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.