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23 January 2021

OPINION: Silence in unhealthy democracies

Saturday 9 January 2021 | Written by Thomas Tarurongo Wynne | Published in Editorials, Opinion

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OPINION: Silence in unhealthy democracies
Cook Islands Parliament. 20032507

Public scrutiny of public decisions that involve the public’s wellbeing and are paid for by the public purse should be welcomed and not defended as if the scrutiny of this decision was a personal attack, Thomas Wynne writes.

Nelson Mandela, the former South African president, said the collapse of good conscience and the absence of accountability and public scrutiny have led to crimes against humanity and violations of international law.

And it was American politician Jacob Javits who said when scrutiny is lacking, tyranny, corruption and man's baser qualities have a better chance of entering into the public business of any government.

Public scrutiny or the public’s questioning of public decisions are there to protect the integrity of our public officials and servants and not as is often portrayed here in the Cook Islands as some annoying insult or inconvenience.

Because, as Mandela pointed out, when scrutiny is missing, or silent, or people are afraid to speak out, crimes are committed against humanity and laws, even international laws are broken.

Silence happens in unhealthy democracies for a number of reasons.

Sometimes it is because people are afraid to speak up for fear of losing a livelihood or never being selected or appointed.

Or because of the backlash from those in power, or more concerning, because they are complicit, because they benefit from the silence, or because they want that benefit to continue or simply, people have given up hope for change.

The layers of complicity are often many and they are as obvious to the public as is their silence.

These past 12 months I have thoroughly enjoyed working for a Prime Minister who values, demonstrates and upholds a high level of personal and public integrity and a work ethic that sets an example for all public servants.

One that has ensured New Zealand’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been swift, thoughtful, compassionate, kind, well communicated and the envy of countries still in lockdown.

Her team right down to the electorate offices, are held to high standard and account.

Ministers of the Crown are held to a high standard of account and when they get it continually wrong, they are often relieved of their duties and accept that responsibility by way of resignation from their positions.

As the Book of Luke clearly states: “To whom much is given, much is expected” and that they are accountable to their Cabinet, to their leader and more importantly to the wider public for their actions and decisions.

When you do not have these sorts of constraints or personal and public checks and balances, you do not have a healthy democracy.

In fact, I would go further to say you do not have a democracy, for it has been replaced instead with the consumption and maintenance of power.

It is corrupt, unethical and outside the bounds of law and ethics, but never is it outside public scrutiny.

You will know that this is present, when key elements of a healthy democracy like the Police Commissioner, the Ombudsman and the Judiciary that provide the public with three avenues or three sets of checks and balances to hold the government to account have been compromised and its integrity forfeited or they are simply inactive for the personal or political gain of others.

If any one of these key elements are corrupted or simply do not function then it is democracy that fails and we very quickly slip into the despotic rule of the few, the decisions of the few and the benefit of the few, and  where criticism is shut down, diminished and personalised.

Where you will see power become a possession that runs on family or relationship lines and is no longer measured by whether one can do the job, instead it falls into the dark bleak hole of appointments to maintain and sustain power.

Nelson Mandela asked this sobering question, a question he understood because he had lived through power abused.

When scrutiny is missing, he asked or silent, or people are afraid to speak out, do we see crimes committed against humanity and laws, even international laws broken?

And politician Jacob Javits, who also asked this sobering question, if scrutiny is lacking, has tyranny, corruption and man's baser qualities entered into the public business of government?

As a citizen of this country, in fact of any country, what is our answer?

If our democracy is healthy then surely, we must stay on course, but if it is not healthy, then we must steer our country and people away from the treacherous waters ahead.

Because if we do not, we potentially sink the dreams, investments and aspirations of our people, as key moments in our short history as a democracy since 1965 have shown us time and again.