936, which provides for the payment of guaranteed prices for dairy produce, laid it down that the dairy farmers were to receive a return such as would enable them to live 'at a reasonable standard of comfort'. But against this clear statement of the obligations of the State to the dairy farmers was set no corresponding statement of the obligations of the dairy farmers to the State. Moreover, dairy farmers as a class have been reluctant to page 148admit that the acceptance of such a guarantee in any way compromises their economic independence.
This outline of the nature and functions of the State in New Zealand, brief as it is, shows how far the New Zealanders have advanced beyond the view, commonly held in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century, that the function of the State is primarily to protect the community against enemies from within and without and to guarantee to individuals certain rights and immunities. The State in New Zealand is now expected to maintain for its citizens a minimum standard of welfare, involving the provision of free education, health services, and a wide range of pensions and benefits to cover such eventualities as old age, sickness, unemployment, and widowhood. Further than that, the State has an ill-defined but onerous responsibility for keeping industry prosperous and progressively raising the general level of wealth. In the discharge of this last function, however, it is hampered by a fundamental and dangerous inconsistency which must qualify any criticism of state regulation and planning in industry. That inconsistency lies in the unwillingness of New Zealanders to concede to the State an authority in economic affairs commensurate with its responsibilities. This is the background against which democratic government in New Zealand must be judged.
At the outset it must be remembered that the New Zealanders inherited their system of government and page 149did not create it ad hoc. Moreover, the system they inherited was essentially anti-authoritarian. The radicals who were responsible for the great democratic reforms in England in the early years of the nineteenth century tended to regard power itself as evil and to assume that human happiness was best safeguarded by erecting barriers against arbitrary action by the executive. But when the State concerns itself with the welfare of the community and assumes responsibility for its economic prosperity, safeguards against arbitrary action are no longer guarantees of good government. What governments do becomes more important than what they refrain from doing. Problems of personnel and organisation become of first importance; and it becomes necessary for the executive to be able to act swiftly and without prior authorisation.
More than in any other British country, the basic problem of government in New Zealand during the last century has been the problem of transforming democracy from a system of checks and balances to a system for the exercise of the power of the State in promoting social welfare and regulating industry. Moreover, since the idea of individual rights against the State which is the foundation of democratic government has not been abandoned or even greatly modified, this change has had to take place without any such sweeping assertion of the primacy of the State over the interests of individuals and associations as has page 150simplified the problems of government in Italy and Russia.
Against these handicaps must be set certain factors which have made for flexibility and a growth in the power of the executive, the most important among them being the retention, as in other British countries, of the prerogatives of the Crown. Although the British peoples have refused to concede transcendent authority to the State, and indeed regard the very word with suspicion, they are capable of a convenient constitutional mysticism which leaves at the disposal of the executive a vast reserve of powers and immunities. A second factor of some importance is that the tendency, begun by the Constitution Act of 1852, for the constitution to assume a written form has not been maintained. Though the Constitution Act is still legally in force, it has ceased to be of practical importance and does not, like the constitution acts of Australia and Canada, impose substantial and at times inconvenient limitations on the power of the central government.
In public finance also maintenance of the traditional forms of the British parliamentary system has not been found incompatible with the development of a system of financial control which conforms to modern needs. The tendency is for the statutory cash accounts, which take no account of assets and liabilities and therefore give no real indication of the financial position of state undertakings, to be reduced to essentials and for details to be relegated to departmental accounts on commercial lines. In no other country in the British Commonwealth do the public accounts present a more reliable and realistic picture page 152of the national finances. In consequence, extravagance by departments and fraud by public servants are comparatively easily detected. Lord Bryce's statement that 'here, as elsewhere, democracy is extravagant' is not now true in so far as it refers to the actual management of state undertakings. What extravagance there is arises in the sphere of policy and not of administration.
For reasons which have already been examined, the greatest difficulty in adapting the British democratic system to contemporary political needs in New Zealand has been encountered in the executive branch of government. The tradition of New Zealand political life which requires that ministers shall be readily accessible to the public and shall travel about the country at frequent intervals means that they become heavily involved in the details of administration. Moreover, since the device of Parliamentary Under-Secretaries has not been generally adopted, every session of Parliament imposes a heavy additional burden on ministers by requiring them to spend many hours of each day in the House of Representatives. Their position is analogous to that of directors of a business in which the annual meeting of shareholders goes on for several months in each year. Partly because ministers are able to spend so little time on general policy questions, and partly because the Cabinet's principal advisers are heads of departments, who necessarily have a specialised outlook on policy questions, the task of co-ordinating departmental page 153activities where several departments are involved in the carrying out of a policy decision is imperfectly discharged. This weakness of co-ordination has in recent years created a tendency to concentration of authority in the hands of one minister, usually the Minister of Finance.
