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Waterfront debate spawns new style of democracy
John Roughan
Saturday November 25, 2006

If you listen to the received wisdom of recent years, newspapers could face the fate of the dinosaurs. Like the large lumbering creatures supposedly wiped out by a sudden celestial arrival, they are feeling the impact now of developments in cyberspace. Online trading is eating into their traditional feeding grounds and the speed, agility and "interactive" appeal of news and comment on the web is presenting a challenge to once-a-day publications and one-way media of all modes. Hence TV's strange little phone polls.

As a reader like me, you probably don't believe papers are at risk of complete extinction because we like to hold words in our hands. But complacency will get us nowhere. Newspapers everywhere need new techniques and services to maintain a mass readership, and the Herald, I think, has just hit on something big.

I don't suppose it is the first paper to think of opening its columns to people who want to record their names for or against a contentious proposal but I haven't seen it done before on the scale of the past fortnight. It is a phenomenon that wouldn't have been possible before the advent of email.

When Trevor Mallard brought his waterfront proposal to Auckland and gave us just two weeks to discuss it, he posed a challenge that he probably now regrets. The Herald was not the only mass medium to invite Aucklanders' emailed views, but only a newspaper could publicise their names. Columns of names, pages of names.

Any website could have published them but who would bother putting their identity on a website alone? That question goes to the heart of a newsprint's advantage. Ink on paper produces an indelible public statement that nothing can match. A newspaper is like a public billboard with many times the reach.

The stark power of names on paper is the reason, I suppose, the humble petition survives among many more sophisticated methods of persuasion. The Herald's pages effectively carried petitions from both sides of the waterfront stadium debate and it was quickly clear the tide was running against it.

Mallard tried several times to discredit the exercise and he was not the only one unnerved by the flood of names. The councils he had invited to make the decision for the city and the region quickly set up their own email response sites. Like the phone-in polls of TV and radio stations, the council feedback lacked the credibility of named votes.

Several people with no apparent axe to grind criticised the Herald exercise. Some argued, quite seriously, it was taking democracy too far. The paper was promoting direct democracy when "representative democracy" is supposed to prevail.

One letter-writer damned it as "applause-meter democracy". David Williamson of Belmont said, "I beg everyone to think very carefully about this - direct democracy is very easy to manipulate - especially from a newspaper in a monopoly position. When I see the yes or no ... all I can hear is the voice of a judge asking, 'What say ye good people - witch or not?'

He continued: "We elect representatives to make decisions in the name of all of us. In these hyper-cynical times vested interests are sowing the idea that this is wrong. We need only to look to the past to see what we could reap from this dismantling of real democracy in the name of the people."

Interesting letter. It was written, though, before the Herald had expressed an editorial view. Against the weight of the public response, the paper came out on Tuesday in favour of the waterfront stadium, which should answer the manipulation charge.

And the analogy of witch trials is an argument for putting judicial decisions beyond reach of any democratic majority, direct or representative.

Mr Williamson is right, I think, that some issues are unsuitable for a popular vote. Generally, they are subjects too dull or complicated to interest most people anyway. But even relatively complicated issues that interest a large number of people - penal policies, for example, and principles of the educational curriculum and assessment - could be open to the sort of vox populi the Herald has made possible. Direct democracy would probably improve public knowledge of the complexities in the process.

A common criticism of the Herald's exercise was that the 12,606 names published, while they tested the paper's capacity to process and print them, amounted to a small fraction of Auckland's million citizens, and it was, of course, a self-selecting fraction.

But the paper also commissioned DigiPoll to do the usual survey of a demographic cross-section of the population, and the results were not strikingly different - DigiPoll's sample of 751 Aucklanders opted for Eden Park (50 per cent) over the waterfront (36 per cent), while 70 per cent of the views volunteered to the Herald went for Eden Park and just under 30 per cent for the waterfront.

A voluntary response as heavy as the waterfront proposal provoked has a validity of its own, quite different from that of a statistically representative poll. A self-selecting poll is like a public meeting attended by people who feel strongly enough in the subject to want their voices heard.

A professional poll, by contrast, counts many who don't care as much. I'm not sure the sum of their decisions is any more democratically deserving than the preferences of those who care, particularly when the caring put their names out there.

Whatever happens, or doesn't happen, on the waterfront, the debate has demonstrated a new dimension of democracy and a new vitality for newspapers. They have only to wake up to the empowerment that is possible now that telecommunications enable people to rapidly register their will in public print.

* This column will not appear for the next four weeks. Thank you for reading this year, especially when you disagreed with me, and have a happy Christmas.