Voting Without Fear, With Open Eyes.

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IT’S ONE OF THOSE STORIES that illustrates vividly the robust working-class culture of the trade union movement that was. An “all-up” stop-work meeting has been called to decide whether or not to take strike action. The union secretary makes it pretty clear that without strike action the members’ demands have bugger-all chance of success. The more militant members line up to support the secretary’s recommendation – treating their workmates to that old-time “shed oratory” that is so very rare today. After all their fiery rhetoric is spent, the call goes out for speakers against the motion. Silence. The union president prepares to put the motion. A hand goes up. “Yes?”, responds the president, eyebrows raised. “Um, I was just wondering,” came the hesitant reply from the mild-mannered union member on his feet, “Will this be a secret ballot?” The union secretary, famous for his uncompromising temperament, leaps to his feet and snarls: “If you want a fucking secret ballot, close your fucking eyes!”

It’s easy to laugh at the story, and hard not to secretly admire the brutally effective politics of the union decision-making process. It is also important, however, to acknowledge the anti-democratic tactics at work. The secret ballot effaces the essentially collective character of a strike. Writing “Yes” or “No” privately, on an anonymous piece of paper, allows you to put your interests above those of your fellow workers without fear of discovery. It’s an individual – not a collective act.

To raise your hand, more or less alone, in opposition to a forest of hands raised in favour, requires considerable courage. Going against the will of the majority in public risks incurring its wrath, and in the workplace that can be rough – very rough. That’s why calling for a show of hands is the preferred method of those anxious to secure a quick and favourable outcome  – especially when careful, private, consideration might easily produce the “wrong” answer. It’s the tactic of demagogues, not democrats.

We take the secret ballot so much for granted, at least in the context of electing our parliamentary and local government representatives, that imagining any other way of voting is difficult. Many are astonished to discover that the introduction of the secret ballot dates back only to 1870 in New Zealand, and 1872 in the United Kingdom. In the United States where such matters are left to the individual states, the secret ballot only became universal when finally adopted by South Carolina in 1950! Interestingly, the secret ballot was originally referred to as the “Australian Ballot” on account of Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania being the first jurisdictions in the English-speaking world to legislate for secret voting, in 1856. On this democratic reform, at least, the Aussies beat us to it.

In a world where challenging official orthodoxy is, increasingly, considered career-limiting, the opportunity to register one’s opinion away from the basilisk glare of the ideologically overbearing not only de-stresses the decision-making process, it also allows the true feelings of the majority to be revealed.

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The free-speech battle waged last year at Cambridge University in the UK bears out the virtues of voting in secret. Outraged by the University Council’s attempt to limit its staff and students freedom of expression, philosophy scholar, Arif Ahmed, proposed a number of amendments to the proposed regulations – all of which the Council rejected. To overturn their decision a positive vote by the Regent House (composed of all the Cambridge “dons”) was required. To trigger a meeting of the Regent House, Arif and his supporters had first to secure the votes of 25 of its members.

This was easier said than done, as Arif recalls:

“In March 2020, when the University first proposed this policy, I couldn’t find anyone willing to challenge it in public. Not because they all had other things to think about (though of course at that time everyone did) but because they feared the consequences.

“The same thing happened when I and a few colleagues tried to gather signatures to force a vote. You would have thought 25 signatures would not be difficult to extract from more than 4000 dons; but again, I asked probably 50 people who said that they supported me in private but felt afraid to do so in public. They had just applied for promotion, or for a grant, or their head of department might be hostile, or their colleagues might ostracize them…

“You see it in meetings too. Everyone here knows what I mean. Some meddlesome but trendy reform gets proposed by the departmental ideologues; it is tiresome nonsense; everyone knows that it is nonsense; everyone knows that everyone knows that it is nonsense … and yet nobody speaks or votes against it, it goes through, and the darkness thickens. Why don’t you speak or vote against it? – because you are afraid that nobody else will, and you will end up isolated, and you are on a temporary contract… If you had left Cambridge as a student in, say, 2011 and returned to academic life here today, you would be astonished and depressed at the rapidity with which, and the extent to which, fear has now penetrated people’s minds.”

