Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Steve Baron: People speak but aren't heard

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.

7 comments:

paul scott said...

I agree with Steve.
There is nothing more devaluing than being ignored in a referendum.
The ludicrous Bradford anti smacking petition at about 80% to rescind was ignored.
The blindingly obvious fact that NZers probably most did not want asset sales was ignored.
The thing went ahead anyway and is now one big embarrassment to NZ Nat.
I think I agree with Steve’s part remedy
“ all voters are provided with an official referendum pamphlet which is posted at least three months before the referendum “.
Meanwhile I am reluctant to work for someone like Nicky Wagner to retain her seat in Central Christchurch when I know that the voters are the hoi polloi and can be safely ignored .
It is especially bad because the result could be a socialist coalition next year, with a megalomaniac who walks on the water and bleeds red.

firsttimecaller said...

What happens when everyone votes that they support the government selling? Are they suppose to ignore that too?

Hotace said...

I am going to start a referendum to abolish all taxation. I am sure it will be wildly successful but any government would be barmy to adopt it. Be careful what you wish for.

Karen said...

I agree with Steve, but what saddens me is that the local MP's don't appear to be listening to the voices and hearts of their constituants where surely the bottom line of their parliamentary vote should be based. If the MP's got their acts together and partitioned their electorates before bringing their vote to parliament surely we would get a more democratic and accurate representation of what the people want?
Karen, frustrated with referendums ignored!

Anonymous said...

"NZ's Is a great Democratic county

"Year Right"

Great "TUI" add

jh said...

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.

Bang on.

Politicians can (and did) change immigration policy, altering over time, the lifestyle and demographics of NZ. Younger voters don't know the difference and the new migrants become a significant voting block. The voters weren't asked. The Savings Working Group called it a bad move but that is something that doesn't get an airing.
If you read articles on migration you will find there is a "crisis of citizenship" (national boundaries are no longer appropriate)and countries in the west are in grave danger of depopulating if we "don't work hard to attract migrants". There are organisations galore to solve these problems for us and an academic priesthood who are listened to without any critical response by government or media.

Glenn G said...

Good on ya first timer, let them dwell on that. The Government campaigned on it, they were re-elected & they they have done what they said they were going to do,which is sell down to 51%.I haven't seen any evidence of such a model that does not work & we all have seen enough evidence over the years to know that full Government ownership never has & never will work so I think it's time to stop sniveling & let it go as half of it already has & yes labour & the Greens are 100% responsible for costing the NZ public about $1 billion ( let alone the millions for the defunct referendum )that could have been used for worthy things that we need in this country. The loss was a direct result of the political wanna be vote grabbing treasonous act that they committed on this country.