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Anthony Willy

Binding referenda – should we allow them

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The New Zealand First Party has promised that if it is invited into a coalition government following the general election on the 23 September one of it’s not negotiable policies will be to require the prospective coalition partner to agree to two binding referenda: One asking the voting public if they wish to retain the Maori seats, the other if the number of Members of Parliament should be reduced to a maximum of 100 rather than the present 120.

This coalition requirement has either been sneered at, or ignored by the media, and is anathema to those who consider that the public should play no part in government other than to cast a vote every three years. Those who hold this view are so obviously concerned that the public, if asked, will vote in favour of both referenda and thereby bring about some governmental Armageddon. Their view is that the business of government in a modern state is vastly too complicated to allow the hoi polloi to have a say. It is, they contend a job for the experts who alone can be expected to have the range of knowledge and expertise to come to the “right decision” on behalf of the public. A decision which will be seen as “right” by these people even if a large majority of the public does not think so, or does not want it.

It is instructive to dwell for a moment on who it is who comprises this all-wise cadre of decision makers. They are: The Members of Parliament and their bureaucracies, academics with an interest in politics, economists, the media’s political commentators (who belong because they know what to allow the public to know about and what must be kept hidden lest it inflame popular passions), lawyers and judges because they are trained in law making, and elements of the business and finance communities who above all want “stability”. This generally means being allowed to go on making money. Finally those with a vested interest in lobbying the decision makers for their own ends. Collectively they comprise “the elites.” What is so interesting about such a list is that all of the incumbents are hopelessly conflicted when it comes to making decisions about the public good. Each of them has an area of self-interest which rarely coincides with what the general public might wish to see happen. Thus no Member of Parliament would want to see the numbers of MPs reduced, whether or not that were in the public interest, in case they found themselves on the list of twenty redundancies. Similarly the government bureaucracies would suffer if government became leaner. If there were fewer MPs then the lobbyists would have less opportunity for practising their dark arts and therefore make less money. As to the Maori seats there is a well-established and well-funded pressure group in the form of the Iwi Leaders Group which in tandem with the Maori Party would not want the public interfering in the retention of the Maori seats for the obvious reason that under MMP it provides a strong voting tail to a compliant dog. And so on. Where such matters of fundamental constitutional importance are at issue the elites should be the last group to be consulted. 

Notwithstanding these conflicts of interest the elites comprise a formidable dyke which operates to protect this small and largely self-appointed group from inundation by the coarse and uninformed views of the masses. It never seems to occur to those sheltering behind the dyke that if they are correct in their views then there is little or no need for the triennial charade of democratic voting. How can it be that the vox populi are any better equipped to decide who shall run the country for the next three years if they lack the experience and knowledge to decide a simple referendum question.

To be fair to those who hold this view it has a respectable antecedence in no lesser a figure than Edmund Burke who lived from 1729 to 1797. He was one of the great political philosophers of his time, indeed of any time. It is he who is credited with saying:

The government representative’s should not be under the thumb of public opinion. Representatives are no mere delegates of the people but rather trustees of the public good. Your representative owes you not only his industry but his judgment and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

Those who pay homage to this Burkean view of politics and treat it as having Mosaic qualities rarely recognise that it was a creature of its time. The Westminster model of democracy was in its infancy when Burke conceived his views: Very few members of society had the vote. Society was hierarchical. The governing, and voting classes comprised the aristocracy, the larger land owners and the Anglican Church. The horrors of the French Revolution of 1789 and the ensuing reign of terror perpetrated by Robespierre and Danton the bureaucrats of the day in the name of the masses, were fresh in Burke’s mind, given such an appalling outcome it is not surprising he concluded that the masses could not be trusted particularly as the standard of education of those masses was far below what it is today. The middle classes which were emerging from the flourishing trade with the Empire did not acquire the vote until 1832 and played little or no part in the political life of the day. Viewed against that background it is not surprising that Burke had such a restricted view of the place of the governed and the role of the governors.

