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.


Saturday, 19 December 2009

Binding Referendums Anyone?

Thousand of New Zealanders, and at least one person from Cambridge (me) participated
in the 'March for Democracy' up Queen Street

in Auckland on the 21st November. They were protesting because the government has ignored yet another referendum and they were calling for referendums to be made binding. While New Zealand is indeed a wonderful place to live, and certainly far more democratic than most countries, our democracy can always be improved.

In August of 2009, New Zealanders were faced with a citizens initiated referendum,
“Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offense in New
Zealand?”. The purpose of this referendum was to repeal the Crimes (Abolition of Force as a Justification for Child Discipline) Amendment Bill which had been introduced to parliament by Green Party MP, Sue Bradford. Overwhelmingly, 87.4% of those who voted answered 'no'. The Taupo (Cambridge) electorate took a very strong interest in this referendum with a higher than average turnout and a higher than average percentage of 'no' voters than many other electorates. The trouble is, in New Zealand, unlike Switzerland where referendums have been in use for over one hundred and thirty years, referendums are not binding on the New Zealand government.

When the CIR Act was first being introduced there was much comment and discussion. Cabinet Minister Sir Douglas Graham said in parliament in 1993,

“The Citizens Initiated Referenda Bill gives the freedom to engage the entire nation in any topic of our choosing... any Government that fails to respect the outcome of a non-binding referendum will have to convince us at the next general election that its decision was justified. It is my belief that we will rarely witness by Parliament the rejection of a referendum result.”

The recent referendum was not the only referendum that has been ignored. In the past we have had a referendum to reduce the number of MPs to 99 with 81.47% agreeing, but the government ignored it. There have also been others. Cabinet Minister Murray McCully was quoted back in 1992 as saying,

“To those who want to step immediately to binding referenda, I say that they will
have their opportunity when the legislation is in force to express that view by the
mechanism that the bill will provide. In other words, those who wish to promote that
referenda shall be binding will be able to initiate a non-binding referendum to
demonstrate public sympathy for their view. I commend that course to them.”

Well this is exactly what is about to happen. Larry Baldock, a former MP, is proposing a new referendum to make referendums binding on the government. Whether or not Mr Baldock is successful in collecting the huge amount of signatures required to trigger this referendum remains to be seen. However, if New Zealanders want this change then this is there opportunity to get in behind the referendum process by signing Mr Baldock's petition to have a referendum, helping to collect signatures, voting and putting pressure on our politicians for change.


This article first appeared in the Cambridge News 18/12/2009



Canterbury Atheists said...

Ha ha ha, tears roll down my eyes…making referendums binding has to be one of the stupidest & self-destructive idea’s going!

Here’s my ideas for some citizen initiated referendums which would, with little doubt, gain a majority of Kiwi’s support (a.) No Tax on Alcohol (b.) One more week statutory holiday for all workers (c.) Free doctors visits.

Imagine any government having to pay and implement these?

For better or worse The Government sometimes needs to protect the public from itself.

Then we have the issue of politicians lurking behind many of these petitions abusing the referendum process by using the signatory details on the petition as some kind of mailing-list for their parties fringe-views. Does this scenario sound familiar?

You guys are ‘pushing it up hill’ to suggest any citizen initiated referendum should be binding.

It’s frankly laughable, but as a lover of liberty and to aid the so-called democratic process, I myself will shortly have petition forms in all N.Z Public Bars calling for the Government to reduce tax on beer to zero.

Wine drinkers pay extra to make up the lost revenue.

Can I count on your signature?

And when I doubtless get a majority of public supporting a referendum for ‘No Tax on Beer’ will you guys assist me to get the current Government to implement it?

Have a great day.


PS: My next petition/binding referendum after that will be for Churches to pay tax like every other business.

Steve Baron said...