Thanks to the secret ballot conducted by the Regent House, Arif’s story had a happy ending. The Cambridge dons, unobserved (and, hence, unintimidated) by their “departmental ideologues” voted 4:1 in favour of Arif’s amendments – thereby preserving academic freedom at Cambridge and encouraging like-minded scholars in other universities to stand up and defend their rights.

In addition to upholding academic independence, the battle for free speech at Cambridge University revealed something else. It showed just how precariously the “Woke’s” political control is held. Put to a fair democratic test: where screaming crowds of protesters and collegial witch-hunters cannot influence the outcome; the pronouncements of “departmental ideologues” are shown to have derisory levels of support.

One is moved to wonder what the result would have been, right here in New Zealand, if our Parliamentarians had been permitted to vote privately on the recent legislation regulating the creation of Maori Wards. Indeed, it is fascinating to speculate upon which bills would and wouldn’t get passed if, instead of casting their votes in public, Members of Parliament were able to avail themselves of a secret ballot.

One can only assume that the reason they are forbidden from doing so is exactly the same as that of the apocryphal union secretary who made damn sure he got the decision he was looking for – by a show of hands.

 

12 COMMENTS

  1. A great article Chris. Thanks!

    I vividly recall those stop work meetings in the factory carpark when I first went into industry in Birmingham in the 70’s. Our union convener was a Marxist whose publicly stated aim was to “bring down the capitalist state” so he didn’t really care if the lads lost out in the wage packets, just as long as he disrupted production. It was a brave man who dared to raise his hand against the strike vote: He would probably see his tyres slashed in the near future.

    I left the UK before the Thatcher government forced the secret ballot on the unions and undermined the power of the radicals forever.

  2. Secret ballots in Parliament sounds a great idea, especially for any policy issue that was not in the manifesto.

    Maybe we could have manifestos again.

    • Ada: “Secret ballots in Parliament sounds a great idea, especially for any policy issue that was not in the manifesto.”

      I heartily agree.

      “Maybe we could have manifestos again.”

      Wouldn’t THAT be a good thing…..

  3. I was bullied into a union many years ago and their were no secret votes. You voted as you were told. I do recall one brave soul getting up and putting forward a different proposal contrary to the “suggested” course of action and was surrounded by heavies in seconds. These poor people were led by a guy, who had his heart in the right place, but basically was a thug. There was no way in hell, would he allow a ‘secret ballot’.

    Openly elected officials on the other hand, should have no such luxury.

  4. WHOA – hang on, aren’t we missing something fundamental here? Yes our hope and desire is that all decisions be arrived at democratically, but there’s no decision that’s ever been made that wasn’t influenced by somebody other than the one making it..
    And while the picture painted ,of unions leaders intimidating the rank and file, is confronting, tell me when that has not always been the case, to a greater or lesser extent, in every hierarchical structure.
    From the boardroom to the union hall, in universities, the international space station, to the comments section of blogs, we are all influenced!
    And stories of how badly Union leaders may or may not behave, can be matched, in stories of equal ruthlessness wielded by management, which, as in the instance illustrated, has required the Union to meet.
    If you want to jump up and down about the sanctity of the vote, just consider; every three years we vote for a party we know little about, based on policies developed by people unknown, influenced by God knows who, without us having had any input at all, and we call that democracy!
    The fundamental problem is that we’re having this discussion premised on an acceptance of the “them and us” principle, that we must necessarily oppose each other, and how in God’s name did that ever happen in our egalitarian society.
    Unless of course I’m missing something.

    • Thank you for a well considered and compelling contribution Malcolm Much needed in response to the usual militant’ opinion shapers’ somewhat judgemental disposition.

