One Nation Under MMP

  • Deborah Morris
Associate Minister of Women's Affairs

Waipuna Hotel & Conference Centre, Auckland

Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon. It is a real pleasure to speak to you: the current, future and hopeful movers and shakers of New Zealand.

Your forum organisers asked me to address the topic of leadership of young adults. That's no easy task. The leadership of young adults I mean, not the speech topic. How do we lead such a diverse and disparate group of people?

New Zealand's youth population is just that. It's quite amazing to look at the ethnic mix (74% European, 13% Maori, 4% Pacific people, 9% other). Add to that the different philosophies and images: street, skatie, goth, hippie, bogun, alternative. Then the different life experiences we all have. And the cynicism.

I think it is possible to be a leader of young adults. And to do it successfully, you have to be able to relate on their terms. It helps if you are a young adult yourself.

And, to be visionary leaders we also need to find new techniques and systems to work with.

That's why I support MMP - it offers a fresh future for politics and young people.

Before the 1996 General Election, Parliament and its politicians were at an all time low in the eyes of the public. People saw grey old men in suits and ties dithering about the economy, slashing spending, hell bent on privatising everything bar Parliament itself (and Parliament's bar)! People were sick of extremes in politics. One day New Zealand was hard to the left, the next we were the driest right wing country in the western world.

Politics was about a battle between two parties, not about a battle to do the best for the people of New Zealand.

Parliament looked more like a battlefield than a forum for debate and an instrument of democracy. General Patton of the US Army once said, "The object of war is not to die for your country. The object of war is to make damn sure the other side dies for theirs." Sadly, the politics of old was far too much like that.

People weren't happy and put very simply, that is part of the reason why we have MMP.

The history of parliamentary democracy is essentially the history of established groups gradually surrendering their political power to the wider public - going back to the Magna Carta of 1215, the `Bill of Rights' of 1688, the Reform Act of 1832, the right to vote for Maori and then women, and then, those aged from 18 years. More recently, the established major political parties have realised that some of their power has been surrendered to the public through MMP.

Now, more than ever, we have an educated and politically aware public. A public demanding more of their elected representatives while at the same time recognising that Government should not do everything.

It seems to me that you want more than campaign promises; more than third parties; more than expensive public relations campaigns.

In 1996 New Zealand First campaigned against all of the other parties - including National.

But come Election Day, and a result which saw New Zealand First holding the balance of responsibility, Labour, National and New Zealand First had to work constructively and co-operatively with one another in coalition negotiations.

That process was about co-operation, consultation and consensus between political parties - serving the public's interests - not the interests of a select few. And now the centre ground is where it is at.

Could you imagine a bird putting all its power into its left wing? It would not be able to fly. Similarly if it put all its power in its right wing it would plummet too. However, if it focuses its power in the centre then it will be able to fly.

That is the role that New Zealand First is playing in Government.

If there is a sense of public disillusionment with MMP it can largely be attributed to the public's expectation that Parliament would become more constructive - and their extreme disappointment that, in some respects, too much of the status quo under First Past the Post, has persisted - despite the vote for MMP.

Often Parliament is still dominated by cheap shots and mud slinging. And it is still dominated by many of the same old people - some of whom campaigned stridently against MMP.

It will take time to change old habits and the old guard. MMP has delivered some of the change. But if Parliament is to become a place that young adults respect and aspire to we need a dramatic overhaul. I'll come back to that in a moment.

The first MMP Parliament contains 36 women, 14 Maori, 2 Pacific people and one Asian person. It has delivered a Coalition Government of two very different parties. The effect being a Government of two parties that have to negotiate and compromise. Sometimes it slows things down - but as Ireland's experience shows, negotiation can take a long time.

To provide leadership to young adults in any meaningful way requires some of our oldest institutions to evolve. Just as youth culture has moved on, so must Parliament, the monarchy and the notion of democracy.

One of the most important things we can do as leaders is listen. This is one of the ongoing sources of cynicism and disenchantment when it comes to MPs.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out the rights of young people to freely express their views. Often people are resistant to hearing them - but it is a necessity.

As decision makers we can't always do what everybody would like us to do - but we can listen.

Hearing youth and having young adults participate in the process is one of Parliament's biggest challenges.

And it is a bit of a catch-22. Parliament doesn't listen so young people don't want a bar of it. Yet, without getting involved and taking an interest, it gets more difficult for us to hear what you as youth are saying.

The only way to overcome what sometimes seems like a stand-off is for us to meet young adults on their terms.

Some leaders are better at that than others. It is the key to leadership of young adults. And it's something Parliament needs to do better.

Each one of you, as young leaders, will have different ambitions. But as visionary leaders you are likely to have a few things in common.

Visionary leaders have a sense of mission that is larger than themselves - it often involves doing things for other people.

Such a leader will visualise their ideal, set goals for the future, make decisions and get motivated when they need to. Another important attribute is the ability to reframe problems into solutions.

Perhaps we should start with MMP. MMP has been attacked from several directions in recent months. We are told it is too expensive; it's too slow and indecisive; it's messy; it's undisciplined.

We are told - and here's a horrifying thought - it gives too much power to minority interests.

MMP has been criticised as being too democratic for allowing minorities to have too great a say!

Yet it's also criticised for not being democratic enough when it slows down the imposition of the views of the majority.

Democracy is normally viewed in our society as the most desirable possible form of government.

People from many countries have died to achieve and preserve it. Our ancestors did so in Europe for World War I and World War II.

It is said democracy is the form of government which will secure the public good and ensure fair and ethical treatment for all citizens.

However, democracy does not equal morality.

Democratic does not mean ethical;

Democratic means popular, nothing less and certainly, nothing more.

As all minority groups in a democracy eventually come to know, usually to their cost - democracy in its purest form is the will of the majority.

The view of the majority can become the only view, the normal view, the legally enforceable view.

Now before anyone starts having doubts about my commitment to democracy, let me say I believe in it implicitly.

As the old saying goes: democracy is the worst form of government - except for all the others.

I believe in democracy, but I am not blind to its darker side.

So often in the past minorities have been left out, allowing the majority to hold sway with their sense of 'fair play' for all. Under systems like first past the post, groups such as Maori, women, Asians, gays, unemployed, disabled and young people have all been left out. And women are not even a minority! Yet now, under MMP more of these groups are represented in Parliament by their own.

As a nation we must not only value our young people, but ensure that we are involving them in the decisions that we take. We have no doubts now that we must involve women, Maori and others. We may be bad at involving them, but we know we must and know that we must do better. But really, how serious are we about involving youth?

A nation that lives as a community must value all its communities.

Often it's easier to believe that our differences matter more than what we have in common. It may be easier, but it's wrong.

I began my speech by highlighting this diversity within the youth population. But to ensure representation, we have to build on young people's shared values.

One of those values may well be making sure those voices are heard. That is what MMP is and should be about.

I know myself that the most powerful quality in a leader of young people is the ability to hear them. During my time as Minister I have met hundreds of youth, youth workers, parents and others. It seems like a simple thing, but making myself available to those people means a great deal.

To me, it is all part of my mission. It helps me test the goals I have set, the decisions I'm making and my motivation.

It gives me a whole different perspective on New Zealand. It gives those people a whole different perspective on me as an individual and on the Government as a whole.

So, the visionary leadership of young adults. It's about being on their terms, listening to them and encouraging their participation. And it's about existing institutions opening their doors.

This is the challenge to Parliament and it's also a challenge to you.