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Challenge of Citizens Initiated Referenda
25 June 2011
hard can it be to collect enough signatures for a referendum?
first let’s look at the history of Citizens Initiated
Referenda (CIR) since Parliament passed the legislation to
allow for such a democratic process in 1993.
the Muldoon years and the turmoil of the 4th Labour
Government, the National party sensed growing public
dissatisfaction with politicians ignoring the people. As an
election promise in 1990 they pledged to introduce a system of
Citizens Initiated Referenda and in 1993 they passed the CIR
Act that allowed for non-binding referenda.
10 March 1992 the Hon Murray McCully said in his speech on the
first reading of the CIR Bill that the new Act would, “profoundly
change the way in which we conduct our democracy in this
this has not eventuated as yet.
the CIR Act 1993 all petitions to force a referendum on any
question must be submitted to the Clerk of the House of
Representatives so the wording of the question can be
approved, and the petition form also certified by the Clerk.
Clerk has received 45 proposals since the 1993 Act. One of
those is yet to be determined by the Clerk - public comment
recently closed on the wording. Of the other 44, 22 lapsed
(not returned to Clerk), 12 were withdrawn, 6 had insufficient
signatures, and 4 went to a referendum.
if only 4 have successfully achieved a referendum I think we
can conclude it is not ‘a walk in the park.’ Forty four
individuals or groups who have been sufficiently concerned
about an issue in New Zealand have taken the initiative to try
and give all Kiwis the chance to have their say, yet forty of
those have been very disappointed. After varying amounts of
effort and personal sacrifice of resources and time, they have
been unable to collect the required number of signatures after
the 12 month period allowed by the CIR Act.
my name has been associated with four of those petitions I can
say I have experienced both the highs of success, (shattered
of course by Parliament’s refusal to recognise the 87.4%
“NO” vote in the Anti-smacking referendum) and the lows of
failure when, after the huge efforts of many volunteers, I
have had to accept the disappointment of accepting reality.
on the Prostitution Reform Act, 202,000 signatures
collected but 50,000 short.
urging the Government to address the real causes of Family
Violence and Child abuse, 300,000 signatures collected but
to make CIR binding, hardly got off the ground despite 7
out of 10 willing to sign.
I think it is fair to say that the deep frustration felt by so
many New Zealanders after being ignored by the Government on
the last 3 referenda has deepened the level of apathy in the
country towards petitions and referenda in general. Until the
government is held to account and CIR are made binding in some
form at some threshold level of support, it has and will
continue to become increasingly more difficult to find the
volunteers needed and who are willing to give their time so
generously to collect signatures.
really shouldn’t be so hard for such a simple principle of
any healthy democracy. When National passed the CIR Act they
were fulfilling a campaign pledge in the 1990 elections. They
had picked up on public concern about the tendency of
political parties to ignore the will of the majority of
citizens, but I think it is fair to say they took very
cautious steps toward sharing power with the voters.
number of signatures required, and the amount of money the
petition organisers can spend on advertising a petition, are
significant barriers to seeing a referendum held.
first of all some comparisons. In Switzerland, with a
population of 7.8 million, 50,000 signatures must be collected
for a binding referendum. In Italy you need 500,000 in a
population of 60 million. 24 of the States in the US have some
form of citizens referenda.
California with a population of 37 million,
a petition (or initiative as it is called) must have the
number of signatures equivalent to 5 percent of those who
voted for the successful Governor at the last election. So
while it currently takes about 390,000 signatures here in New
Zealand to force a non-binding referendum, in California a
binding initiative can be achieved with only 271,422
signatures. Admittedly they must collect those in 150 days
instead of 12 months, but if they had to collect 10 percent of
the 23.5 million eligible voters, as here in New Zealand, it
would require 2.3 million. That means on a per capita basis we
collect 6 times as many signatures.
there is the matter of how much we can spend on the task. Here
in New Zealand in 1993 it was capped at $50,000 and has not
been inflation adjusted since.
In California unlimited money can be raised, and
professional collectors can be employed.
National minister in charge of the passage of the bill into
law in 1993, Sir Douglas Graham, said, “It
is my belief that we will rarely witness by Parliament the
rejection of a referendum result”.
has of course lived to witness Parliament reject the results
of the only four CIRs that have managed to clear the very high
threshold needed to force a referendum. Sir Douglas went on to
intention is to review the use of citizens-initiated referenda
after a period of 5 years, and it may well be then appropriate
to consider a change to the law to make referenda binding at
it is now time for that review!
Hon Murray McCully said the reason for change in his opinion
was because, “our
system permits the executive to have too much power. The
Executive is too easily able to dominate Parliament and that
Parliament has become the puppet rather than the master of
of course the first thing that needs to change is that
Citizens Initiated Referenda results need to be binding.
the number of signatures required must be reduced. In my
opinion 5 percent of those who voted at the last election
would be a sufficient threshold to ensure we only had
referenda on issues that evoked significant public support.
This would mean only 118,824 signatures would currently
be needed. The number would then be fixed in any three year
election period rather than fluctuating as it currently does,
based on the daily update of the electoral role.
the spending cap should be dramatically increased or done away
with altogether. In this year’s election the Electoral
Commission will allocate $3,283,250 among 15 political
parties. National and Labour will get $1,150,000 each. After
completing the Anti-smacking petition I was referred to the
police for possible prosecution for overspending the $50,000
cap by $127.03!
we should look at holding referenda only at elections. This
could include the local body elections as well so costs are
kept down considerably and the voter participation kept high.
Who knows, perhaps one day we will have a binding referendum
where New Zealanders will have the chance to decide if they
wish to extend our electoral term to fours years. Elections
for Local government could then be staggered with National
elections so we would have opportunities for referenda every 2
years if there were CIR petitions that had been successful.
have to say that would be a democracy I would take some pride
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