What it’s like in the fourth best democracy in the world

Back in 2019 New Zealand was listed on the EIU Democracy Index as the fourth best democracy in the world with a score of 9.26. That follows Norway (9.87), Iceland (9.58) and Sweden (9.39). To put that in perspective, the top twenty two countries of the 167 listed are classed as ‘full democracies’. And New Zealand is one of the top ones.

In a way it’s not surprising. New Zealand is also one of the very few countries to be made that way from the start – specifically, the Constitution Act 1852, which required the Governor to set up proper democratic government. That’s been amended multiple times since and was finally replaced by the Constitution Act 1986. But it got the ball rolling.

What’s it like to live here? There’s quite a bit I could mention, but one thing sticks out: the informality. In part it’s a function of New Zealand’s culture, in part a product of relatively small scale. Where I live, in the capital – Wellington – that shows up in some obvious ways that simply wouldn’t happen anywhere else, not even Australia. Take Parliament grounds, for instance. These are open to the public and include a playground for kids. Protests are allowed providing they don’t plant signs in the ground; the rules are set by the office of the Speaker of the House. A little while back a small group rammed a sign into the lawn. Shortly afterwards the Speaker, Trevor Mallard – New Zealand’s equivalent of Nancy Pelosi in title, though not exact function – personally emerged from a basement door, wandered through the protest, lifted the sign out of the ground and handed it to its owner. As they say, only in New Zealand.

New Zealand’s Parliament buildings – a photo I took with my phone in late summer 2020.

Once I was lining up at sushi bar, looked around, and saw the Deputy Prime Minister standing right behind me (he’s a lot shorter than I am). I used to routinely run into the current Deputy Leader of the National Party, coming the other way down the street (he’s a lot shorter than I am). The previous Prime Minister, John Key, used to frequent the same coffee bar I did (he’s also a lot shorter than I am). I was two degrees separated from him – a university friend of mine was his best friend at school.

The rather relaxed attitude to protocol didn’t change with the advent of neo-liberalism and its elevation of the entitled wealthy. I still remember the day, about 30 years ago, when I bounced into a lift in the Reserve Bank building to find myself alongside Don Brash (then Reserve Bank Governor) and Ruth Richardson. She was Finance Minister at the time. Brash had the command key to the lift and offered to let me off at whatever floor I was heading to, but I said I wouldn’t hold them up. Richardson beamed, looked up at me – she’s WAY shorter than I am – and said, in patronising tones, ‘you’ll go far, young man’. Well, quite.

So yeah, things can be pretty informal in the world’s fourth best democracy.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020

19 thoughts on “What it’s like in the fourth best democracy in the world

    1. It’s interesting how many democracies in those top slots, outside Scandinavia, were part of the British Empire – deliberately constructed during that nineteenth century explosion of liberal democracy from Westminster. Whereas those built during the eighteenth century period of change away from Early Modern governmental structures – the ‘first generation’ – such as France and the United States, are lower down the scale. Evolution of ideas, I suspect.

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      1. Or possibly the fact that both the USA and France embraced democracy as the result of violent revolutions /against/ the status quo. The rest of us eased into democracy after having seen what the violent version was like.

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        1. True. Or all of the above! History is never straight-forward. I often feel Britain went through a curiously ‘liberal’ period in the generation after the Napoleonic Wars – this was the age when they brought slavery to an end, among other things. The Church Missionary Society was ascendant (briefly) in the Colonial Office and one outcome was that NZ was colonised by treaty with Maori. First and last time Britain ever did that! This attitude to colonisation stood in contrast to what Niall Ferguson has called the period of ‘white plague’ in prior centuries, and with his ‘Maxim force’ era that began in the 1850s. In my work I’ve argued that it was a soft switch, generational, but that the Indian Mutiny gave it teeth. The mind-set took form in part through architecture with its neo-classical shapes of the day. And yet, politically, the rise of Liberalism during the same period preserved many of the ideals of the 1830-40 era in terms of actively promoting democratic (‘proper’) government throughout the Empire. Underscores how complex societies were (and remain, of course).

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            1. For sure. I suspect societies change over a couple of generations – imperceptibly, perhaps, to those in it (apart from times of obvious crisis) but if you look at, say, the attitudes of every third generation there’s usually a significant ground-shift by comparison with the first. Attitudes to democracy will inevitably change with it, often subtly but nonetheless perceptibly.

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  1. I’ve never met a politician, they tend to keep a distance from the rabble here. I did bump into Willem Dafoe in a Tesco back in 2014. He’s a lot shorter than I am. And then Cillian Murphy in a sushi restaurant. But I believe they’re not politicians. Merely “actors”. Pah!

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    1. The main reason that it’s easy to find politicians here is that, except for the PM, they don’t get bodyguards and all of them walk about the streets without anybody bothering them. The only exception was when Richardson, as Finance Minister, pushed through the most punitive attack on the poor in NZ’s history – which she called the ‘Mother of all Budgets’. The outcome was that Richardson, who habitually jogged to work in the morning, buzzing with energy and raring to get into the office and see how much more damage she could do to the country, had to be flanked by a couple of burly police puffing away to keep up. She was a lot shorter than they were and the whole visage was, somehow, surreal.

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  2. It seems with every post, you make me want to go immigrate down to NZ, more and more. That very casual environment suits me. Plus, I’m shorter than a lot of people. I gues I’d fit in. 😉

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    1. It’s only politicians! I’m taller than the NZ male average, but not by a huge amount. A fair number of people are taller than me. But not, it seems, if they have been elected to office… (the exception seems to be the Speaker, who used to be my MP and is about my height.)

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        1. Of course! I suspect the power complex and being – shall we say vertically challenged – automatically mean becoming a politician. Everybody else just carries on their everyday lives (and has to live in the mess the politicians create). Oddly enough, I just walked past the Opposition spokesperson for finance yesterday, on a pedestrian crossing in central Wellington. Even he’s shorter than I am, though not by much. I forgot to check whether he had ‘Economics for Dummies’ on him. But he may not be up to that level yet, though.

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          1. lmao – you’ve changed my thinking about politics forever. From here on in I shall measure our elected officials against a tape measure instead of their policies. 😉
            Wouldn’t it be fun if there really were something to this??

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  3. What you describe is much like the state in the US I live in. Everyone has met the Governor somewhere and up until very recently people would walk right into the capitol building (since 9/11 that’s changed). When I commute for work I often ride in the same commercial plane that one of the Senators takes to come back home on weekends. Seeing a Senator at dinner isn’t unusual.

    Of course, that’s a regional situation inside a very large country, rather than the situation as a whole.

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  4. One odd thought.

    While rankings of this type have value (particularly to find out where one’s own country isn’t measuring up, and hopefully why), there’s something really odd about the concept of being “fourth best”, or any other rank.

    I usually find that people from anyone country value its merits in a way that sort of defies best or worst, or things in between. That can devolve into jingoism and unthinking nationalism, of course, but as long as it doesn’t, there’s some value to that.

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