Larry Baldock (organiser of the “smacking” referendum) has decided to launch a petition for another referendum on whether such referenda should be binding. His agenda of course is to keep flogging the dead horse of the s59 debate. Two more years? No thanks. The only way that I can deal with the prospect is to hope that this process can be turned in to something actually constructive – a proper debate about the role of and the process of citizens’ initiated referenda (CIR) in NZ.
A great starting place is this excellent paper (pdf link) by Ben Goschik. Goschik covers many topics, starting with the role of referenda (a form of direct democracy) in our system of government (representative democracy):
Among arguments in favour of direct democracy, legitimacy arguments loom large. It is contended that direct democracy increases the legitimacy of the legal and/or political system, because laws instituted as a result of referendums are more clearly and directly derived from the popular expression of the people´s will.
However, for every claim put forward on behalf of direct democracy, there is an equally powerful criticism. It is argued that referendums as the means of direct democracy could undermine the effectiveness of an elected government, because popular decisions lessen the responsibility of its members.
The nature of the question, and who formulates it, is of course crucial. In other significant examples of CIR, Switzerland requires the question to be a specific constitutional amendment, in California it must be phrased in proper legislative language. The problems with the kind question that made a nonsense of our “smacking” referendum are well known:
Another problem of referendum questions is that they are often couched in a way that anticipates an answer. Voters then feel compelled by the formulation of the question to answer yes or at least find it hard to say no (for example “Should there be less crime on the streets?”). The same issue can be formulated so differently that both questions, although exactly opposite, would almost certainly produce an overwhelming answer in the opposite direction. These reservations have been expressed during the introduction debate of the CIR Bill by consulting the issue of abortion. The contradicting propositions “Are you in favour of giving statutory protection to the right to life of the unborn child?” and “Do you think women should have control over their own bodies?” would both almost certainly result in a distinct affirmative answer. This demonstrates vividly to what extent the formulation of the question can influence the outcome. The previous CIR experience confirmed these reservations…
In all, it’s a very good summary of the issues, and would be a good starting point for a proper debate. If Baldock wanted to actually achieve his goals he would engage in such a debate honestly and formulate a sensible referendum question. As I/S points out, another flawed question will just give the government another perfectly good excuse to ignore the result.