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Colin Craig

Making referendum count

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I wonder how you voted in the last binding referendum.

I refer of course to the 2008 election in which we the people decided the mix of representatives for the next 3 years. Of course there is another binding referendum (election) later this year but is one every 3 years enough? I think not. Indeed I suggest that it is time that Citizens Initiated Referendum (CIR) became binding.

I will briefly outline a rationale for binding CIR and then I will look at an example.

Being a reader of intelligence I am sure you will be well acquainted with the great Churchillian quote that “Democracy is the worst system devised by wit of man, except for all others”. While we acknowledge that no government can be perfect we are optimistic that we can limit the imperfection. I suggest a good democracy does this in two ways.

Firstly it refers back to the people and seeks their mandate on a regular basis. Such a poll of citizens is ideally a well-informed vote being free from corrupt practice.

Secondly a good democracy has checks and balances. Most often the checks and balances are provided by a combination of division of powers, an upper house, various statutory entrenchments and processes that aim to ensure legislation reflects the wishes of the people.

I wonder then how healthy our Democracy here in New Zealand is. While our election polling is largely corruption free, how well informed are the voters? How good are our checks and balances? John Key’s “hobbit law” cleared the house as legislation in just a few days – is that good decision making? Various legislation has been passed that clearly the large majority of people oppose but as long as it passes the muster with key swing voters it gets the tick.

Recently the Marine and Coastal legislation became law. A piece of legislation clearly opposed by the majority. Sadly if you made a submission it was a waste of time. The die was cast, the outcome predetermined. Do the “people rule” in New Zealand or do politicians work out their own agenda regardless of the will of the people.

All is not well and we need a solution.

I will not address in detail the virtues of an upper house which is also a commonly suggested solution. Suffice to say that I see no way this is going to happen in the near future nor am I convinced that it is a cost effective solution for New Zealand.

On the other hand binding CIR (or “binding propositions”) are one way to limit government that is cost effective and a path that we have already started down. The framework (and understanding amongst the voters) is already in place, a simple revision of the Act is all that is required. Indeed in 1992 when the CIR legislation was introduced the National government at the time promised to review the “non-binding” status. Now would be a perfect time for review.

I should add I consider a threshold is necessary in a binding CIR (say 65% of votes cast) in order to establish a clear majority. I am proposing binding CIR as a safeguard to a representative democracy not a change of governmental system. (i.e. the US model not the Swiss one)

The single biggest hurdle is of course that politicians must be prepared to impose a limit on themselves. In a country where a bare majority gives almost dictatorial power we need a leader to be willing to introduce a safeguard that will limit his or her power. Polling earlier this year shows a clear majority of New Zealanders support binding CIR.1 The question is will politicians support it.

I would like to conclude by using the Auckland Super City amalgamation as an example of where a referendum could have been successfully used. I was a candidate in the Auckland Mayoral campaign (3rd place with a credible 9% of vote), met literally thousands of Aucklanders, those involved in local Government, I did extensive polling on Auckland issues, and I have businesses that deal with council on a daily basis.

Just to recap it was proposed that Auckland’s problem of councils disagreeing over regional (mainly transport) solutions would be solved by joining all the councils together into a single “super city”. There were aspirational statements made such as “Auckland becoming the powerhouse of the New Zealand Economy” and having a “united vision bringing the region together for greater success”. Various media campaigns telling Aucklanders how great an amalgamation would be took place.

Very few Aucklanders agreed. In fact only 17% thought the amalgamation should proceed.2

However the amalgamation did proceed and we now are already seeing the problems emerge. A bigger bureaucracy is apparently not a solution (you don’t say). Costs are up, service is down. There are morale problems. Research I commissioned and have just received back in shows no measurable efficiency in anything. No one can even tell us how much it cost. Rodney Hide’s original $200 million figure is long since out the door (just like his “rates decrease”) with the computer project alone scheduled to be that cost on completion. It is a monumental sized disaster and I will not be surprised to see de-amalgamation in the future as has started to happen overseas (e.g. Calgary, Canada).

Did Aucklanders not make themselves heard? Yes they did at meeting after meeting. Action groups sprung up around the city and held marches and delivered pamphlets and did polling and protested. The problem was they had no mechanism by which to halt the process.

It was the people that should have decided on the Super City. They would have got it right as ordinary people normally do. They needed binding CIR.

Binding CIR are a safeguard for the people and one that we can’t see soon enough.

  1. 55% in favour of binding referenda vs. 20% against – Curia Research Mar 2011 
  2. Research First Apr 2010