The simple truth is that none of those circumstances enure today and it is essential to examine afresh the place of referenda in our political spectrum. One can begin by agreeing with the elites that the day to day managerial functions of government are not fit topics for referenda, and that the making of such decisions do indeed require a degree of knowledge and expertise which is denied to most members of the public. For example the development of a taxation policy which raises sufficient money to allow the government to fulfil the policies upon which it was elected. This requires striking a balance between plucking the goose and killing it. The information and mature judgment necessary to get this right is simply denied to most members of society. As they do with other technical questions which affect their daily lives, most people are content to leave such matters to their elected representatives and their advisors. The Californian popular referendum proposition 13 of 1979 is a classic example of why tax policy for example, should not be left to self-interested members of the public. Property values in the State have been distorted ever since.

That said there are political issues which are so fundamental to the way we are governed that ordinary members of the public are as well equipped to decide as are the elites – indeed better because they do not suffer from the obvious conflicts of interest referred to above. One such recent example is whether or not Great Britain should leave the European Union. As it turned out, and in the face of virtually unanimous advice from the elites that to leave would be an immediate social and economic disaster, the ordinary British people voted to leave; clearly preferring their sovereignty, their own brand of the Rule of Law, and control of their boarders, to the federal model of the Union. Indeed on the principle of Turkeys exercising a vote advancing the date of Christmas there are some issues which the elites should be disqualified from having any say. The binding referenda proposed by New Zealand First are uniquely two such issues.

The proposed referendum on the future of the racially separatist seats is an issue which for New Zealand is as important as is Brexit to the United Kingdom. The antecedence of these seats is well known. They began life as a principled means of ensuring that those Maori people who did not have the property qualifications then required to be able to vote should nevertheless have a voice in the selection of members of Parliament. With the advent of the general franchise; 1879 for males and 1893 for females, New Zealand democracy has been wealth, gender and colour blind. All Maori people have long since been able to participate fully in the democratic process.

In 1986 the Electoral Royal Commission set up by the then Labour government recommended Mixed Member Proportional Representation and the abolition of the Maori seats. It is to be expected that Maori concerns were present in the minds of the Commission in coming to its recommendations. The present Prime Minister is on record as saying that when National again became the government it would abolish the Maori seats. He has not done so and it can come as no surprise that in the face of government inaction a national plebiscite is called for. New Zealand First is the only party making that call. The idea is opposed by all other parties represented in Parliament. Unsurprisingly so because it is the existence of the separatist seats which gave the National Party its one seat majority in the passing of the Resource Management Amendment Act 2017 which has effectively destroyed local body democracy in New Zealand in favour of a brand of separatism.

That said the important point is not the outcome of such a referendum but that the public will be trusted to decide this important issue. It may be, as a recent poll suggests, the public will vote for the retention of the seats (although anybody who makes important policy decisions on the basis of public opinion polls is on a sticky wicket given the long standing failure of polls to predict anything useful.) It may be that the public will vote for abolition. If so the minority will be disappointed but that is the nature of a democratic society which strives to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number, recognising that it is impossible to please everybody all the time..

As for the number of members of Parliament they all have a vested interest in keeping the existing numbers for the obvious reason that nineteen of them may well become redundant. Human nature being what it is not many of us will vote ourselves out of a job. Equally clearly they will say that even with the existing numbers they are worked off their feet, and with any less the business of government will grind to a halt. This is of course nonsense. Most of the business of government is done by the bureaucracies who present options to the cabinet for decisions consonant with the policies upon which they were elected. A great deal of the work of back bench Members is involved in listening to the concerns of their electors, and spending mindless hours sitting in the House disagreeing with each other. Apart from comprising a pool from which Ministers will be later drawn it is difficult to see what contribution back benchers do make to the management of the country. But however one views it, as it is the public who foots the bill, it is not unreasonable they should decide how many.

Let us hope that the overture made by New Zealand First on this important issue is not spurned by the other parties but comes to be recognised for what it is; the ultimate exercise in democracy.