Every 15th of September, we celebrate the International Day of Democracy, which was established by the United Nations in 2007 to celebrate, promote and recognize the principles of democracy. While the way in which democracy is expressed across the world may vary, it is defined by citizens’ ability to participate in public decision-making, typically through choosing their government.
In New Zealand, we accept democracy as a fact of life, perhaps to the extent that we forget that many other countries around the world do not have the right to choose their political representatives based on their policies and ideas. Not only do we take for granted our right to choose our leader, but also the other freedoms associated with democracy – our rights to freedom of association, of assembly, of protest, of speech and expression. We feel that we can ultimately hold the government accountable for decisions we disagree with, so the government is wise to largely adhere to its voters’ views.
To understand how democracy forms an integral part of society, you only need to spend some time on the steps of New Zealand’s Parliament, watching groups with posters, banners, microphones and passion, loudly and visibly bringing public and political attention to an issue which is important to them and holding the government to account, no matter how big or small the issue. New Zealanders feel secure in their right to criticize the government directly, in the news media, or online. We take these rights for granted, however, it is important to remember that people overseas in 2018 have been arrested for less.
In many ways, democracy is about more than just casting a vote. It represents a system where the government serves the people, not subdues or controls them. We give over money through taxes and some rights to our personal autonomy in favour of a government which administers the collective funds and rights for the good of the majority. We trust the government to do well by us and if it fails, it loses in the ballot box.
For most New Zealanders, the thought of living under a non-democratic or one-party government is resigned largely to dystopian literature and films. The turnout of young people at the voting booths is low; we underestimate the power our vote has to influence the future of tomorrow. However, some of our closest geographic neighbours have restrictions on political freedoms which we really cannot fathom living under. We are lucky in this regard – New Zealand can look forward to a future where everyone is free to express their views, disagree with or criticize the government, protest, and be actively encouraged to do so.
To celebrate the International Day of Democracy, think about how you can participate fully in political life. Did you vote in the last election? If you didn’t vote or you aren’t yet old enough to vote, do some research into the importance of voting in a democratic society, find political parties whose policies align with your beliefs, and understand what is important to you and how best you can have your voice heard by the leaders of our country.
By Grace Thurlow