How to change the world

English: Riot police in Washington, D.C. takin...

English: Riot police in Washington, D.C. taking a lunch break at the Old Post Office during International Monetary Fund protests. Français : Des membres de la police anti-émeute font une pause-déjeuner à Washington durant des manifestations contre le Fonds monétaire international. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why do people think that petitions and protests can change the world? Well, they can but only if many, many other factors also fall in line. I’m thinking here of the protests about Post Offices or Bank Branches that are shut down when the demand for the services falls away.

If demand is falling, then the branches will not be financial profitable, and the bank or Post Office will be very unlikely to keep them open. Banks and the Post Office and not charitable institutions and have to make a profit for their shareholders, and they would not be able to do that if the branches are unprofitable.

English: ANZ Bank branch in Temora, New South ...

English: ANZ Bank branch in Temora, New South Wales (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the same way cash strapped public services (such as the Police) are also being forced to close public offices. While the Police closures mentioned in the linked article cite the danger to the volunteers who man the offices, and the closures are supposed to be temporary, many people believe that the real reason is costs. In fact the Police management claim that using modern technology police of the street can be more mobile and do not need to use the offices so frequently.

Whatever the true reasons, protest and petitions are unlikely to have any effect. If changes are for operational or financial reasons, then unless the reasons change, the changes are very unlikely to be reversed. Any opposition is going to be ineffective.

English: Graph of profits made by BAIR company...

English: Graph of profits made by BAIR company from 1892 to 1903. The values are taken from page 131 of “The World Abir Made: The Margina-Lopori Basin, 1885-1903” by Robert Harms from Issue 12 of the Journal of African Economic History of 1983. The first two years are averages of a value given for a two year period. The black line represents a general trend described by Harms for years with no data. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sometimes a protest or petition can be effective, but that requires that a lot of things go the the way of the protesters. In this country the Mixed Member Proportional election system was selected in 1996 to be the method of electing Parliament.

There were two main factors that enabled the selection of MMP as the election system. Firstly, there was a feeling that a change needed to occur, as many people thought that with the then existing system a vote for a losing candidate was a wasted vote, and that minor parties were unable to make an impression on Parliament – frequently a minor party would get 10 to 15% of the vote, but would get maybe only one or two seats out of 100.

English: Election signs for the major parties ...

English: Election signs for the major parties plus a sign supporting the MMP side in the referendum in the constituency of Ottawa South. Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty is the Liberal candidate there. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the two previous elections, one party, Labour, had secured more than 50% of the vote, but had lost out to National, because they had won more seats. Naturally the Labour voters were incensed by this seeming injustice.

The second big factor was a small and vociferous group of people who felt that it was necessary to change and the system and who were able to use their political connections to influence media and political commentators to promote their favoured system, MMP. It also helped that they had no effective opposition, as the opposition was politically naive and unorganised.

Crowds outside the National Assembly, with sig...

Crowds outside the National Assembly, with signs calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Said Musa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Dubious tactics were alleged (and probably were used, on both sides), and well before it came to a vote in a referendum on the subject, it was almost a foregone conclusion. Actually the result was closer than many people predicted, though in retrospect that was probably just due to political inertia, and many people voted for the status quo of the time, rather than the new and untested alternative.

There were no real financial or operational reasons for not changing the voting system. If, say, it made it a lot more expensive to run an election, then the voting system would not have been changed, and if it made it a lot more complicated to vote (as did one of the competing systems, STV), then it would not have been changed.

Similarly, if the proponents of the new system had been disorganised, disunited, or politically naive, then they would not have stood a chance. They would have failed at the first hurdle, which was getting a Royal Commission to look into the options set up.

As an example of how it can go wrong, fairly recently a referendum was held to decide if we were going to keep our existing flag or get a new one. There was no groundswell of dissatisfaction with the existing flag, except for the niggle that it kept getting mistaken for the Australia flag and vice versa.

English: Flag of New Zealand. Taken outside th...

English: Flag of New Zealand. Taken outside the Beehive, Wellington Deutsch: Flagge Neuseelands. Aufgenommen vor dem Beehive, Wellington. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There was no politically inspired organisation to push for a new flag and there was no obvious contender for a new flag. Therefore, there was no momentum going into the referendum for a change in the flag. So the referendum came down to firstly choosing between some mediocre choices for a replacement and then a fight off between the existing flag and the alternative.

An interesting point is that the “winning” alternative was not the one that got the most votes at the first count. As the selection was done on the STV system, as flags were removed from the list and the votes were reassigned, the second highest polling flag in the first round gained enough votes to overtake the highest polling flag.

This demonstrates a deficiency of the STV system, though its supporters would claim that it was an advantage! In any case the alternative flag lost out to the existing flag by a fairly wide margin.

As an example of how to change the world, this debate and referendum was a dud. There was just not enough political nous on the side of those who would change the flag for it to become a reality. In addition, while the change was sponsored by the Prime Minister, it was not adopted by his party in a comprehensive way. It gave the impression that it was a pet project of the Prime Minister, and was not fully endorsed by his party.

So that is brief and by no means exhaustive look at how to change the world. It starts with a small number of dedicated and driven people and builds from there. It doesn’t matter if the ideas are actually good or bad, because if you can get the ball rolling, people will fight to sign up for the cause.

English: Thetford Post Office Centrally locate...

English: Thetford Post Office Centrally located dedicated Post Office at the top of King street. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you can’t build the support, well, then your aims and ideals will go nowhere. That’s why little protests about Post Offices and Bank Branches will never win. They can’t build the momentum.

Enormous snowball made in South Park in a snow...

Enormous snowball made in South Park in a snow-covered Oxford (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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