Better Democracy NZ is a non-partisan, non-profit organisation.

Our mission is to foster the improvement of New Zealand's democratic system and encourage the use of direct democracy through the

Veto, Citizens' Initiated and Recall referendum.


Monday, 17 August 2009

EU to adopt binding referendums

This is a historic event in world politics and for those of us who have pushed the cause of binding referendums here in New Zealand, justification that a huge population in Europe believes the same as we do. Here is a press release by two groups involved.

Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe & Austrian Institute for European Law and Policy PRESS RELEASE, May 14, 2009

European Citizens Summit in Salzburg welcomes EU Parliament Resolution on the new initiative right and suggests specific improvements.


Salzburg/Brussels – Europe is about to take a historic step in democratization. Overshadowed by other political Europe topics, half a billion collective EU citizens have been given the right by the new EU Lisbon Treaty to take action across borders in the legislative process of the EU. In the future, one million Europeans will be able to present a legislative or treaty amendment proposal just as the Parliament and the Council already can today which compels the Commission to act upon it.

On Europe Day, democracy specialists from across Europe and the world gathered in Salzburg at the invitation of the Austrian Institute for European Law and Policy as well as the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe, in order to confer on guidelines for the implementation requirements.

The Salzburg Summit here expressly affirmed the resolution adopted by the European Parliament in its last session about the new initiative right which places citizens in the future on the same level with the Commission just like Parliament and the Council. "The European Parliament has stipulated the central principle of free signature gathering", Andreas Gross commented, Social Democratic Group Chairman in the parliamentarian assembly of the Europe Council and added: "In some aspects it would be possible to improve the suggestions of the EP further. This includes the extension of the proposed time frame for the collecting of signatures from twelve to eighteen months. "Now it’s the Commission’s turn", emphasized Anne-Marie Sigmund, the former President of the European Economic and Social Committee: "From now until the enactment of the Lisbon Treaty, Brussels can still accomplish important preliminary work".

The Salzburg Citizens’ Summit further expanded the preparation efforts for a Europe-wide initiative infrastructure. This should allow all Europeans to actively participate in future transnational agenda settings. "It will be decisive", explained Prof. Johannes Pichler, director of the Austrian Institute for European Law and Policy, "that future EU citizens’ initiatives receive financial and logistic support from the EU in the same way as political parties represented in the EP do."

"We propose the organization of a European Citizens Initiative Office", said Bruno Kaufmann, President of IRI Europe, at the conclusion of the Salzburg Summit: "This office should be given a clear assignment and contribute to the citizen-friendly and pro-democratic use of the new instrument". In the coming six months, several task forces appointed by the Salzburg Summit will further develop implementation criteria and present a summary resolution at the beginning of the coming year. "This is world history in the making", a representative of Korea Democracy Foundation declared at one point in the Summit. She observed the deliberations in preparation for the "Global Forum on Direct Democracy" to take place in Korea, mid-September.

Further details as well as the original text of the "Salzburg Manifesto" can be found online at or

For more information, please contact Bernadette Maria Kaufmann, +43 (0) 662 84 39 80,



Anonymous said...

So the Europeans are going to allow referenda - which we already have.

The proposal is for a bureaucratic office to set up referenda questions. Good. They won't ever have to face the nonsense we have just voted on.

As for being binding, MPs themselves struggle to understand and absorb the information available to them. How are the general public ever going to make informed decisions?

Steve Baron said...

Yes that is true, MPs do struggle to fully understand everything that goes before Parliament. And just like the public, they rely on trusted colleagues and experts to make decisions for them. The public also relies on heuristic cues from people they respect or even organisations they respect and trust which could include political parties as well as their own intelligence and preferences. Political parties can also take the lead in any referendum as they often do overseas. All this shows is that politicians are no more wiser or informed than the general public. It would not be economically prudent for anyone or any MP to invest all their time to understand everything about everything. Most politicians would not even read a Bill in it's entirety before it passes through Parliament. If you are suggesting that the New Zealand public arent intelligent enough to make sensible decisions then I for one would not agree with you.

Anonymous said...

Well the recent referendum betrays the "common sense" of the public. The word "smack" does not appear in the law. Families First promised to tell us about all the cases - at least 9 - where good parents had been prosecuted, yet came up with noting.

Even so the public voted in support of a referendum which was pointless and not supported by any hard information.

The reality is most people are busy enough living their lives. Their only exposure to information is soundbites on TV news. Some will read feature articles by journalists - good, but most do not. The main pages read of daily newspapers are the front, sports and public opinion.

Ordinary people do not have the time to research. MPs at least are employed full-time to gather information and discuss it. They are always better informed even if they don't necessarily apply the information because of political stances.

Anonymous said...

