Ain’t democracy wonderful, we’ve just finished deciding who will run our local council and now we get to decide if the government should sell up to 49% of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power, Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand, in a referendum?
Well, no actually… those politicians we elected in 2011 were evidently sprinkled with magical pixie dust which makes them far more intelligent than the rest of us. They have the power to ignore any citizens’ initiated referendum they choose—something they have done on every single citizens’ initiated referendum that has ever been held. Elitism has triumphed over collective wisdom—the Prime Minister and a dozen or so Cabinet Ministers know better than 3 million New Zealand voters.
Well I for one do not subscribe to that theory. Over the years I have seen far too many bad decisions by government. Anyone remember Think Big?
It came as no surprise to me, as I predicted in May of last year, enough signatures would be collected to trigger this referendum—a huge effort from those involved given the thresholds required. Personally I don’t think the government has any business running these businesses but that is only my opinion, which isn’t important. What is important is what the majority of New Zealanders want—we should not be ignored by the government. Knowing the government can, and will, ignore the referendum result will probably have a huge effect on this referendum, especially since Meridian has now been sold. The turnout will probably be very low.
Another disturbing aspect of citizens’ initiated referendums is that the government, through the Electoral Commission, has made no attempt to educate or inform voters of the pros and cons of this referendum issue. Under present law, for a citizens’ initiated referendum, the Electoral Commission is only permitted to send voters a voting paper and information on the voting process—not on the issue of the referendum. If we are to take our democratic system seriously and ensure voters are fully informed, it would seem to me to be vital that the Electoral Commission be empowered to produce an official referendum pamphlet and referendum website which explains both sides of the issue in a balanced, informative way.
I would point out that in Switzerland, which has a very robust direct democracy system that runs parallel with their representative system, all voters are provided with an official referendum pamphlet which is posted at least three months before the referendum. Studies have shown that voters rely heavily on such information, along with heuristic cues from people and organisations they trust. Such a pamphlet would enable voters to become more informed on the referendum issue which then allows them to debate the issue amongst friends, family and workmates at a more informed level, therefore making an informed decision.
It is easy for political pundits and politicians like Whanganui MP, Chester Borrows, to suggest people are not voting because “we are all a pretty apathetic bunch”, but a rational voter is quite justified in coming to the conclusion that voting is a waste of time. Maybe, just maybe, we expect more from our political system than casting one vote every three years and when we are not given the opportunity to mould our own destiny, in specific referendums—we give up in disgust? Democracy is not just about “elect me, I know what’s best for you”, it’s about having a say on the real issues that often affect each and every one of us directly. The same can be said when it comes to free/conscience votes in Parliament… who cares what John Key or Chester Borrows thinks… what is important is what the majority of their constituents think!
It would therefore seem to me that given the history of New Zealand governments continually ignoring what voters want, that the government is not taking our democracy seriously.
So Chester (and all your cronies down in Wellington), don’t belittle us by denying us our democratic rights and do not assume we are apathetic and ill-informed to make sensible decisions. Lift yourself above your hubris and dwell on the words of President Thomas Jefferson...
"I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people them-selves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with whole-some discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education."
Steve Baron is a political commentator. He holds a B.A. (Hons) in Political Science and a B.A. in Economics. He is a published author; a regular columnist in various publications throughout New Zealand and the Founder of Better Democracy New Zealand.