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Let’s have a proper debate

Written By: - Date published: 11:36 am, September 7th, 2009 - 16 comments
Categories: democratic participation, referendum - Tags:

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.

16 comments on “Let’s have a proper debate ”

  1. Clarke 1

    I propose there is a petition started to ban Larry Baldock from ever initiating another petition!

  2. Relic 2

    Binding referenda without very strict prescriptions could quickly lead to some unpleasant outcomes for the whole country and various individuals. The “tyranny of the majority’ as some describe it. Simple majorities do not necessarily suffice in matters requiring complex value judgements. Captial punishment for instance.
    This makes me feel most uneasy, which is probably why some on the right are so keen, they know the ‘hateback’ radio constituency will be easy to manipulate.
    How about frequency? do you have one every month that reduces political participation to the level of uninformed citizens voting who ever is annoying them off the island? Avoid I say.

    • Daveski 2.1

      Your criticism of (albeit some on) the right is a bit rich given the way this site has focused on the absence of a referendum on the super shitty. You can’t have it both ways.

      That said, I agree with r0b’s substantive point – another top post.

      • Relic 2.1.1

        Well actually you can have it both ways ‘ski. An SS referendum would only be voted on by those affected, not all the citizens of the nation.

        • Daveski

          Read r0b’s excellent post

          What would the question be?

          And you raise an interesting point. Should the beating kids to a pulp vote only be voted on by parents?

          By defending a referenda for the super shitty, you’re simply showing that r0b’s points are correct.

          • Pascal's bookie

            “And you raise an interesting point. Should the beating kids to a pulp vote only be voted on by parents?”

            Nah, kids.

      • Armchair Critic 2.1.2

        I thought the hypocrisy about the Auckland LG reorganisation was from ACT and specifically Rodney Hide.
        The suggestion put forward was that councils would have to put significant proposals/changes in direction up for a decision by referendum.
        And when the first opportunity to put the suggestion in action came forward (the aforementioned reorganisation), the government declined the opportunity to put their money where their mouth is. Instead they put the enabling legislation through under urgency, minimizing the ability of the affected people (about a third of the country) to have their say. I recall a question on the subject being asked in parliament, Mr Hide went on record as saying one thing and doing another.

  3. Olwyn 3

    There is a lot of talk about ambiguity regarding the smacking referendum, but the real shocker was the 1999 law and order one, in which people were asked to say yes or no to a triple conjunction along the lines of, do you think criminals should get longer sentences, and do you think that more attention should be paid to the victims of crime, and do you think that hard labour should be reintroduced? If you wanted to express disagreement with the longer sentences, then you were pressed into rejecting any concern for the plight of victims with the same tick.

  4. randal 4

    so larry thinks a bunch of drunken kneejerkers listening to too much sqawkback radio is more powerful than the parlimanent. I dont think so larry. MP’s are elected to listen, weigh and consider the evidence. thats all the evidence larry. Its called democracy. if you dont like our version of democracy try living in an oriental despotism and see how far you get.

    • Pascal's bookie 4.1

      Wonder how a binding referendum re ‘fundamentalist nutjubs finally shutting the fuck up and once and for all letting the rest of us have a moment’s bloody peace and quiet’ would go down.

  5. I know the suggestion has been thrown around a bit, but who would be interested in a protest referendum -to be run at the same time-, asking “Should a smack as part of good marital correction be be a criminal offense in New Zealand”

    Yes, no, maybe? Anyone?

  6. randal 6

    so larry and the crew think they are more powerful than parliament. that they can circumvent the democratic process by throwing every question over to the rabble they have whipped up on radio ritalin and the drunks on radio squawkback. Parliament is elected to weigh consider and judge the issues of the day without kneejerks. when the loony right CREW start getting their way then goodbye democracy as we know it.

  7. stevo 7

    The 1970 film written by and starring Peter Cook, The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer comes to mind…..

    “in which Rimmer introduces an experiment in direct democracy: involving the population in voting on all matters of policy. Everyday people analyse policy documents and are alerted by flashing alarms on their television sets to take part in emergency plebiscites on matters like regional development and water purification. The populace becomes so exhausted and outraged that they gladly vote for Rimmer to become president and dictator—exactly what he wanted, of course—to put an end to it.”

    The impending attack on MMP is more worthy of attention.

  8. Quoth the Raven 8

    As I pointed out in another thread Proudhon said “Property is theft” and “Property is liberty”. We can get talk in a similar vein about democracy. Democracy is undemocratic. Tyranny of the majority is a risk in any democratic system. If democracy is to work individual rights are to be respected (and they most certainly are not currently). To me an anarchist conception of democracy is the only possible option. Participatory democracy is impossible with a centralised government. It neccessarily requires decentralisation. Participatory democracy must allow for people to opt out If there is no option for people to opt out of an organisation then the tyranny of the majority is inevitable. People must only make decisions that affect them (again thousands of miles from what we have today).

    In conclusion to be truly democratic democracy must be participatory so it is rule of by and for the people, it must be based on consensus and people must be able to opt out, otherwise there is tyranny of the majority and people must only make decisions that affect themselves and the law of equal liberty must be abided by. In other words it has to be anarchistic.

    I probably missed a few points, but that’s what I think.

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