On the evening of the 25th of August 2014, I attended my second citizenship ceremony as a Local Board Member at the Auckland Town Hall. It is an obligation of Local Board Members to attend these events (although many don’t) as citizenship ceremonies are one of the areas of responsibilities of Local Boards under the Auckland Unitary Council structure. I find them to be uplifting experiences. It is great to see the happiness of new citizens as they collect their certificates and it is a reminder of what’s special about New Zealand.
The following is the standard speech delivered by the the ranking Local Board Member (or Deputy Mayor or Mayor if they are present). Those of us who grew up in New Zealand take this for granted but I think this is powerful stuff. It is the social contract made explicit:
Today, you will become New Zealand citizens and will be expected to accept the obligations as well as the privileges of citizenship in this country.
You will be expected to play your part in the maintenance of law and order and, if necessary, the defence of this country.
You will be expected to foster and support the close relationships existing between New Zealanders of all races.
You will obtain the right to live permanently in this country and to travel abroad as New Zealand citizens.
You have made the decision to become New Zealand citizens of your own free will and we congratulate you on that decision and feel proud that you wish to identify yourselves with this country.
We may also congratulate ourselves as we are gaining new citizens from lands with long and proud histories and with your different and varied backgrounds, you can make your own contribution to resolving the challenges we face us in this country.
In adopting your homeland, we do not wish you to forget the country of your birth, nor should your children lose the knowledge of their heritage and cultural roots.
It is an experience that inspires confidence in the future of the city to welcome citizens from (at this ceremony alone) Tonga, Samoa, Tanzania, Bangladesh, The Philippines, India, England, Ethiopia, Russia, Iran, Sudan, Italy, Taiwan, China, South Africa, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, Fiji, Australia, America, Vietnam, Canada, Indonesia, Brazil, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Korea, Malaysia, France, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Thailand, Kenya, Nigeria, Germany, Macedonia, Argentina, Kazakhstan, Mauritania, Singapore, Cambodia, Romania, Congo, Myanmar, Zimbabwe, Switzerland, Uruguay, Colombia, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Poland, Slovakia, Belarus, Sweden, Croatia, Papua New Guinea and Spain.
You will enjoy the security and protection, which New Zealand and the Commonwealth provide.
You will also be expected, as are all other citizens, to obey the laws and regulations of this country, to be a responsible member of the community, and to defend the principles of democracy, racial tolerance and the basic rights of the individual.
Each of you have lived in New Zealand for some years now. You have shared in our happiness and in our sorrows.
You know our strengths and limitations and, in full knowledge of this country, you have declared your intention to take the legal status of New Zealand citizens.
This was all particularly poignant to me with a General Election in less than a month. Here is a group of about 500 people embracing the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship when so many who are already citizens take them for granted. I must confess to a degree of impatience with citizens who don’t exercise their right to vote. Our rate of voter turnout is dropping with each election and in the 2013 local body elections Auckland had a frankly embarrassing turnout of 34% of eligible voters. There is a lot of public hand-wringing about this but not everyone is unhappy with this state of affairs. In Nicky Hager’s book, Dirty Politics, Simon Lusk was quite unashamed about a benefit to negative campaigners in the advantage to right-wing candidates in low turnout elections (p. 18):
There are a few basic propositions with negative campaigning that are worth knowing about. It lowers voter turnout, favours right more than left as the right continues to turn out and drives away the independents.
I am firmly of the view that we would have a very different government if closer to 100% of voters turned out and were informed enough to vote in their own interests. Of course, those are two big ‘ifs’ and the more important factor is an informed and educated populace. There are countries, such as Australia, that have compulsory voting and the same majority left-right patterns are entrenched there but in a small democracy with MMP there is a greater opportunity to break that deadlock. As compulsory voting seems to be a bridge too far in New Zealand it is worth looking at stronger civics education, particularly for young people. Instilling some pride in and knowledge of the democratic institutions and freedoms we enjoy can only help to inspire people to participate more our political system.