When the Government is no longer afraid of its people

There's a line in Michael Moore's Sicko documentary that every democratic citizen should commit to memory. The radical film-maker declares: "Governments should always be afraid of their people, but people should never be afraid of their government."

Moore was comparing France with the United States, and wondering how two countries, both with revolutionary traditions, could end up so far apart. Americans' fear and hatred of "Big Government" is legendary. But the French will challenge government policy at the drop of a chapeau.

In the US you strike and demonstrate at your own risk. French governments do not like to risk demonstrations and strikes.

In 1968 – well within the memory of senior French politicians – demonstrations and strikes brought the Fifth Republic to the very brink of revolution. It took the active intercession of the French Communist Party, and a 10 per cent pay rise, to separate the workers from their youthful student allies.

Governments in New Zealand were also afraid of the people – once. And the people gave them good reason.

The National Party was elected for the first time in 1949 on a rock-solid promise to abolish what it called "compulsory unionism". In 1951 it provoked a fight with the Waterside Workers Union.

If it could make an example of New Zealand's toughest and most progressive union, then abolishing compulsory unionism would be a piece of cake.

What it got was a very different sort of example. For 151 days the wharfies and their allies fought Sid Holland's government toe-to-toe. The government "won" – but only because the machiavellian boss of the Federation of Labour agreed to keep its 300,000 members "neutral".

It would be another 40 years before the National Party was prepared to have another really serious crack at organised labour.

And the only reason Bill Birch's Employment Contracts Bill passed into law without serious amendment in 1991 was because the Council of Trade Unions, dominated by "moderate" state-sector union bosses, lacked the courage to give Birch and his mates a bloody nose.

Well, we've had 20 years to appreciate the benefits of "moderation". Perhaps we've all been much too polite for far too long.

Then again, civility and moderation are qualities highly prized by New Zealanders. Our country is one of the oldest continuously functioning democracies on Earth.

As far as possible, we prefer to communicate with our political leaders through the ballot box. It's only when they deliberately and stubbornly refuse to be advised by the democratic process that we get angry.

I guess that's why Labour, the Greens, the CTU and Grey Power have opted to fight the partial privatisation of the state-owned energy companies by launching a citizens initiated referendum (CIR). Between elections, it's one of the few ways of using the ballot box to make your point.

CIRs are, of course, non-binding, but a Government refusal to be guided by its undoubted success would be extremely provocative. Knowing a majority of the electorate was against their policy – but proceeding anyway – the National-led Government would be positively inviting the people to organise a more robust response.

The precedent is there in Greenpeace's campaign against mining schedule four land.

The spectacle of 50,000 New Zealanders marching up Auckland's Queen St was more than enough to throw John Key and the Government's big blue bulldozer into reverse.

Discretion will once again prove to be the better part of National's valour if Kiwis respond to the Labour/Green/CTU/Grey Power call for volunteers. If anything, the spectacle of ordinary citizens, muffled against the autumn gales, standing on tens of thousands of street corners clutching clip-boards and ball-point pens, or knocking on the doors of tens of thousands of former National Party voters, is likely to prove even more terrifying than Robyn Malcolm, Lucy Lawless and their Greenpeace legions.

The task of gathering the 307,000 signatures required to force a referendum on asset sales is not a small one – but it can be done.

And, frankly, we need to do it. As citizens, we've been passive for far too long.

As the veteran British Labour politician Tony Benn tells Michael Moore in Sicko: "An educated, healthy and confident nation is harder to govern."

Much harder than a nation that's beaten-down, demoralised and genuinely frightened of its own government.

Democracy is not a political system for fearful people: to function properly it requires regular displays of unreasonable and immoderate courage.

Waikato Times