But you are certainly far more wiser than the rest of New Zealanders aren't you Anonymous! You are in the 14% of elitists who always know better than the ignorant masses. If you had even bothered to read what Steve Barron had to say or read a number of empirical reports on the subject like some of have done, then you wouldn't even be making such ridiculous comments. While I might agree that the public weren't supplied with any hard evidence or a referendum pamphlet giving the arguments from both sides, that is not an argument for ignoring the results, only reason to ensure the rules around referendums are made more robust. The news media may decide what the public thinks about, but it doesn't decide how they think. Like a lot of people, I imagine you support referendums, so long as they go the way you think they should. As for MPs, most don't even turn up in the debating chamber or read the bills they vote on.

Anonymous said...

LOL at least Steve answered with a calm rational argument.

Anon - is there an echo in here?? - your response drops immediately into an ad hominen attack which sadly affirms doubts about the ability of people to discuss an issue. Instead the typical response is to castigate and personally denigrate the other person.

I'll give you an example. Sue Bradford is referred to in very nasty terms on internet boards and blogs etc. The depth of vitriol is astonishing when you consider her purpose is to protect children.

Personally I'd cross the street rather than meet her - but on S.59 she was right and I respect that. The issue is not the person.

I do not support binding referenda. I do support non-binding referenda which are logically constructed and presented as part of a document of balanced arguments.

Steve Baron said...

It would seem to me that the first Anon who criticised the referendum is suggesting the majority who voted NO, are wrong, and that voters are uninformed and ignorant. It is no surprise then that the second Anon would criticise him/her for that. It would not be unreasonable to consider this person as perhaps a little elitist and or condescending. You don't have to agree with the result of the smacking referendum, but the people of New Zealand have spoken and their decision should be respected, even though the format of referendums in New Zealand need to be re-considered in my opinion link text. If we follow the line of argument by the first Anon, then we should not even have general elections, a dictator would do, because the voters are not informed or interested enough to decide which party should be government. As I have said in the past, I would trust the collective wisdom of three million voters before that of 122 MPs. I would suggest the first Anon is like a lot of people, we all think we ourselves are intelligent enough to make sensible decisions, it's just the guy next door who isn't. The trouble is, the guy next door is thinking the same thing about us!

Anon1 said...

Think of me as Anon1. I won't address every point Steve but it's a vast leap to say we should do away with representative democracy just because referenda are not supported. We elect representatives to winnow information and make decisions on our behalf.

Voters are often uninformed - but they are not ignorant. They simply do not have the time or indeed the interest to absorb the myriad issues which Parliament grapples with.

Consider California which has embraced referenda. It's broke. No money. And its government is paralysed because of its citizens.

We'd still have slavery and men-only voting if referenda were the rule.

Steve Baron said...

Well Anon1 I don't know where you get the idea that referendums are not supported. A recent NZ Herald online poll showed that over 70% of New Zealanders think referendums should be binding and my own observations from collecting signatures for my referendum in 2005 also confirm that.

As far as your comment, "We elect representatives to winnow information and make decisions on our behalf." are concerned, well that might be the way you personally feel but it isn't the way I feel about elections. It isn't real democracy when you get one vote every three years and then the government can go and do whatever they want and break any promises they have made the day after the election. New Zealanders deserve more than that and deserve to have more control over unresponsive governments. We are not idiots. We know what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad. We deserve more say on issues that directly affect our lives when we think it is important to have that say.

Yes voters are often uninformed, but so are politicians. When it comes to conscience type issues they know very little more than the average New Zealander and their conscience is no more valuable. I have personally met many MPs and I certainly wouldn't agree they are more intelligent or more informed. In fact I would say anyone who had a passion about an issue then made the effort to become informed, would be far more informed than most MPs.

California... you obviously haven't done much research on this one Anon1. Go to our website link text and download 'Have Voter Initiatives Paralyzed the California Budget?' by Professor Matsusaka. In his other report (also online) 'Budget referendums and government spending' he proves that referendums actually reduce government spending and save ratepayers money. If you want to blame anyone or anything for California's problems, you might take a closer look at elected representatives. But even if referendums were to blame, as you are suggesting, how do you explain how wealthy Switzerland is even though they are the most prolific users of referendums in the world, and referendums are held on a national basis on many various issues (USA does not have national referendums).

And your final comment, there were a number of American states, and even Switzerland comes to mind, where women only received the vote through the referendum process, when elected representatives refused to give it to them. As for slavery... it took elected representatives a long time before they outlawed slavery, many flatly refused to. It is more likely this would have happened earlier with binding referendums as perhaps homosexual law reform might have happened earlier in New Zealand with binding referendums?

Anything else I can enlighten you on Anon1?

Anon1 said...

I'm happy to bow to your detailed arguments Steve and leave further discussion for another day.

Just be aware that there are commentators who point to California as a good example of why binding referenda are not a good idea.

Actually I support non-binding referenda as a useful way of reminding politicians of what people think.

Steve Baron said...

What is the point of having referendums if they can be totally ignored by politicians? To date the government has ignored every referendum we have ever had. They are not work the paper they are written which is an insult to the people who made the huge effort to trigger the referendums, not to mention an insult to the intelligence of those who voted.