  5. “….if our Parliamentarians had been permitted to vote privately on the recent legislation regulating the creation of Maori Wards.”

    I suspect that it’d have been voted down.

    Ditto Wellington City Council voting to establish a Maori ward. As it was, three Councillors voted against the proposal. I found this out today:

    “Last night, we (ORCA) held a public seminar on the Wellington Regional Traffic Plan and I spoke with Diane Calvert and Andy Foster about the Maori ward and she said the council are continuing discussions with iwi about how the council can help them and they never asked for a Maori ward and aren’t sure how this would help them but that this was something that Jill Day advanced without discussing it with them.”

    This is extraordinary. To be sure, Diane Calvert’s was one of the three votes against, but why on earth did Mayor Foster vote in favour? Why did other Councillors also vote in favour, when they must have known the story recounted above? This neatly illustrates the failure of courage, when votes aren’t secret.

    • Don’t you get tired of banging that same old drum on any site that will upload your comments D’Esterre. Move on! Maori Wards have now been established through the democratic process and the Hobson’s Pledge gerrymandering system that relied on a discriminatory process has been derailed. Imagine what hell would have been raised if 5% of the population could circumvent the unique attributes of other wards. What if your Wharangi/Onslow-Western Ward (?) could be eliminated on the basis of the nett capital value of its constituents, or Wards where there are lower rateable values could be disenfranchised on the basis of not contributing sufficiently to the public purse.

      The comment about consultation with Iwi is also interesting. Which Iwi? Besides, do Maori Wards only apply to Tangata Whenua? I think not. Your other of used argument regarding current representation doesn’t hold water either. Neither Cr. Day not Cr. Paul were elected by Maori for Maori in just the same way as a former Chinese Councillor was not elected on a racial mandate reflecting his ethnicity. Other current councillors were not elected to represent specific ethnicities or religions, even though at times, those factors might influence their votes. As you well know, Maori Wards have their basis in the articles of the Treaty of Waitangi, and are intended to alleviate perceived excesses of the democratic tyranny of the dominant culture that has evolved in the post 1840 partnership.

      If you still harbour a grievance come the next general election, you could vote for a party that clearly states they will get rid of Maori Wards. Some of us voted for parties in consideration of their clear signal of an intention to establish them.

      • Aom: “Don’t you get tired of banging that same old drum on any site that will upload your comments D’Esterre.”

        I like to comment on Chris Trotter’s posts, because a) he writes clearly and coherently and makes good arguments, even if I don’t always agree with him, and b) he cleaves to the notion of free speech: more power to him. No doubt this is why he published your comment.

        “Imagine what hell would have been raised if 5% of the population could circumvent the unique attributes of other wards.”

        I assume that you’re referring to the petition issue. See this:

        http://www.lgc.govt.nz/assets/Uploads/Petition-guidelines.pdf

        Note from that document the following:

        “When, as part of that process, the Local Government Commission issues a final reorganisation proposal, electors have the opportunity to petition for a poll on the proposal. A poll will be held if 10% or more of the affected electors of any one of the territorial authorities affected by the proposal submit a valid petition. If more than 50% of the votes in the poll support the Commission’s final proposal the proposal will be implemented. If 50% or less of the votes support the proposal it will not be implemented.”

        So no: under the provisions of the Local Government Act 2002, it was never possible for 5% of voters to overturn the establishment of any ward. The argument you make above is a reductio ad absurdum, in my view.

        “The comment about consultation with Iwi is also interesting. Which Iwi?”

        Te Atiawa and Taranaki Whanui are the iwi of Wellington. It will be them to whom Calvert was referring. If you aren’t a Wellington resident, you probably wouldn’t be aware of this.

        “Besides, do Maori Wards only apply to Tangata Whenua? I think not.”

