Politics for Citizens

Politics (from Greek: πολιτικός politikos, definition “of, for, or relating to citizens”) is the practice and theory of influencing other people.

Politics is about the way decisions are made. That can either be done in an authoritarian way – through a dictator or an absolute monarch or it can be done in a democratic way with public support.  However, a healthy democracy relies on citizens taking an active interest and role in public affairs – including voting and debating issues of the day.  To paraphrase Edmund Burke “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good people do nothing.”

Illegally accessing databases, running smear campaigns to undermine or destroy the reputation of political opponents and attempting to manipulate the democratic process through anonymous large political donations are corrosive to the health of our democracy. The USA had the Watergate scandal in 1972-73. Recent years have shown that New Zealand is not immune to such behaviours.

Unfortunately such behaviour tarnishes the reputation of all politicians – including the majority who are genuinely interested in advancing the public interest and making our country better. The best of our political leaders across political parties are driven by a desire to improve things for all citizens.

Political authority needs to be exercised with the virtues that make it possible to put power into practice as service. These virtues include patience, modesty, moderation, charity and efforts to share. The purpose of political activity is to work for the common good, which is the good of each person and of all people.

Power always carries the potential for corruption. As Edmund Burke said “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. This erodes trust and damages the relationship between those who govern and those who are governed.  It is the media’s duty to uncover any hint of scandal or corrupt behaviour. But they too have a duty to accuracy and evidence-based commentary.

However if day to day helpful work is not newsworthy then such work can be devalued in the political world dominated by the 5 second soundbite. It’s little wonder that many honourable citizens are deterred from entering the political arena. Who wants to see their own reputation besmirched without basis? Who wants to see their family subjected to the rumour mills and innuendo of the paparazzi? Truth is sacrificed for ratings, advertising income and profit.

The news media would do us all a service if they highlighted the valuable but non-spectacular work done day in and day out by dedicated public servants and elected officials who try to make a difference for the common good. Then we might find that a wider pool of talented candidates makes itself available at elections and that has to be good for everyone.

Ultimately, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others”.  As citizens we need to expect truth from our media and virtues-based action from our political leaders. It’s in all our interests to ensure our democracy is as healthy as possible.


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