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Strengthening Democracy – giving voters more power

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I have been campaigning for more direct democracy in our political system since 2003, but just recently I looked at some old newspaper clippings from 1985 and realised I was even talking about referendums way back then. Having an interest or passion for politics is rather peculiar in this day and age. It is not uncommon at the first signs of a political discussion, for the person standing in front of me to have an immediate attack of ocular revulsion (eye rolling). I often wonder why I’ve always had this interest.

What has always concerned me is the real lack of checks and balances in our political system. It also concerns me greatly that we give the government, or at least the Cabinet, of the day, so much power. For example, we have no codified constitution to limit government, the Upper House of parliament was removed in 1951, MPs have numerous free votes in parliament even when their morals and principles are no better than yours or mine—and some might argue a lot worse, international laws are growing in stature and often influence our governments who sign up to these laws which can take precedence over domestic laws. Laws can also be passed under ‘urgency’ without public consultation and without following the democratic process. In my opinion these are major systemic issues. There has also been so many controversial laws based on one political party’s ideological beliefs and secret agendas, passed in this country, that the majority of New Zealanders simply do not agree with, but are forced to.

My first memories of politics were visiting my grand parents in the early 1970s and seeing Granddad hunched over the kitchen table listening to Sir Keith Holyoake lambasting the opposition on the ‘wireless’. I also remember voting for the first time in 1978 and thought the system was corrupt when the Labour Party got more votes than the National Party but did not become the government because National held more electorate seats. This happened again in 1981. This was the way the political system of the time worked, but it has since been changed—a change that surprised many at the time as it was considered that the New Zealand system was more Westminster than the English Westminster system itself. Perhaps it is now time for even more change—time to improve our political system even further.

One attempt at this was the Citizens’ Initiated Referenda Act 1993 (CIR). This Act came about mostly due to the many broken election promises of the Labour government in 1984. These radical policies for those times caused immense frustration and anger amongst New Zealanders and people at that time felt they had been deceived. So many election promises were broken and according to a number of academic surveys, MPs were less respected than ever before. As a nation we had lost confidence in our political representatives. This led to an outcry for citizens to have more control over their elected representatives in the form of CIR. A lobby group within the National Party called National Reform, put pressure on the party, and leader Jim Bolger, to support the introduction of CIR at their 1989 party conference. National made an election promise in their 1990 manifesto to introduce CIR. National won this election and introduced the Citizens Initiated

Referenda Bill to parliament in 1992 which was subsequently passed into law on 14 September 1993. The disappointment to many who were involved with the National Party at the time, was that these CIR were to be indicative. In other words, not binding on the government. This is a rather strange occurrence because in most countries CIR are binding on the government. The people felt cheated yet again.

My campaign to make referendums binding started with a CIR in 2003. It was a long and difficult process. To start with, it can take months to have a CIR approved by the Clerk of the House of Representatives before you can even begin collecting signatures. To trigger a CIR the petitioner then needs to collect the signatures of ten percent of those registered on the electoral roll. This is a huge task even for a large organisation, let alone the small group of devotees like we had. People certainly supported the petition and seven or eight out of ten people on the street were happy to sign it, but we simply didn’t have enough people power on the streets collecting the signatures. We ended up collecting 20,000 signatures which were presented to parliament and passed onto a parliamentary committee, never to be heard from again.

If it is time for further change to our political system we all need to ask ourselves what it is we want. Is it best to have a system that creates a government that can govern alone, or a system that reflects what the majority of voters want? Should there be more checks and balances or is just one vote every three years enough? After all, even though you may have voted for, and elected a government, it does not mean that you agree with everything that government wants to do—and we know from history that governments do not get it right all the time and are often out of sync with what the majority of voters want. If we want more control then how do we get it? One direct democracy tool that deserves special mention and consideration to put a checks and balances on parliament is the Veto (Facultative) referendum.

When new laws, or changes to laws have been passed by parliament, citizens can subject them to a referendum if the required number of signatures can be collected in the prescribed amount of time, usually ninety to one hundred days. The new law or change to an old law only becomes effective if the majority of the votes in the referendum were in favour of it. It is worth noting that of the more than 2,200 laws passed by the Swiss parliament since 1874, only 7% have been subjected to a Veto referendum. The Swiss people are therefore happy with 93% of what their government wants to do—but not always!. For me personally, I will always trust the collective wisdom of 3 million voters over the collective wisdom of 121 Members of Parliament.