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Larry Baldock

Democracy or Dictatorship?

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Do you think we live in a democracy?

Recently a radio interviewer asked me, “Why call it a Campaign4Democracy, when we already live in a democracy?”

Well, it’s because more and more New Zealanders are coming to the conclusion that our democracy now consists of just having the privilege of electing a new dictator every three years! In our system of representative democracy if those we elect are not listening to and carrying out the wishes of those that have elected them, then what democracy do we have?

The Prime Minister in New Zealand controls the Executive and Legislative branches of our Government and the Attorney General, (with approval from the PM of course), appoints our Supreme Court Judges. Add to that the fact that the Queen, as our Head of State, appoints the Governor General on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, and the Governor General then acts only upon the recommendations of the Prime Minister, and you can begin to understand the extent of the abuse of power that can occur.

I have no doubt in my mind that if the National Party caucus members had been given the opportunity to vote in a secret ballot on the repeal of the anti-smacking law after the referendum, it would have been tossed out ‘by lunchtime’. After all, many of them, with John Key’s sanction, had helped me collect signatures to make the Anti-smacking referendum a reality!

It would no doubt come as a surprise to many that MPs crossing the floor to vote against party lines is much more common in healthy overseas democracies than here in NZ where, party loyalty, particularly in National and Labour, has become paramount.

Look at how much work President Obama had to do to get the votes of his democratic party colleagues in Congress to pass his health care reform, or how often backbench MPs threaten to vote against their party in Westminster. When was the last time an MP in our House of Representatives had the courage of their convictions to represent their constituents, and crossed the floor against the wishes of their party? It is a rare event indeed and has usually resulted in the party turning on the MP with vindictive reprisals.

In fact, I think most voters would be very concerned to learn that democratic votes seldom happen within a party caucus in Parliament, and when they do, anyone with a different opinion from the leader, must raise their hand in a brave, career damaging move. The secret ballot is a very important foundation of our electoral system yet within political parties it almost never occurs.

New Zealand is the only nation, as far as I am aware, that has neither a written constitution to clearly define the boundaries of constitutional power, nor a second chamber such as a Senate or House of Lords which must vet and pass all legislation before it becomes law. Added to this weakness we now have an MMP electoral system in which party leaders hold considerable additional power over their MPs concerned about their rankings on the party list at the next election.

No matter how likeable our political leaders are at any time, we need to remember that the ‘separation of powers’ principle is for their protection as well as ours. As Lord Acton said “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”. To all intents and purposes our Prime Ministers can assume dictatorial powers and use them to their detriment and that of the nation.

To address this serious issue the Campaign4Democracy is collecting 350,000 signatures on a petition that will force a referendum on the question of whether Parliament should be bound to implement the results of any Citizens Initiated Referendum (CIR) in the future.

Otherwise there is little sense in spending our taxpayer dollars to hold a referendum just to have Parliament insult the electors by ignoring the result.

This new petition is not the Anti-smacking referendum mark two! That referendum was just the most recent, and the most blatant example of Parliament’s disregard for true democracy. There are many examples.

The removal of appeal to the Privy Council; the Prostitution Law reform (passed on one abstention); the Electoral Finance Act (passed on a small majority rather than the consensus of both sides of the house as previously accepted); the Anti-smacking law (passed despite 80% public opposition); the Emissions Trading Scheme (passed with the support of the Maori party in what is increasingly looking like a very expensive deal); the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (Recently signed in a secretive way by the government) – the list could go on! Add to this the loss of the tradition of genuine conscience voting in the House of Representatives and we should all be very concerned.

After the Muldoon years and the turmoil of the 4th Labour Government the National party sensed the 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. The minister in charge of the passage of the bill into law, Sir Doug Graham, said, “It is my belief that we will rarely witness by Parliament the rejection of a referendum result”. 1

He 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 Doug went on to say “the 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 that time”.2

Surely it is now time for that review!

On the 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 country.”

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 cabinet.” 3

Well now ‘ain’t that the truth’!

  1. Hon Sir Doug Graham First reading CIR Bill 10 March 1992 
  2. Hon Sir Doug Graham Second reading CIR Bill 14 Sept 1993 
  3. Hon M McCully First reading CIR Bill 10 March 1992