Do citizens-initiated referenda hamper democracy?

Written By: - Date published: 11:39 am, June 18th, 2009 - 22 comments
Categories: child abuse, child discipline, democratic participation - Tags: , , , ,

It’s hard to argue with the idea of referenda. What could be more democratic than citizens deciding precisely what issues the New Zealand public should consider, and taking a vote on them? Won’t that process get people thinking, encourage participation in the democratic process and make politics more accessible? Isn’t it the kind of democracy that we want more of?

Well, maybe not. The thing is, although it’s important for citizens have a say on issues that really matter to them, it’s not clear that referenda are the right way to make that happen. A citizens-initiated referendum will almost always be brought by a group peddling a particular issue and the referendum question will reflect the view the group already holds. The false dilemma in the smacking referendum question, for example if you oppose parental smacking then you oppose ‘good parenting” undermines voters’ intelligence. It leaves them with the option of either voting for more than they thought they were, or not voting at all (as John Key and Phil Goff seem set to do). How’s that for democracy?

Sue Bradford’s bill is a step in the right direction. Guidelines for referendum questions would at least ensure that voters have clear choices. But even then, are citizens really better placed to decide particular issues than elected and accountable members of parliament? Isn’t it better to leave complex decision-making up to the people we elected, who have the time and resources to make truly informed decisions, supported and guided by parliamentary debate and select committees (to which the public can make submissions)? Just because a decision is made by central government does not mean the public cannot contribute. To the contrary, public submissions have a big impact on select committee recommendations. Of course, even with public participation, our elected politicians won’t always get it right. But if they don’t, we can boot them out of government in the general election. Now that’s real democracy.

22 comments on “Do citizens-initiated referenda hamper democracy?”

  1. Isn’t it better to leave complex decision-making up to the people we elected, who have the time and resources to make truly informed decisions, supported and guided by parliamentary debate and select committees (to which the public can make submissions)?

    You might want to back up the truck here, GP. The line here is that democracy is under threat whenever central govt makes a decision (except in the years when Labour is in power).

    Actually, I agree with you – government by referenda simply doesn’t make sense.

    In fact, the more I read this post the more I agree with your opinion, particularly the last couple of sentences.

  2. r0b 2

    Interesting post GP. I can see arguments for either side, and will be interested to see what comes out in comments.

    One thing: “Just because a decision is made by central government does not mean the public cannot contribute. To the contrary, public submissions have a big impact on select committee recommendations.”

    Yes but – that only applies when the government of the day is using that process genuinely and is actually receptive to input. Sometimes, as seems likely with the Supercity process for example, that will not be the case. What then? General election yes, but it can be a long time to wait.

  3. dave 3

    citizens-initiated referendum will almost always be brought by a group peddling a particular issue and the referendum question will reflect the view the group already holds.

    This post is just silly.

    Lets ban private members bills then, shall we? Because 1) it will reduce the peddling of issues and 2) it will reduce the number of citizens initiated referenda.

    • guest poster 3.1

      Of course bills are brought by people or groups or parties with particular aims in mind. That is not really the nub of the problem. What matters is that citizens referendum questions are put to the public in the form chosen by the interest group, and will often necessarily be biased. Sue Bradford’s bill addresses that – which is good.

  4. vto 4

    Referenda are good. Trust in your fellow manwoman.

    The cry “issues can be too complex for the general public” has merit to only a limited extent. Issues such as complex tax matters would of course be too much, but issues such as child-raising imo are smack bang in the middle of what referenda should assist with.

    edit – if you trust yourself to make the right decision about things like child-raising then you should trust your fellow manwoman to do the same (otherwise you are a just an arrogant fukk). And a referendum is simply that multiplied by the voting population.

    2c to add to the mix

  5. I think that, in principle, referenda can be OK. However, I guess there needs to be a guard against a “dictatorship of the majority”, which the non-binding aspect of the current CIR Act has. Good laws should be ahead of their time in my opinion, and referenda are generally not

    I agree with attempts to ensure questions in the future are not as ambiguous. Although, at the same time I’m pretty glad this question is such a dog’s breakfast as it means it can be easily ignored.

  6. vto 6

    True jarbury – tyranny of the majority needs to be guarded against as well.

    sweetd just made a good point re issues suitable for referenda. The call for a referendum on Auckland super-city thingy is, I would have thought, an issue way too complex for a referendum. But those calling for such there are often the same folk knocking the idea of the anti-smack referendum, which is considerably simpler.

    whats going on with that?

  7. As I also said in that thread, the Super-City referendum could be really simple: do you think that the changes to Auckland’s local government (once they’re finalised by government) should be given effect to or not?

  8. Bill 8

    Representative Parliamentary Democracy is inherently dislocated from the every day lives of the people it claims legitimate sway over. So New Zealand’s current form of democracy will forever be unwieldy and an inevitable victim of complexity.

    It can never offer precise solutions that cater to NZ’s various societies and communities due to its overarching and remote nature. On the flip side, societies and communities are disenfranchised and lack the necessary structures and resources to develop forms of democracy that are immediate and meaningful in the context of short and long term societal or community development.

    There are (largely) atomised individuals on the one hand and a centre of decision making ‘a million miles away’ on the other. National parliaments are, and can only ever be, satisfying to democratic needs to the extent that a menu behind a restaurant window can satisfy hunger pangs.

    We are allowed to observe and comment on parliamentary decisions. But that’s no better than reading and commenting on the restaurant menu but never being allowed to sit at a table and eat.

