Colin Craig, the leader of the Conservative Party, recently announced that a bottom line in any coalition agreement with the National Party after the general election would be National’s agreement to introduce binding referendums as part of our constitutional arrangements. These referendums would, presumably, be ones initiated by citizens themselves, such as we already have here in non-binding form. (In some countries governments themselves can propose referendums, to run their ideas past the people.)
Binding referendums are familiar to us from overseas; in California, for example, citizens vote on “propositions’, put forward by a certain minimum number of voters, at the same time they cast their ballots in general elections. The resulting decision of the voters automatically acquires legal effect.
Binding referendums are often criticised on the ground that voters can thereby demand the impossible; can demand, for example ~ the Californian example again ~ both that taxes be reduced and that government expenditure be increased. This is a good point. Chaos can ensue if the impossible is demanded. In fairness, though, elected governments, just as much as citizens in referendums, can live beyond their means, ‘borrow and hope’, and generally do stupid things; the phenomenon is not restricted merely to decisions of the feckless people. Let us be careful to avoid snobbery here. Are we democrats or are we not? I am not automatically convinced that our increasingly narrow and self-focussed political class necessarily knows any better than citizen voters; when it comes to the general shape of policy, at least.
A second reply is that it is not just California that has binding referendums written into its state constitution. A moment’s research ~ let your fingers do the walking! ~ will reveal that many very respectable European countries have some provision in their constitutions for referendums. Switzerland, in particular, has binding referendums at the national, cantonal and municipal level. I omit the fascinating details; the point I am making here is that Switzerland is a prosperous, well-governed and sensible country where the availability of binding referendums has not led to disaster. When used by responsible and thoughtful citizens, binding referendums can enhance both good government and human happiness, since politicians are readier to be reasonable if they are aware that a referendum might follow unwise decisions, and citizens are happier knowing that their direct participation in government is useful and important and always available.
Bear in mind, too, that underlying the criticism that voters will make ill-informed and impractical decisions is the unspoken fear that voters will just reject the policies of the politically-correct ruling liberal caste. The fear is that if you give the common people referendums they will only do what the Swiss did and vote against mosques having minarets. I am afraid I do not see why the decision should not be the people’s.
We might argue as to whether New Zealanders are more like Californians or the Swiss. But my point here is not to argue for or against their introduction to New Zealand. Rather, I observe that quite a few citizens, here and there, have raised binding referendums as a good thing, and I ask why they want them. We have long done without them; in the past they have never occurred to us to be necessary; why, then, are so many people talking about them now?
The answer is, surely, that the desire for binding referendums arises out of a disillusionment with politics and politicians; out of a belief that politicians are increasingly unresponsive to the desires and needs of ordinary citizens. Referendums are therefore intended to bypass politicians, or at the very least to act as a stick always urging them to pay attention, and threatening them with disgrace and countermanding instructions if they do not. The demand for these referendums is a symptom of a democracy that is already not functioning as it should.
We can argue about how far this dissatisfaction extends. On the whole, the referendum-desire seems to be greater among more conservative voters, whom the left readily depict as intolerantly wanting to impose their own desires and standards on the rest of the population. There can be little doubt, however, that the subjects raised as possible or actual referendum issues, even if they do not actually reach the referendum stage, are usually ones where there is very considerable popular support ~ firefighters, the size of parliament, sterner penalties for crime, smacking, and so on.
Moreover, the referendum-desire is not the only symptom of citizen disillusionment with the political system. The proportion of citizens voting in general elections continues its slow decline; from 93.7% of enrolled voters in 1984 ~ admittedly, a tumultuous and exciting political year ~ to 74.2% in 2012. Admittedly, our voter participation is higher than that of Germany, Ireland, Spain, Greece, the United Kingdom, the United States or even Switzerland, although it is lower than in quite a few other European countries. Non-voters here are found disproportionately here among, younger, poorer and unemployed people ~ these categories overlap, obviously ~ and also among recent immigrants.
Nor let us forget those other adults who have not even bothered to put themselves on the electoral roll.
