Parliaments must be vulnerable to save democracy

Following the random and lone attack on the Canadian Parliament, people are musing about providing an armed defence for the New Zealand parliament.

Arming Parliament will create something ironic: our seat of government will defended like any dictatorship against public action.

An absolutely essential component of democracy is that its central forum is permanently vulnerable – permanently open to public action and involvement.

Arming Parliament will have a chilling effect on public expression. It will start closing the safety valve of protest.

I was at the infamous ‘fart tax’ protest at Parliament, when Shane Ardern drove his tractor up the steps of Parliament, and Lockwood Smith led cows onto the steps. If Parliament had armed guards that day, Shane and Lockwood would have had guns aimed at them.

Maybe, fearing the armed guards, Shane and Lockwood would never have mounted the steps. That would have deprived them of the ability to express the intensity of the crowd’s feeling that day. People-power would have been thwarted.

Conversely, arming Parliament will have a warming effect on the arrogance of Parliament. Protected by its own force, separated from the expression of those it governs, Parliamentarians’ psyches will be bolstered by the protection to think of themselves as even more special, unique, and empowered.

Parliament sits at the whim, and mercy, of the public. It does not rule over us, it rules for us. Parliament’s power rests on the satisfaction of the public.

Our permission to govern is not given just in periodic democratic elections. It is given daily – every petition to Parliament, every protest in front of Parliament, every appearance at a select committee, every tour through its halls, every picnic in Parliament grounds… that’s the public consenting to Government through civil behaviour they have chosen.

For the public to be powerful, Parliament has to be vulnerable to the will of the people. That’s a tough ask for MPs, staff and journalists – but democracy is worth a lot more than their personal fears. 

If Government is not permanently vulnerable, then the only way of getting change will be the extremes we see on the streets of Hong Kong, Ukraine, Turkey, and even those on the streets of France in 1789.

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