    Referenda and all the other tools in the box are exercises in commenting and observing. More commenting? More observing?

    Still hungry!

    Democracy that falls short of access to the kitchen in order to create our own recipes, prepare our own meals with the aim of sitting down to eat is no democracy at all.

    As such there will always be undemocratic tendencies being expressed, which is what the post seems to be questioning?

    • guest poster 8.1

      Representative democracy is imperfect. The ideal form of democracy would of course be each person pitching in with their view. But realities of time and resources and abilities make representation a necessity. The risk I perceive running with little bursts of direct democracy is that attention is distracted from the work of our representatives, and citizens are drawn into a complex process for a single issue. Attention is drawn away from the more general business of members of parliament, and at the end of the day referenda are not binding. Direct democracy, in that sense, promises more than it can deliver.

      • daVince 8.1.1

        do I take it correctly that you are asserting Referenda as ‘direct democracy’ tools..?

        If so, and given your earlier point regarding bias from the Referenda proposer (group). methinks consideration be given to the intent of same.. viz.. propaganda..

        where the political purpose is subversive Referenda intent/s.. self-serving.. in the case before us (in my view) at the taxpayers’ expense.

  9. Rich 9

    I agree with the poster – there are many ways to influence policy: submitting to Select Committees, joining a party and participating in it’s policy process, starting ones own party.

    Government is joined-up. Legalising child abuse leads to problems with abused children and societal acceptance of violence, which government has to solve. In NZ, our primary form of democracy is to elect a group of parties that agree to enact a set of policies. Several parties contested the last election with legalised child-beating in their platform – only one (ACT) got enough votes to elect MPs. So although people might have felt they wanted to beat their kids, they didn’t feel strongly enough to vote for a party that advocated that.

    Referenda should be limited to important changes to governmental process, such as the voting system or the structure of local democracy. They should be held *after* a clear proposal has been agreed upon through the process of parliamentary and other consultation.

  10. vto 10

    Perhaps a decision on whether to use referenda should be put to a referendum

  11. StephenR 11

    However, I guess there needs to be a guard against a “dictatorship of the majority’, which the non-binding aspect of the current CIR Act has.

    Sounds like this:

    In fact, the idea behind binding referenda is that the will of the majority should always be enforced; that unlimited majority rule is always right.
    http://pc.blogspot.com/2009/06/smacking-referenda.html

    But i’m guessing actually not..?

  12. jarbury 12

    Proposition 8 in California – great example of why binding referendums are a bad idea.

  13. Jim Maclean 13

    The blogger cannot have it both ways. Either the majority has a right to influence events or it does not. In NZ citizens initiated referenda are adequately protected from being hijacked by needing to get ten percent of eligible voters to clearly put their name, address and signature on a form within an eighteen month time frame.
    It is so close to impossible to buy or hi-jack this process without very strong popular support of the electorate. What the referendum does is provide one more non binding but very clear message to parliament. Politicians ignore this message at their electoral peril despite their ability to spin or repress it for a while (as Ahmadinejad and his cronies are finding out).
    Victory in forcing your opinions on others is not the same as convincing them that you are right. Truth has a timeless quality about it and there is a collective wisdom which even if not well expressed is better considered than repressed.

  14. the sprout 14

    good points GP, thanks.

    • guest poster 14.1

      There are many ways to skin a cat. We can participate in democracy in lots of ways, and referenda, on closer analysis, are quite a crude method. The parliamentary process itself offers genuine opportunities for engagement with accountable representatives. Members of parliament are not elite and separate – their very positions rely on our continued endorsements. So why not fortify legislative processes and leave the burden for quality of bills and election questions in the hands of people who have to answer for what they say? Surely that’s pretty democratic.

  15. guest poster 15

    thanks for all the discussion, this sure is an interesting issue, and not one with straight-forward answers – which the breadth of comments illustrates!

  16. Jo Botherer 16

    Fascists try to reduce political power of the people and place that power in the hands of the elite. A referendum question already must be subject to several hurdles, the first is a petition of 10% of voters. The quetsion must be acceptable to this many voters to even go forward to the referendum stage. Then the referendum itself. If the citizens are happy with the question and vote the direction that pleases the proposers of the referendum then the people have spoken. If the proposers fail to gain those votes then the people have spoken too. “Tyrrany of the majority” is a term used by anti democratic movement when they know that they are pushing a non popular idea. Watch out Anti-Democrats, the USA may dress you in orange overalls and waterboard you.

    • Anita 16.1

      I wrote this the last time you wrote the same comment, but anyhow…

      The first hurdle in the current system is actually getting the questions oked (by the Clerk of the House) before collecting signatures. All most people are suggesting is that the checking process be a little more rigorous so that we get better quality questions, most of the recent ones have been really problematic.

  17. Jo Botherer 17

    Remember Unions…it was your lack of lobbying the “Labour Led Government” to pull the Sue Bradford / UNCROC juggernaut into side road that led to the “Labour Led Government losing power at the last election. It is not Unions role to unquestioningly support Labour/Greens Govt policies but to lobby Government on Union members’ behalf. I notice a one sided advert on the right hand sidebar. Where is the opposing opinion? Unions were negligent in allowing this legislation to lose this election as now workers face “worker-unfriendly legislation” from National, revoking the holidays act, revising the employement relations act and privatising ACC. ACC is bad enough without having its profits plundered by multinational corporations.

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