Speaker by Various Artists

58

The Democracy-Free Zone

by Bronwyn Hayward

Wednesday evening, September 19, was Suffrage night in New Zealand, marking 119 years since Christchurch's Kate Sheppard, together with a small group of women and men from the wider region of Canterbury, began a movement that successfully led the world to win the vote for all adult citizens, women and men.

Since the 2010 and 11 Christchurch earthquakes however democracy has been eroded in the city that was once the epicentre of the women's emancipation movement. Today. Christchurch has become something of a "democracy-free zone" as command and control decision making has sidelined local communities.

botched and sudden announcement of the decision to re-organise schools across the city, and "consult" on the "firm proposal" to close 13 schools, merge others and "reorganise the education network" (a move which will eventually see locally elected school boards replaced with larger clusters) was the last straw for many families.

Schools have been the backbone of community support at a time when government has focused more on recovering returns for economic investment in the central city than relief for suffering local residents. Families and children have needed the stability of local schools to help them recover from a national disaster.

So statements from the Ministry of Education that express sympathy for those who "inevitability upset" while expressing the expectation that communities will eventually come to "accept change" are particularly frustrating and patronizing.  They avoid acknowledging how many children in Christchurch are living in highly precarious situations, in a country that as a whole already leads the OCED with the highest rates of youth suicide, and highest growth in social inequality,  and high rates of child poverty.

The statements also fail to acknowledge that reckless policy change on a large scale may well make the situation worse not better. Many plans may be welcome, and replanning is needed, but the decision to reorganise the entire schools network on a grandscale de-legitimises the suffering of local communities and brushes off suggestions we should take an exceptionally cautious approach to education review in a national disaster. 

Although not as obvious or as immediately problematic as the suffering caused by large scale education policy reform, the democratic implications of reorganising locally elected school boards are also deeply troubling.

Many state school boards emerged in the study we conducted in Christchurch as surprisingly important in modelling democratic decision making for young citizens and the policy plans are accompanied by plans to introduce new public-private Charter schools in some of the poorest communities of the city, where major education changes are focused.

This potential loss of local state community schools comes on top of an extraordinary decision to suspend regional council elections with no constitutional justification. Citizen vote and voice has also been lost in the very process of rebuilding the city iteself, with the  brushing aside of meaningful elected city council decision making in favour of a central government department tasked with replanning the central business district in 100 days.

courageous Press editorial speaking out on the loss of democracy in the region both validated and successfully articulated a growing public concern. Widespread community concern with loss of voice and vote in school, city and regional decision making, resulted in more than 700 residents joining us on Suffrage night with two days' notice --- people came together to create a public moment -- to listen to children's concerns and hopes for their city and to protest the loss of local democracy in decision-making.

What next? To fully recover from a disaster we also have to recover our ability to make decisions collectively and democratically as a community. The Suffrage rally marks the beginning of a  campaign calling for Rebuilding Suffrage in 100 days,as spontaneous events all over the city aim to return decision making to elected processes , so we can determine the future for our schools, our city and our region with our vote.

At the rally we unrolled a giant petition of calico which children and adults painted, echoing  the famous suffrage petition  of 1893  taken to parliament in a wheelbarrow and rolled out down the length of the aisle. We hope more and more lengths of calico will be added to this 'petition' in the coming weeks as children and adults create petitions at their own  community events all over the city -adding strength to calls for restoring democratic voice and vote to the local community.

As we recover from the earthquakes, let's do so in a way that restores Kate Sheppard's remarkable democratic legacy to the children of this city. See if you can create a 'Rebuild Suffrage' petition event in your local community and at the same time add your name to our online petition which also launched last night -- this is day one of one hundred days.

Take a first step to help rebuild suffrage, sign here - it's what Kate Sheppard would do!

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Bronwyn Hayward is Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Canterbury and the author of Children, Citizenship and Environment -- Nurturing a Democratic Imagination in a Changing World. This post is republished from Bronwyn Hayward's original blog post here.

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