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.


Tuesday, 20 April 2010

US Ambassador Anti Direct Democracy

I had the opportunity today to meet with and listen to an address by the US Ambassador to New Zealand, David Huebner, at Waikato University.

He gave an extremely honest, down to earth, and entertaining speech. I would highly recommend you taking the opportunity to do so yourselves if you ever get the chance.

I posed the question... "Given America's long history with the use of the Initiative and Referendum, and given that the USA is one of only three countries in the world who have never held a national referendum, do you see the possibility of using the the referendum on a national issue like the health insurance debate in America?".

Given he is from California, a state with the highest use of referendums, I was somewhat surprised to hear that he was extremely anti Direct Democracy and even commented that it has ruined the Californian economy. I imagine there is some personal bias here given the current debate in California over gay marriages, and given that David is openly gay.

I had the chance to discuss his comments briefly afterward, before he was whisked away, but I did mention a university study by Californian Professor, John Matsusaka, about the effects of referendums on the Californian economy which empirically argued otherwise. It is titled, Have Voter Initiatives Paralyzed the California Budget? Below is the studies abstract:

Many observers blame the California budget crisis on a series of voter initiatives that unrealistically appropriated spending while prohibiting tax increases. However, a review of all initiative measures approved by the voters since 1912 shows that no more than 32 percent of appropriations in the 2003-04 budget were locked in by initiatives. Virtually all of the earmarked spending was for education, and would have been appropriated by the legislature even without an initiative mandate. Initiatives placed only minimal constraints on the legislature’s ability to raise revenue. The facts suggest that voter initiatives are not a significant obstacle to balancing the budget in California.

If you would like to read the whole study you can do so by clicking here


1 comment:

Steve Baron said...

The Ambassador responds:

Dear Steve,

Thanks for your message through my blog. I very much enjoyed my visit to Waikato, and I appreciated the questions about the initiative and referendum process.

No, I don’t think that my political view on any particular issue has unduly impacted my opinion of the initiative process. My position has accreted over a number of years of watching unwise and almost indiscriminate assumption of massive debt, as well as witnessing a good bit of political ping-ponging of various issues requiring rational, deliberative thought rather than millions of dollars of televised sound-bite hyperbole. As a general matter, and not as a comment on the particular study you reference, I have also learned that statistics often serve the interests of those who collect and interpret them. I do believe in data, but I also believe in learning as much as possible about the collection process, the underlying assumptions, and the methodology, so that one has a basis for respecting the data.

I think that your e-mail and your blog post misstate my point. You are focusing just on the economy. My point was broader and more fundamental, in that I believe the California governance system has been severely weakened to the point of paralysis by the current initiative process.

Finally, by labeling me as extremely anti-direct-democracy or some such thing, you are mischaracterizing my view. I am not opposed to referenda. (Quite the contrary.) Rather, I am a skeptic about the value of the kind of referendum process currently in place in California. I know that many people like polarizing the world into black or white, but that’s not the world I live or think in.

Also, I think it too easy and a bit disrespectful to suggest that as a gay man I cannot think rationally or objectively about initiatives (or any other issue) because the process in a couple of cases did not produce the result that a gay man would presumably desire. I think that arguments should rise and fall on their merits, not on using demographic factors to attempt to undercut the credibility of those who make them.

Best regards,


David Huebner

U.S. Ambassador

Tel: (64 (4) 462-6000