In any democratic system of government, however, the principal obstacle to efficient executive government is the periodic dismissal by the electors of the whole executive. The problem of maintaining continuity of government is therefore a difficult problem and becomes more difficult in proportion as the State undertakes economic regulation and planning. In New Zealand, as in other democratic countries, the principal safeguards against sudden and damaging reversals of policy are, first, the unwritten convention which dictates that a new government shall only in the most exceptional circumstances ignore an undertaking by its predecessor and, second, the influence of departments over their ministers. In New Zealand, moreover, the problem of continuity is made less difficult by two special factors. One is that the political pendulum has a long swing. Since the beginning of representative and responsible government, governments of the left and right have alternated in periods of approximately twenty years. The other special factor is that disagreements between political parties are normally disagreements of emphasis rather than those of principle. When a party makes a flourish of some page 154principle it will commonly be found that this principle is accepted by the other side and is already being applied. Thus, the Reform party won the election of 1911 on a promise to confer the freehold on small farmers, though in fact the Liberal Government had for several years been extending the freehold system. And in the election of 1935 the Labour party promised, with the air of promising an innovation, 'state control of currency and credit', although the National Government, by establishing the Reserve Bank in 1934, had already accepted the principle and in part applied it. There is no instance in New Zealand's political history since the abolition of the provinces of a government being defeated on a clear-cut policy issue. Indeed, the difficulty in New Zealand is not that governments change too often but that they do not change often enough. The danger is not lack of continuity but lethargy.
The criticism most frequently brought against democratic government in New Zealand is that the level of ability and enlightenment is low. In so far as this criticism relates to the personnel of Parliament it is unreasonable; for, as has been shown, the composition of Parliament is very much the same as the composition of elected legislative bodies in other countries. The charge that its debates do not 'instruct or inspire the people' is a charge which might be brought against elective bodies generally and is in any case based on a misconception of the functions of page 155elective bodies. Nevertheless, although a safe level of mediocrity is sufficient in Parliament, it is not sufficient, under modern conditions of government, in the executive. And here, it must be admitted, the British democratic system as it functions in New Zealand leaves something to be desired. The convention that ministers must be members of the House of Representatives, and the long period between changes of government, means that by the time a politician becomes a minister, he will normally be on the wrong side of sixty. Moreover, the long political apprenticeship he has served as a private member is not an apprenticeship which fits him for the task of administering a portfolio. Although there are striking exceptions, few men are at sixty physically and mentally fitted for the long hours and mental strain involved in administering portfolios, formulating national policy, and justifying their actions to Parliament and the electors.
One charge which has frequently been made against democratic government in New Zealand and which is in the main valid is that there is too little serious study of social and political problems. Because of the venturesome willingness of the New Zealanders to use the State for regulating industry and for promoting social welfare, New Zealand is often called a 'laboratory of social experiment'—so often that the New Zealanders themselves have accepted the label and begun to take a pride in it. It is a misleading label.page 156
Experiments there have been in abundance; but laboratory conditions are almost wholly absent. New Zealand's state experiments are in the main the result not of a scientific and enquiring spirit, but of a deep-seated disrespect for authority, tradition, and the experience of the past. M. Siegfried has described it accurately and unkindly:
'Many New Zealanders are honestly convinced that the attention of the whole world is concentrated upon them, waiting with curiosity and even with anxiety to see what they will say and do next. They have certainly been a little spoilt by being always spoken of as the most advanced people in the world; they have been blamed by some, and by others been praised to the sky; they have seldom been laughed at, and above all, they have been everywhere discussed. In this way they have become so accustomed to being taken seriously that they have become conscious of a mission to humanity. Europe struggles painfully in social and political crises from which she cannot extricate herself. She yearns for a passport or a guide to show her the way—something to lift her out of the rut into which she has sunk. Poor Europe, bound to her own traditions and prejudices! Poor European Continent, victim of its own unbelief! Well, say the New Zealanders, New Zealand will be her guide. To qualify herself she will make the necessary experiments.'