To us, gentle readers, it seems unthinkable that anyone would not bother to vote. Would any of us, in the absence of some particular good reason, fail to vote at this year’s general election? I would put money on it that just about every single reader of this column would vote as a matter of course. We would all agree without debate that the government of this country is an important issue and that when we can have a say in what it is we should embrace that opportunity most earnestly. Yet some people simply do not exercise this precious right, coveted and fought for for centuries. Incredible. Yet a fact. Why?
Well, it cannot be because these people are legally ineligible, because, with microscopic exceptions, we have universal adult suffrage. It cannot be because it is difficult to enrol as a voter, because it is very simple. Moreover, the Electoral Commission and several political organisations go to great trouble to get voters to enrol. It cannot be, surely, that these non-voters are unaware of the forthcoming general election. What planet would that be?
No, the only reason can be that people are not interested. They cannot be bothered. They don’t care. Statistics New Zealand lists the reasons which surveyed non-voters later offered for not voting in the 2012 election. 16.8% pleaded that they were ‘overseas or away’, were working, too busy, sick or could not get to a polling booth. We would accept all these as valid reasons, at least in principle, although they can all be overcome ~ by special voting, most obviously. Another 14.5% had unspecified ‘other’ reasons, including religious ones, and just not being eligible. But that still leaves 68.7% of non-voters, and the reasons they did not vote were:
- Didn’t get round to it/forgot/not interested 21%
- Not worth voting because my vote would not have made a difference 7.1%
- It makes no difference which party is in government 7%
- Politicians only care about being in power 5.1%
- Dislike politicians, the political system or all parties 3%
- Didn’t know enough 8.8%
- Didn’t know about the election or how to vote 4.4%
- Not registered to vote 12.3%
All of these are just one form or another of alienation and apathy. Not being registered is a form of apathy, just as ‘not being interested’ and thinking it makes no difference are.
So: in the last election one quarter of eligible voters ~ 25.8% ~ did not vote. Almost seventy per cent of that one quarter ~ 68.7% ~ gave as a reason an alienation from or apathy towards government and the political system. That must work out ~ someone else will have to do the sum ~ to somewhere around 18%. May we round it up to ‘about a fifth’? About a fifth of our population says that this is its attitude. This is not good.
All this being so, clearly introducing electronic voting from ones home computer will not solve the problem. If anything, it would have made it worse, for even many of us regular voters let our e-mail correspondence slide. Electronic voting is a completely pointless idea, proposed only by computer geeks and a few people wanting to be thought incredibly innovative and exciting. It would cost a fortune ~ every big computer system does. Then, half of them do not even work properly. It would not save any money; many New Zealanders still do not have computers, and many of those who do would prefer to vote on paper, so electronic voting would have to be in addition to the current system. The possibilities for abuse ~ stuffing electronic ballot boxes, and losing the secrecy of the ballot ~ are enormous. But over and above all that, it simply will not solve apathy.
To be honest, as I must be, I cannot but think to myself, with just one tiny fibre of my being, no matter how much I struggle against the unthinkable thought, that perhaps it is just as well that many of these non-voters do not actually vote. They might easily become vote-fodder for politicians vehemently advocating a ‘social justice’ involving the confiscation, one way or another, of some of the property of those of us enjoying a comfortable but no more than modest and well-earned prosperity. They are ~ I say this as a mere regrettable statement of fact, rather than as any disparagement ~ but they are, statistics tell us, generally poor ~ therefore less educated ~ less informed about the world ~ more ignorant, in fact, if we might put it so plainly. They may well be unemployed, and therefore poor ~ and vice versa. They are discontented. They number many of the young among them, and the young are always prone to impatience, quick to rouse to frenzy, enthusiastic in a cause, idealistic but lacking the experience and wisdom of the years. Young men, after all, are the ideal part of the species to send off to war. Do we want these people voting, even if they could overcome their marked aversion to the process?
On the one hand, their political judgments would be less well-informed than ours, and they could be easily misled. Politicians would inevitably appeal to their own self-interest. To yield to their demands as generously as they would be led to expect might well damage genuine wider public interests. Where, after all, is all that extra money to come from? But on the other hand, they remain and grow as a potential future problem, which we should perhaps be confronting head-on right now rather than postponing for some evil day. Which is better? To have them ‘in the tent pissing out’? Or should our attitude be like that of the king in the Wizard of Id cartoon, who was once asked by his pointy-moustachioed duke ‘Sire, I see that in the budget an extra three billion dollars has been allocated to the army and the social welfare budget has been slashed. What might be the reason for that?’
