Monday, November 7, 2011

Steve Baron: Direct democracy in New Zealand

Direct democracy in New Zealand continues to be a work in progress. In 1893 New Zealand debated having a constitutional framework similar to Switzerland. Although never enacted, a Referendum Bill was introduced to parliament. However, the Bill only provided for non-binding, government-controlled referendums—in other words, plebiscites. This Bill was also re-introduced again in 1918 but failed. A statutory provision for constitutional referendums is also provided for under the Electoral Act 1993, section 268. This statutory provision is singularly entrenched which means that it can only be amended or repealed if passed by a 75% majority of all MPs, or by a majority in a referendum. Then, in 1984, Social Credit MP Garry Knapp introduced the Popular Initiatives Bill which would have enabled 100,000 voters to trigger a non-binding referendum. The Bill was deferred pending a Royal Commission on the Electoral System.

The Citizens' Initiated Referenda Act 1993 came about mostly due to broken election promises by the 1984 Labour government. These radical policies for the times caused immense frustration and anger amongst New Zealanders. People at that time felt they had been deceived. According to a number of academic surveys, MPs were less respected than ever before. As a nation we had lost confidence in our political representatives.

 This led to calls for a Royal Commission and during the 1981 and 1984 campaigns, the Labour Party promised to set one up to look into the electoral system. The Royal Commission on the Electoral System was established in early 1985. It made a number of radical suggestions, MMP being one of them, but did not support direct democracy and called referendums “blunt and crude devises”. Labour failed to implement the Royal Commission recommendations and although the National Party did not support them either, it took the opportunity during the 1990 elections to embarrass Labour by promising a referendum on the electoral system. When elected to government National also quickly broke election promises and trust in politicians plunged to an all time low.

This led to an outcry for citizens to have more control over their elected representatives in the form of Citizens' Initiated Referendums (CIR). The first calls for CIR in New Zealand were from dubitable origins by a group called the Coalition of Concerned Citizens in 1985. It was formed to fight gay rights legislation as this group had failed to stop the passage of Labour MP Fran Wilde's Bill to decriminalize homosexuality and ban discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. After CIR was rejected by the Royal Commission on the Electoral System, a lobby group within the National Party called National Reform, put pressure on the party and leader Jim Bolger to support the introduction of CIR at their 1989 party conference. National made an election promise in their 1990 manifesto to introduce CIR. National won this election and introduced the Citizens Initiated Referenda Bill to parliament in 1992 which was subsequently passed into law on 14 September 1993. The disappointment to many who were involved with the National Party at the time, was that these CIR were to be indicative. In other words, not binding on the government. This is a rather strange occurrence because in most countries CIR are binding on the government.

To date there have only ever been four successful citizens' initiatives in New Zealand: the New Zealand Professional Fire-Fighters Union initiative in 1995, Margaret Robertson's 1997 initiative to reduce the number of MPs to 99, the Norm Withers initiative for tougher prison sentencing also in 1997, and the 2009 anti-smacking initiative promoted by Sherryl Saville and Larry Baldock, a former United Future MP. New Zealand has also held government-initiated referendums (plebiscites) on off-course betting, compulsory military training, compulsory retirement savings, the term of parliament twice, and the voting system, but these are of course non-binding also. The reason there have only been four successful citizens' initiatives is because the signatures of 10% of those registered on the electoral roll are required to trigger a referendum—a very high figure and an aspect of the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993 that needs addressing.

What issues are suitable for direct democracy? This is an issue that I discussed with John Key in 2004, prior to him becoming Prime Minister of New Zealand. He felt that any constitutional type change should go to referendum as well as putting free votes in parliament to referendum. My discussions with other politicians about what issues are suitable for referendums vary considerably. Some feel any issue is suitable to be put to referendum, and others suggest voters should not be allowed to decide on, for example, economic matters that may affect a government’s budget. One would expect that most CIR would be on social issues such as immigration, voluntary euthanasia, the death penalty, prostitution law reform, and so on. However, it should not be forgotten that the Swiss have used referendums on all matters imaginable, including matters of finance. The Swiss stubbornly refused to approve government spending at the height of Keynesian economic theory's popularity and economic experts argued that the Swiss were selfish and irresponsible. Swiss voters proved to be very wise in hindsight when unemployment and inflation hovered around one and two percent while the rest of the developed world suffered with uncontrolled stagflation. Perhaps it was just luck, but perhaps it was collective wisdom.


Anonymous said...

A very timely and informative update, thanks Steve. What's your recommendation for the upcoming referendum?

Steve Baron said...

To read my article on the referendum and make your own decision :)

Steve Taylor said...

Hi Steve, are you aware that the NZ voting public have absolutely no stomach for Direct Democracy, and overwhelmingly support Representative Democracy? While I agree with you about the benefits of DD, the voting public are simply not interested in the concept.