There would be no harm and much good in this self-confidence if it were supplemented by a spirit of page 157enquiry. But the laborious collection, classification, and analysis of data, the realistic assessment of results, the careful modification of social legislation in the light of experience, are foreign to the New Zealand temperament. The sociologist who comes to New Zealand will find much to interest and very little to enlighten him. The efforts to solve the unemployment problem during the recent economic depression are an example of this willingness to experiment and unwillingness to observe results. When, in 1930, the employment problem became acute, New Zealand had no system of unemployment insurance, no state system of unemployment relief, and virtually no administrative machinery for dealing with the unemployment problem, which hitherto had been blanketed by extensive public works activity. These disadvantages were offset only by the generous willingness of New Zealanders to recognise that unemployment was the responsibility of the community and the State, by their calm confidence in their own capacity to solve a problem which was baffling statesmen throughout the world, and by a determination that nothing corresponding to 'the dole' would be allowed to establish itself. The record of unemployment administration during the next five years is one of which the country can be both proud and ashamed. Expenditure on unemployment relief by the Unemployment Board and local authorities was in the neighbourhood of £5,000,000 a year (more than was being spent on page 158primary education); and with amazing ingenuity and perseverance a whole series of schemes, some abortive and some partly successful, was devised in an effort to put the unemployed into useful work. Yet, after five years, the country knew little more about the nature and causes of unemployment, about the unemployed themselves, or about the possibilities of getting them back into employment than it did before the depression. If a few thousands out of the many millions of pounds spent on experimental remedies had been spent on expert investigation and observation, the results would have been better and much valuable knowledge would have been acquired for the benefit of future generations.
The genius of the New Zealanders expresses itself, in the sphere of government, not in a capacity for solving difficult problems of sociology or economics, but in a capacity for carrying through successfully projects requiring organising ability and technical skill and resource. Such tasks as building railways and hydro-electric works and organising the marketing of primary products, government in New Zealand will carry through as efficiently as government in any other part of the world, since the nature of the problem is clearly defined and the type of ability needed for its solution easily measurable. But when the task involves excursions into abstract thought and calls for ability of the type which is difficult either to define or to measure, government in New Zealand is page 159frequently at a loss and tends either to fall back on shallow notions of commonsense or to become dominated by ideas which are ingenious and misleading simplifications.
There can be few more searching tests of the quality of a government than control of a native race; and the record of New Zealand's mandate over Western Samoa is in this respect worth study. It can safely be said that rarely in the history of colonial administration has a native people been governed with a higher sense of responsibility or with greater determination to make the interests of that people the overriding consideration. The New Zealand Government has shown a deep and practical solicitude for the economic welfare, the health, and the education of the Samoan people; it has encouraged their aspirations to self-govemment; it has dealt patiently and honestly with their manifold grievances; and it has unhesitatingly placed their interests above the interests of European traders and planters. And the racial vitality of the Samoans to-day, the success with which they are adapting their ancient social institutions to modern needs, the confidence with which they face the future, are in a large measure due to the generous impulses and honesty of purpose so characteristic of the New Zealand Government. But it is equally characteristic of the New Zealand Government that during its period of control in Samoa it should have done almost nothing to promote scientific research into the problems page 160of the most interesting of all native peoples of the Pacific, that its efforts in the field of education have been crippled by failure to grasp the terms of the problem, that the problem of how to fit the Samoans for the self-government they have been promised has baffled it completely, and that the basic excellence of its record in Samoa should be obscured by a series of squabbles and disturbances arising primarily from an inability on the part of New Zealand cabinet ministers and public servants to understand a people whose values and ways of thought are nearer to the Middle Ages than to the twentieth century.
It is tempting to conclude, and is indeed often concluded, from a study of government in New Zealand that the New Zealanders as a nation are characterised by a safe, honest, competent mediocrity and that they are lacking in those qualities of imagination and capacity for leadership which go to make outstanding administrators. To show that this conclusion is unjustifiable, it would only be necessary to name a few of the New Zealanders who have in recent years distinguished themselves in the British and colonial civil services and in other walks of life where there is a premium on these qualities. The truth is rather that the strong equalitarian spirit of New Zealand democracy is against the emergence of leadership in the state services. In the public service and in the teaching profession, the emphasis is on the greatest good of the greatest number. It is considered better that average page 161ability should be high and should be assured of regular promotion and adequate rewards than that exceptional ability should be assured of rapid advance; and to this end there are the most elaborate safeguards against nepotism and favouritism.
In recent years, however, there has been a growing realisation that mere negative safeguards against abuse cannot produce government of the high quality necessary in a State which is grappling with the complex problems of human welfare and economic planning. The public service authorities, not without misgivings and in the face of much opposition, are now beginning to look for exceptional ability and to provide it with exceptional opportunities; they are beginning to understand that a high average of competence and integrity and elaborate safeguards against abuse cannot in themselves secure good government, even if they are the indispensable groundwork of good government. Democracy, in New Zealand as elsewhere, will stand or fall by the quality of its executive authority.