Ye of little faith Paul. Well I guess the difference between us two atheists is that I have faith in my fellow New Zealanders. The history of referendums has also proven that self interest is way down the list of priorities. But I doubt you have taken the time to read even one of the studies posted on our website which prove you wrong. I guess we are all self obsessed idiots and you are the only intelligent one among us Paul? Having the right to decide issues that directly affect the lives of New Zealanders is important to me. Experience has shown me that ideological governments don't always get it right. A lot of water can flow under the bridge between elections.

Canterbury Atheists said...

Steve, mate.

Globally referenda are abused by self-interest groups and in Switzerland the public apathy for them saw only 36 per cent of voters turning-out in the latest poll.

Included in that last Swiss vote was a ban on Muslim minarets and something about taxation aviation fuel!!

Why should the public get a say on something as mundane and irrelevant as tax on aviation fuel?

But once the door is open to binding citizen initiated referenda we’ll get all the loonies coming out from underneath their beds (where mum keeps them in boxes)and we’ll have be trotting down to our local polling booth every weekend to vote on “if arms can be exported?” (another of the life or death issues on the ballot paper from the last Swiss referendum)

So the last referendum in Switzerland was a prime example how the process has been hijacked by small self-interest groups who have no other way of obtaining their narrow political goals through the mainstream political system.

Let’s admit Larry Baldock is politically impotent. More Kiwis voted for the Legalise Marijuana Party at the last election than his rabble of Old Testament zealots and he’s grasping at straws to re-invent a system he can use to his advantage – hence he’s off down the referendum path.

Again I suggest if I ran a ‘binding referendum’ to take tax off beer – I would easily gain a majority.

I’m of course relying on good keen Kiwi men and fellow atheists like you to support me on this one, Steve.

Imagine 5 dollar jugs?! (begins salivating live Palov’s dog and resembling Homer Simpson)

Be honest Steve, having a referendum on taxing beer seems more in-tune with Kiwi’s debating lowering the tax on aviation fuel via poll and I’d suggest a massive turn-out and a landslide victory for the ‘No Beer Tax’ campaign.

Note: We'd make up the lost revenue by doubling tax on Wine.

Another totally self interest referendum I could run is “No Tax on Horse Racing” which would also garnish massive support, corporate financial backing in the millions.

It’s great in principle, but self-interest and petty politics makes the whole idea a no-starter.

Great chatting.


Steve Baron said...

You like to portray yourself as knowledgeable when it comes to referendums but in fact you know very little and your opinions are extremely biased Paul. Referendums are not abused by self-interest groups as you suggest. At least certainly no more abused than special interests and elected representatives. Certainly no worse. You also forget that to trigger a referendum in NZ over 300,000 signatures must be collected. Switzerland requires only 50,000 with a population almost twice that of NZ and they only average 3-4 referendums per year. Some referendums have a turnout as low as 10% but others have been nearly 90%. It all depends on how controversial the referendum is. What we do need is more control over issues that directly affect our lives. If you want to trust politicians all the time then good for you Paul. I'm afraid I don't. If you have a better suggestion than binding referendums then I am all ears.

Canterbury Atheists said...

Yes Steve, more ‘people on the street’ input has to be a good thing, but Kiwi’s are already by and large apathetic towards politics and frankly – don’t give a rats – unless there’s something in it for them.

If for example the referendum was on ‘lowing tax on beer’(my brain child) the turn-out would be massive, bathed in self-indulgence and the result inevitable.

Under the marvels of the binding system you suggest the Government of the day would be forced to accede to the beers drinkers, then say police a ban on smoking etc etc etc.

The country would grind to a halt and its coffers would be emptied.

Companies would flea the now politically unstable country when union sponsored binding- referendums were passed for “a 35 hour week” and “$15 per hour minimum wage” etc.

Rest assured these Union sponsored causes would be a certainty – not a possibility.

You yourself know in countries like Switzerland erroneous things like “Should mosques be allowed minarets?” and “aviation petrol tax” are the normal fodder dished-up in their referendums and when petty things like that creep into the public domain – the public turns-off and the whole thing becomes farcical – yet dangerous (think what would happen if Unions gathered enough support for a 20 per cent wage increase)

Again its’ great in principal but it does not work in practice and also comes at a cost to the taxpayer.