        They do. Only Maori may enrol on the Maori electoral roll, and only Maori may vote in Maori seats, and the proposed wards. What otherwise would be the point of setting them up? In addition, see this:

        https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/124503221/wellington-city-council-set-to-establish-mori-ward-next-year

        From the above link, note this comment from Liz Mellish:

        “….she wanted to see more information about how the ward would work and who would be eligible to vote in it and how it would impact mana whenua relationships with the council.

        “In a city like Wellington, we as mana whenua are outnumbered by other Māori, we need to ensure that mana whenua relationship continues,” she said.”

        And, regrettably, this surely is a reductio ad absurdum of identity politics. No other way to describe it.

        “Your other of used argument regarding current representation doesn’t hold water either. Neither Cr. Day not Cr. Paul were elected by Maori for Maori in just the same way as a former Chinese Councillor was not elected on a racial mandate reflecting his ethnicity. Other current councillors were not elected to represent specific ethnicities or religions, even though at times, those factors might influence their votes.”

        It looks as if you’ve just made the case for representative democracy. That’s the whole point of it: people are elected to represent all of us, regardless of our ethnicity or religion, or theirs. From the very beginning, this country has been multicultural: people came here from all over the world, as many of us can attest. Of necessity, religion and ethnicity must be personal, not political, if we wish to have a representative democracy.

        “As you well know, Maori Wards have their basis in the articles of the Treaty of Waitangi…”

        They do not. I’m familiar with the Treaty as signed in 1840; can read both versions, in fact. As with all such documents, what you see is what you get. There’s no room for interpretation. If the intention of the authors had been to allow for the setting up of such systems, it would have had to be made explicit in the wording. It was not, because it wasn’t envisaged.

        It looks to me as if you’re referring to the revisionism of the mid-1980s. Lord Cooke’s ruling in that landmark case on the Treaty principles in 1987, stated that the Crown has a fiduciary duty “akin to a partnership” towards Maori. That means the Crown must act in good faith in its dealings with Maori and on issues affecting them, but it does not imply “co-governance”.

        The so-called “principles” were a post facto attempt to freight meanings on to the Treaty that went far beyond what the text can bear, or the signatories could have imagined or intended. Geoff Palmer had a good deal to do with that: at the time, I was among the many people who heard him try – and fail – to explain what those principles were.

        “….are intended to alleviate perceived excesses of the democratic tyranny of the dominant culture that has evolved in the post 1840 partnership.”

        Perceived? That’s a shaky foundation on which to prop a ward based on ethnicity. There was no partnership: see Lord Cooke’s ruling above.

        My objection to the proposed establishment of Maori wards is that such a concept is just plain undemocratic. It makes no difference how worthy people’s intentions are, or that Maori are the first settlers in NZ: it’s undemocratic to establish an electoral system reserved for one ethnicity. My generation campaigned successfully against similar pernicious systems in southern Africa and pre-civil rights USA.

        There’s no going back: the mistakes and wrongs of the past cannot now be rectified. None of us now alive was born when the large scale land alienations and conflicts occurred. Nobody now alive is either victim or perpetrator. The best we can do is to have a representative democracy, look forward, and work to make this the best possible country for all of us.

  6. A very interesting treatise with a number of issues that should be addressed – like the meaning of Tangata Whenua being people of a particular locality and the assumption that nobody now alive is either victim or perpetrator, for example – racism in NZ never died! However, I do not have the inclination to debate your views of representative democracy, “There’s no going back” and perceptions that at times are indicative of acceptance of racial superiority as illustrated by selective Court and legislative references. That said, apologies for the incorrect percentage being presented regarding the petition process but otherwise, the views outlined in the comment stand, despite some of your distortions of what was stated.

    The killer is your assumptive statement, “My generation campaigned successfully against similar pernicious systems in southern Africa and pre-civil rights USA.” What generation do you suppose I am from? You can be assured that situations arising from my employment situations and active involvement in protests have shaped my opinions over roughly the same timespan as yours. Same view, different lenses?

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