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Dr Muriel Newman

An Idea Whose Time has Come

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If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem. It is true that you may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. – Abraham Lincoln

“Who speaks for me?” is a question being asked by more and more New Zealanders who feel increasingly alienated from the democratic process. Democracy is no longer working when politicians, once elected, feel they have a mandate to do whatever they please, irrespective of the opinion of voters.

Even direct democracy is not working.

In 1999, Margaret Robertson gained 81.5 percent support for her nation-wide Citizens’ Initiated Referendum (CIR) petition to reduce the number of Members of Parliament down to 99. However, in the intervening years, instead of seeing a reduction in the number of MPs, Parliament now has the highest number of MPs ever – 122!

Nor did the 1999 CIR petition of Norm Withers fare any better. Norm launched his petition after his elderly mother was brutally attacked by an offender with 56 previous

convictions who had been released early from prison on parole. Norm’s petition asked, “Should there be a reform of our justice system placing greater emphasis on the needs of victims, providing restitution and compensation for them and imposing minimum sentences and hard labour for all serious violent offences?”

In spite of the petition receiving the overwhelming support of 92 percent of voters, the Labour Government made the situation worse, not only by reducing eligibility for parole from two-thirds of a sentence to one-third, but by making it easier for violent offenders to get bail. In other words, the government of the day not only ignored the letter and spirit of the referendum, but showed their contempt of the public’s wish by doing the opposite.

Last year’s smacking referendum met the same fate. In spite of 87.4 percent of people stating that they did not want good parents criminalised for using reasonable force against children, John Key thumbed his nose at the referendum result with his arrogant “I know best” response. Meanwhile, surveys show that the law remains a ‘dog’s breakfast’, with parents, Police and CYPS all being compromised on a daily basis.

What is particularly galling about the passing of the anti-smacking law – which was a Private Member’s Bill proposed by Green MP Sue Bradford – is that it was a Parliamentary “conscience” vote. Traditionally when conscience votes are called, many constituency Members of Parliament will survey the views of their electorates as a guide on how to vote. In this case, with the public very much against the law change, all electorate MPs who wanted to represent the view of their constituents should have voted against the Bill. But the opposite occurred as democratically elected MPs toed their Party line to vote in favour of the Bill. In other words, in a bottom-line contest between representing the New Zealand public on this contentious issue, or representing political party bosses, party bosses won hands down – representative democracy in New Zealand was trampled.

When elected politicians ignore the wishes of the citizens who elected them, it is entirely understandable that the public should question the integrity of their democracy. Under MMP, what New Zealand now appears to have is the absolute antithesis of that inspiring vision of democracy, so ably articulated by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address that “democracy is government of the people, by the people,for the people”.

Interestingly, in the USA, they have never veered too far away from the concept of direct democracy – ensuring that political power remains in the hands of the people. All US States have procedures in place to ballot voters directly on constitutional amendments, which must be approved by voters at large. In addition, twenty-four States make extensive use of two other Ballot Propositions, namely the Initiative and the Referendum.

The Initiative is a law change proposed by citizens. Once a group of citizens register their intention and collect sufficient signatures for their public petition, which, depending on the State, can range from around 3 percent to 15 percent of the last vote for Governor, the initiative will be placed on the Ballot and the result will be binding. One of the most famous initiatives in the US was Proposition 13 in California, passed in 1978. The “People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation” resulted in a cap on property taxes – reducing them by an average of 57%, from US$12 billion to US$5 billion – as well as the need for a two-thirds majority in Parliament for any future tax increases.

The Referendum is a process by which the public can repeal a law that has been passed by the State legislature before it comes into force. Again, citizens who wish to oppose a new law must gather sufficient support by way of a petition. Once they have done this, the repeal motion then goes onto the Ballot and the result is binding. The People’s Veto, as it is often called, can be highly controversial, as it was in Maine in 2009, when it was used to overturn the same-sex marriage law that the State legislature had just passed. This was a classic case of elected representatives passing a law that was not supported by the majority of citizens. The referendum process enabled the public’s will to prevail. In other words, if legislators do not listen to the wishes of the public, the public have the power to force their hand.

Direct democracy had its origins in Athens – the cradle of democracy – over two and a half thousand years ago. However, the country that is best known for its fundamental commitment to direct democracy is Switzerland, which started using referenda in 1848. A country of 7.8 million people, the Swiss Government consists of a Federal Council of seven Ministers, who take it in turn to be the President. Members of Parliament in the Federal Assembly meet for twelve weeks a year and represent the 26 Swiss Cantons or States. These Cantons are made up of over 2,600 Communes or Municipalities, each with its own governance structure.

Swiss democracy, which includes the right to promote and repeal legislation through binding referenda, is bottom-up – ordinary voters are sovereign and the government is essentially there to do their bidding. As a result, Switzerland has one of the highest standards of living in the world with high incomes and low taxes. Further, the Swiss style of government is very effective in limiting the influence of politically powerful minority pressure groups, by weighing up their demands against the costs to society as a whole.

A case in point is the referendum held in Switzerland last year banning the building of Minarets on Islamic Mosques. While Muslim and human rights groups – along with the Government – opposed the ban, it was supported by 57 percent of the population who felt that allowing minarets would encourage the growth of an ideology – and a legal system (Sharia law) – which is incompatible with Swiss democracy.

As in the US, Swiss democracy gives the public the right of veto over laws passed by their Parliament. This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is author and sociopolitical commentator Amy Brooke, a long-term advocate of Swiss style democracy. Convener of the Summersounds Symposium, Amy has re-launched her 100 days – Claiming Back New Zealand initiative (for more information see the website www.100days.co.nz), which would have allowed New Zealanders to over-ride Parliament and throw out the smacking ban:

“The call for a direct democracy is one whose time has come. Moreover, the means for achieving this is a hugely effective way of stopping in its tracks the hijacking of the political process by party politics, dominated by an autocratic leader. Switzerland, the most successful democracy of all, described as the most peaceful, prosperous and open society in the world, adopted it over a hundred and fifty years ago when this small but extraordinary country realised that its own democracy was one in theory only. The provision it then claimed would serve us equally as well, in spite of the fact that we do not have this country’s advantage of all its legislation being promoted not tops- down as with by our political hierarchy – but from grassroots representatives from the small states or cantons. The provision that we are now going to have to work for is even more important to claim than the binding referendum process which must follow. The two go hand in hand, but one before the other.

“Essentially, this provision ensures that although parliament can pass any law, including those insufficiently debated, typically late at night, or on Christmas Eve – or through any profoundly undemocratic trade-off with a minor party manipulating the system… whatever law is passed actually can’t coming into effect for 100 days. During this time, if 50,000 citizens are concerned enough to call for a referendum, it has to be put – what is called a facultative (optional) referendum – and the country’s verdict is binding. The different, citizens-initiated referenda, where proposals come from the people themselves, are a separate and interesting issue. But it is the facultative referenda that we most urgently need to put a stop to our now perceived lack of genuine representative democracy – so very well illustrated by the scandalous ignoring of the country’s wishes in parliament’s infliction of the anti-smacking legislation.”

There are times when an idea is proposed that has the power to change the direction of a country. This 100-day initiative is just such an idea. With government consistently ignoring the wishes of the majority of the public (just think about the Emissions Trading Scheme, as well as the laws being passed in Parliament that are transferring iconic State assets and the Conservation Estate into Maori ownership without so much as a hint of public consultation!) it is surely time the public fought back.

If you believe the 100-day Claiming Back Democracy initiative is an idea worth promoting, please vote in this week’s poll and share this newsletter with others who might be interested in finding out more about the concept.