Monday, February 13, 2012

Steve Baron: Strengthening Our Democracy

Having an interest or passion for politics is rather peculiar in this day and age. It is not
uncommon at the first signs of a political discussion for the person standing in front of me
to have an immediate attack of ocular revulsion (eye rolling). I have been campaigning for binding referendums since 2003, but just recently I looked at some old newspaper clippings from 1985 and realised I was even talking about referendums way back then.

What has always concerned me is the real lack of checks and balances in our political system.

It concerns me greatly that we give the government, or at least the Cabinet, so much power. For example, we have no codified constitution to limit government, the Upper House of parliament was removed in 1951, MPs have numerous free votes in parliament even when their morals and principles are no better than yours or mine—and some might argue a lot worse. International laws are also growing in stature and often influence our governments who sign up to these laws which can take precedence over domestic laws. Laws can also be passed under 'urgency' without public consultation and without following the democratic process. In my opinion these are major systemic issues. There has also been so many controversial laws based on one political party's ideological beliefs and secret agendas, passed in this country. Often the majority of New Zealanders simply do not agree with these laws, but are forced to.

One attempt to give voters a check and balance was the Citizens' Initiated Referenda Act 1993 (CIR). This Act came about mostly due to the many broken election promises of the Labour government in 1984. These radical policies for those times caused immense frustration and anger amongst New Zealanders, and 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 an outcry for citizens to have more control over their elected representatives in the form of CIR. The Citizens Initiated Referenda Act was passed into law on 14 September 1993. The disappointment to many at the time was that these CIR were to be indicative. In other words, not binding on the government. This is rather strange because in most countries CIR are binding on the government. The people felt cheated yet again.

My campaign to make referendums binding started with a CIR in 2003. It was a long and difficult process. To start with, it can take months to have a CIR approved by the Clerk of the House of Representatives before you can even begin collecting signatures. To trigger a CIR the petitioner then needs to collect the signatures of ten percent of those registered on the electoral roll. This is a huge task even for a large organisation, let alone the small group of devotees like we had. People certainly supported the petition and seven or eight out of ten people on the street were happy to sign it, but we simply didn't have enough people power on the streets collecting the signatures. We ended up collecting 20,000 signatures which were presented to parliament and passed onto a parliamentary committee, never to be heard from again.

Should there be more checks and balances or is just one vote every three years enough? After all, even though you may have voted for, and elected a government, it does not mean that you agree with everything that government wants to do—and we know from history that governments do not get it right all the time and are often out of sync with what the majority of voters want. If we want more control then how do we get it? Another direct democracy tool that deserves special mention and consideration to put a check and balances on parliament is the Veto referendum.

When new laws, or changes to laws have been passed by parliament, citizens can subject them to a referendum if the required number of signatures can be collected in the prescribed amount of time, usually 90-100 days. The new law or change to an old law only becomes effective if the majority of the votes in the referendum were in favour of it. It is worth noting that of the more than 2,200 laws passed by the Swiss parliament since 1874, only 7% have been subjected to a Veto referendum. The Swiss people are therefore happy with 93% of what their government wants to do—but not always!

1 comment:

Brian said...

Strengthening Our Democracy.
Steve Baron raises some critical issues, but the greatest of these is in the second paragraph:-
“What has always concerned me is the real lack of checks and balances in our political system”
This has been the key issue since New Zealand abolished its second chamber many years ago. Yet if we look around the world; or rather at the Western type democracies, we see many “second or upper houses in Parliaments acting out as a brake. Or rather supposed to be a final check upon the indiscretions’ and abuses, which the lower house is inclined to hoist in the form of new laws upon the general public.
In many cases these upper houses dissolve into mere rubber stamps, or at worst are obsessed with their own importance. A sort of gravy train without any obligations!
To me it seems that we have not really discussed or formulated what the real actions and power of a second chamber are all about. In this, it would be not in the public interest to included members from the lower house as they have; despite their protests a vested interest in preserving their accumulated powers.
The idea of a Citizens Initiated Referenda is a method, to stem any Government from instituting draconian domestic laws but it is flawed in my opinion due to not being a binding referendum, and also has the problem of securing enough supporting votes, from what, has to be called here in New Zealand, an apathetic public. Another problem which stands out is the timing of such a C. I. Referenda, which again is the province of government. They have the power to determine what time is right for them, which may clash with say a huge Sporting activity or an election!
The recent inclusion on a vote upon the retention of MMP was overshadowed and relegated, while we decided who will rule us for the next three years. Certainly there was information available on various voting systems, but the election proved a distraction and the emphasis was lost.
Again perhaps we should examine the question of a written Constitution, as a means of controlling the activities of Government forcing them to work within the law. Then we have the factor that whatever the calibre of our M.P.’s they need both legal and financial expertise to govern, and not just from State employees.
The big question regarding a written Constitution is whether it is written in stone...i.e. never to be changed, or should it be flexible to adapt to circumstances. A case can be made for both; the United States is a prime example in that case.
Steve Baron has placed some ideas before us, there are however many doors into good government, it rests with us all whether we trip upon the mat when entering!