You are creating a Frankenstein Monster!

Have a good weekend – I’m off to the pub right now to seek support for my cause.


Steve Baron said...

Given that more people voted in the smacking referendum than voted to change the voting system back in 1993? perhaps you are right, maybe we are apathetic? But the bottom line is, even if there are low turnouts in some instances, what this effectively says is that those that don't bother to vote are not concerned which way the referendum goes. But at least they have a real say in what happens if they choose. So for everyone that was a possible yes, there is someone who is a possible no. They cancel each other out. The other argument is that if referendums were binding, and people knew their vote really counted, there would be more participants. I think your opinions are rather cynical Paul, New Zealanders are far more interested in things other than beer. Although I get the feeling you may have started before you even left for the pub? While Switzerland may indeed be far from perfect, there country does not seem unstable in any way to me. You are welcome to your opinion Paul, but that is all it is, an opinion, not based on any facts. As for costing money, Professor Matsusaka in his empircale study (along with others) has shown referendums can reduce government spending by up to 19%. Now that would bring a smile to the face of any taxpayer.

Canterbury Atheists said...

FACT ONE: The latest amusing gem of ‘democracy in action’ coming-out-of that shining-beacon of light, Switzerland, is an impending referendum for courts to let animals have lawyers!! Tears of laughter begin rolling down my face at what interests extremist animal liberationists (refer my argument that self-interest groups hijacking the system and how the system becomes farcical)

FACT TWO: The Firefighters Union used (abused?) the referendum system in 1995 to engage the public at large their own industrial employment issues. Why don’t you publicise that debacle and the mediocre 1 in 3 turn-out? My claim unions would hijack the system is borne of record. Should the result become binding every public-servant Union in New Zealand etc etc would demand more pay and better conditions via the ballot box – and the tax payer would pay for the expensive process.

FACT THREE: If you think less Kiwi’s would turn-out in a referendum to support a vote for ‘No Tax On Beer’ than say ‘Animals need state-sponsored lawyers to represent them’ – it’s you that has been drinking! I would have a multi-million dollar budget to run my campaign. All the vested interest groups like breweries, pubs would back my cause and I would piss-in. So I repeat the fact that by opening-up referendum to the masses you are going to encourage every nutter in the land with a cause to try and round-up enough support. Shopping Centres will be chocker-block with desks of zealots collecting signatures on this and that issue – they find important and 98% of other people don’t care either way on.

And by the way Steve – yes I am cynical – and proud of it!

See ya mate.


Steve Baron said...

Fact 1. If a majority of the people of Switzerland do not support this proposal it will not succeed. If it succeeds then it is not a self-interest group hijacking democracy, it is a majority decision. It is taxpayers money and if that is what they want to spend it on then so be it. I wouldn't agree with it personally and neither do I think it would pass a referendum either to be honest. But that is only my opinion.

Fact 2. The fire-fighters referendum may very well have been an abuse of the referendum process but it was also a way for New Zealanders to show their concern over government cuts in this much needed and respected service. As the employers of the fire-fighters, the government, it would have been their responsibility to run a campaign to educate New Zealanders as to the need to introduce cuts in this sector. The government made no effort to do this as it always intended to ignore the referendum. Perhaps with proper public debate and participation from the government, the decision may have been different? The other aspect to consider is that governments often role out support by way of handouts to favoured interest/support groups. Compulsory unionism laws to bolster union bank accounts that help fund the Labour party come to mind. Or the National party paying subsidies to farmers? Do the public have any control or say over these sort of vulgar government acts? Perhaps an argument for ending representative democracy?

Point 3. I repeat again, obviously to deaf ears, there is no historical evidence to prove that moneyed interests can win referendums by throwing millions at them. That is a figment of your imagination Paul, and an urban myth that continually perpetuates itself.