In 1990 I put an election billboard on my fence that featured a sinister looking silhouette in a business suit saying “vote for No-One, because No-One cares”. People’s responses ranged from amusement to furious anger, with one person even climbing the fence to vandalise it at night.
It was a bit of fun, but with a serious intent. I wanted to express my dissatisfaction at a system that trades a vote every three years for meaningful participation. I wanted to show my disgust at the co-option of governments by corporate lobby interests. I wanted to demonstrate my belief that the parliamentary system is unable to comprehend, much less find a solution to, the real issues facing our world.
All those statements still hold true for me today. Looking back, though, what strikes me is my dismay when New Zealand elected a National Government. I could see on election night that things were going to get much worse for ordinary New Zealanders. Indeed, that Government soon introduced a range of regressive policies that remain in place to this day, including the end of free tertiary education, vicious welfare cuts, attacks on workers’ rights and asset sales that even the previous Labour Government had balked at.
A year or two later I found myself at a huge march in Auckland to oppose the policies of a Government that I had encouraged people not to vote against. That contradiction, and others I experienced at a variety of street demonstrations and occupations during those years, led me to question much of my political ideology and dogma. As a result of this on-going self reflection my ideas about strategy and tactics have become more responsive, while my principles have become clearer.
My views on engagement in parliamentary politics changed with the introduction of MMP. In 1999 I was elected as an MP for the Green Party and just under nine years later I resigned from Parliament. In my final speech I spoke about many of those same themes that had concerned me in 1990. Perhaps more than most, I am well aware of the limitations of parliamentary politics.
There are two main reasons that progressive thinkers give for not voting. The first is that it makes no real difference. The second is that voting legitimises an illegitimate system.
It’s true that you can’t vote for revolution. That doesn’t mean that revolutionaries shouldn’t vote. It just means they should vote for more practical reasons. Voting is a tool, and like all tools there are some things it is good for and some things it is not.
The outcome of this election will make a lot of difference. Not in fundamental ways perhaps, but it will have direct impact on people’s wellbeing. Whether National or Labour leads the next Government – and just as importantly, how much influence the Greens have, or the Conservatives, ACT, the Maori Party, Internet Mana and NZ First – will determine how much the lowest paid workers will get to take home each week. It will determine whether our coastline is opened up for oil drilling and maybe whether we end up having a catastrophic oil spill. It might decide whether the Maui’s Dolphin becomes extinct. It will decide whether housing will be more, or less, affordable. It will make a clear statement about whether as a nation we are concerned about child poverty or whether we really just don’t care as long as we get a tax cut.
My aims in voting this year are modest. I don’t expect radical change from politicians because they couldn’t deliver it even if they wanted to, at least not without massive changes in public opinion first. I don’t expect the big problems to be solved or to see congregations of the wise inhabiting the Beehive. I vote to make some government policies a little better and to stop some others getting worse. I vote so that at least some of my most important issues are amplified. I vote so that there is someone in there to call out the bullshit when they see it. I vote because the National Party’s lies and deceit just went too far this time. I vote because trying to make the world a better place is easier when we have allies in Government. Given the minimal effort involved, it seems like an own goal not to.
Finally, if you are worried that ticking a voting form will somehow legitimise the system, don’t be. Your vote will have absolutely no impact on that. All it will do is make it more or less likely that John Key and the National Party is re-elected.