I attended the Futures Thinking Aotearoa lunch forum last week presented by David Bromell, author of Ethnicity, Identity and Public Policy: Critical Perspectives on Multiculturalism. His book is one we came across in research for our latest package of reports, and the talk was very useful. Below are a few notes I took from the presentation. –Steph.

Diversity and Democracy
Presented by David Bromell (IPS Associate and Principal Analyst at MSD)
24 March 2010

New Zealand society is diverse and becoming increasingly diverse. David focused on the implications ethnic, cultural and religious diversity in particular for democracy.

How can democracy support/what role does it have to play in a diverse society?

What implications does diversity have for the way our democracy operates/develops?

Three perennial tensions exist. These do not necessarily require either/or solutions, but can be balanced. i.e. some sort of acceptable middle ground. But also where/what are the trade offs between these tensions?

  1. Universal human rights where everyone is equal vs. special social group rights or representation
  2. Individual liberty vs. the common good (what is the role of the state)
  3. democracy as a market (aggregative) vs democracy as a forum (deliberative)

Note the historical development of the liberal democracy, in particular the separation of church and state and creation of a public/private divide, have reduced tolerance for recognition of special group rights by the state.

Suggestion that the recognition of special group rights should be symbolic (e.g. te reo as a national language, recognition of the indigeneity of Maori as ‘first out of equals’, flying of a Maori flag), rather than have resources or privileges permanently attached. It is implied attaching resources to certain social groups opens the door for discontent and further claims to group rights. i.e. 1877 Education act made education free, compulsory and secular, but government funding of Catholic schools since 1975 makes it near impossible to deny government funding to Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist schools.

Democracy isn’t value neutral. What is our bottom line? What is simply not acceptable? Suggests a ‘principled pragmatism’ as a middle way, between muddling through of the National and Labour governments or the ideological stances of smaller parties. This doesn’t answer the question of how to define these principles though? David suggested:

  1. universal rights
  2. democratic restraints on individual liberty
  3. the rule of law
  4. deliberative process to define common good
  5. symbolic recognition of social groups

Democracy as a market – politicians assume and cater for well-defined and fixed interests through dealing and compromising in order to gain enough votes; compared to democracy as a forum which assumes interests can and should be shaped through public debate, consensus building, development of collective interests and identities. Most liberal democracies have aspects of both: the role of deliberative democracy is perhaps particularly important in achieving more harmonious relations in a diverse population. Time and space are needed to understand the ‘other’, and to be able to focus on what is common, not using difference as a divisive tool.

A future issue that will arise is how to engage with ‘deep diversity’, that is, engagement between liberal and non-liberal cultures, especially given that a liberal democracy is considered a given starting ground for such engagement.

Civilizations should be measured by “the degree of diversity attained and the degree of unity retained.” W. H. Auden


See David Bromell, Diversity and Democracy Working Paper for the Institute of Policy Studies for Vic Uni. Available at http://ips.ac.nz/publications/files/df21fa57410.pdf