The king replies: ‘When the revolution comes, I’ll be ready’.
Solving poverty is of course rather more complicated and challenging than many on the left seem to believe. Social welfare alone is not the answer. But no more on that now. We could, more optimistically, say that an indifference or apathy based on a belief that things are never going to get any better is not, at present anyway, dangerous. Speaking from the oppressor’s point of view, it is not hopelessness of the oppressed that is the danger, but hope. At present conditions appear to be tolerable. In future things might become uncomfortable enough to prod people out of apathy, but it has not happened yet, and this growing ancestor of a perpetual underclass is something we shall just have to learn to live with.
Another symptom of citizen apathy, I suggest, can be seen in a widespread lack of interest in becoming politicians. Of all the thousands upon thousands of our talented, creative, intelligent, good-hearted, high-minded, energetic young people, how many of them do we see involved in political parties, or actually wanting to become politicians? Only a tiny handful. We might even see a stranger ~ a ‘carpetbagger’ ~ brought into a seat where absolutely no local person just seems to be all that desperately interested in becoming the local MP. The calibre of many of our elected representatives is, with respect, not overwhelming. The Cabinet and the leaders of the Opposition may get into the news, but both National and Labour have MPs we have never heard of and, barring some act of stupidity, venality or rare honesty, never will. Ditto, already, the Greens. And what a life a politician leads! I have some tiny insight into this, having once stood for election for a political party, as you may well be aware ~ and I can honestly say that I count myself very fortunate not to have been elected. Both parliament and I, if I may quote my friend the regional chairman, had a very lucky escape. This is not any reflection on that particular political party. All political parties have the same characteristics. They are certainly more obviously so in the case of the larger parties. But they are forced on parties and politicians by circumstances ~ by the world ~ by the necessities of party government and winning elections. By the news media’s desires ~ by our desires ~ for a sensational headline. Party discipline must be incredibly tight. If one backbench MP ever utters anything that has not been cleared by Party Central the news media will be running headlines about rifts and factions, and you will forever after be ‘Controversial outspoken MP…’ And you will last precisely one term. And even when you are an MP you lose your life. You are told what to think and say, and in both cases it may not be very much. Your soaring oratory will not hold the House spellbound for hours and change the destiny of the nation. The great ages of parliamentary speaking are long gone. You spend every minute not in parliament going to public meetings, party meetings, RSA meetings, farmers’ meetings, union meetings, mothers’ meetings, buying marmalade, chatting with people over tea, then getting up early for the flight to Wellington, something to eat in the Koru Lounge, perhaps just one more glass of wine….And then you’re plastered all over the front page for an embarrassing and very minor drunken incident. The Prime Minister wants to see you, there are cringing apologies for weeks and you’re a broken man…
Or it might be something else. I heard of a Scottish highland chief who said that the local Conservative party had asked him three times over the years to stand for the local seat, and he’d always refused. ‘It’s not the adultery’, he said ~ ‘I’ve talked it over with my wife, and she’s said that she wouldn’t mind the adultery….’
No, in his case the problem was that he would have to miss the grouse season. Good on him. But being away from home and spending a lot of time with fresh young faces can also be a bit of an issue. And there goes the family and the house…
And the late nights, the over-eating, too much stress and not enough exercise. What a life. Who’d be a politician? What young person of talent and ambition and hope for self-fulfilment and service would choose that career? Very few. What a rare type these politicians are, to live in this ghastly way in a goldfish bowl. And for what pathetic scraps of rewards? Gosh, as I write this I must admit that I’m starting to think myself that they are a pretty weird lot. Certainly, people we should be keeping an eye on. How true indeed is the observation of Aristotle, and many since, that the only people fit to handle power are the people who do not want it. Although even then there is the issue of inexperience…
And yet we need people in Parliament, and the Cabinet Room. How are we to break this vicious circle, whereby our attitude to politicians makes their calling less attractive as a career option for the talented, thereby justifying our attitude towards them?
I appear to have provided more questions than answers on this occasion!