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Dr Muriel Newman

Dr Muriel Newman

Reinstating democracy


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There appears to be a growing undercurrent of disillusionment with New Zealand’s system of representative democracy. Some are saying our elected members of parliament are turning their backs on voters who put them into office. Instead of representing the public’s views, they are displaying an appalling arrogance by belittling those who dare to voice a contrary opinion.

Unfortunately, this arrogant disregard of the public view is becoming all too common. The ban on smacking, Labour’s passing of the Electoral Finance Act to stop anti-government campaigning in the lead up to the 2008 general election, and National’s introduction of the unpopular, unaffordable and pointless emissions trading scheme were all were enacted against the wishes of the wider public. And now it’s happening with the Marine and Coastal Area Bill. Submissions and polls show the public are overwhelmingly opposed to the new law, but through a shabby deal, National, the Maori Party and Peter Dunne appear determined to force it through.

That National wants to pass this racist bill in spite of the Prime Minister’s promise that he would not change the law if the public were opposed, is an affront to democracy. It represents an intolerable abuse of the parliamentary process and demonstrates that when a government goes off the rails, our democratic system is completely lacking in checks and balances to protect the public interest.

However, rather than feeling frustrated and disillusioned, maybe it’s time to take a lead from those jurisdictions that have found ways to give voters a stronger voice – such as the US and Switzerland where systems of grassroots direct democracy give citizens the power of veto over newly-passed legislation. When a highly unpopular law is passed by the legislature, if opponents can gather sufficient signatures within a given timeframe, the law will be placed on a ballot to be approved or rejected by citizens in a binding referendum. If such a ‘people’s veto’ existed in New Zealand and the Marine and Coastal Area Bill was passed into law, the Coastal Coalition would mount a challenge and a binding referendum would be held. I have no doubt that the bill would be thrown out as a result leaving the existing 2004 Foreshore and Seabed Act in place.

Direct democracy is not a new idea. It has its origins in Ancient Greece around 500 BC, where the citizens of Athens gathered together to vote on important matters of state. In the US, the movement emerged in the 1600’s through town hall meetings in the north eastern New England Colonies. In the 1700’s, while States began adopting measures to enable citizens to directly approve constitutional changes, it wasn’t until the late 1800’s and early 1900’s that the concept was expanded to general legislation. Nowadays, 27 states have given their citizens the power to propose and oppose legislation through the use of ‘direct initiatives’ and ‘popular referenda’.

A Direct Initiative is a law change proposed by citizens and placed on the State Ballot to be voted on at the next scheduled election. The process requires citizens to collect sufficient signatures in support of the initiative within a given timeframe. The number of signatures depends on the State, and can range from around 3 percent to 15 percent of the number of votes cast in the last election for Governor. Once on the ballot, the initiative will pass into law, if it gains a majority vote at the election.

The Popular Referendum or People’s Veto enables citizens to repeal new laws within 90 days of being passed by the legislature – and before they come into force. The process is similar to that for a direct initiative, with the law going onto the Ballot to be approved or opposed by the citizens at large. Again, the result is binding.

Switzerland’s system of direct democracy, which bears many similarities to that in the US, has been in place since 1848. It enables Swiss voters to influence government policies at every level and has been attributed as being responsible for Switzerland having one of the highest standards of living in the world with high incomes and low taxes. Furthermore, 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 – something that we are in urgent need of here in New Zealand!

This week’s NZCPR Guest Commentator is Gavin de Malmanche, a freelance writer and retired advertising and marketing executive, who is very concerned about the impact on New Zealand of a growing number of race-based laws. In his article Racial Extortion or ‘Freedom from Fear’, he explains that in the US, citizens are successfully fighting against government-sponsored racism through the introduction of Direct Initiatives to prohibit preferential treatment based on race:

“Nearly 200 years, after the Treaty of Waitangi it is fair to assume the majority of New Zealanders, including many Maori, believe it is time for our democracy to line up with article three of the Treaty, move away from race-based preference and deliver equal status and equal ‘Rights and Privileges’ for all New Zealand citizens, irrespective of racial origin.

“A similar attitude toward racial equality is now becoming a reality in the USA where a number of states have legislated against racial preference and ‘Affirmative Action.’ In 2006 the State of Michigan, according to Research Specialist Carol M. Allen of Michigan State University, ‘overcame numerous obstacles to pass overwhelmingly a voter ballot initiative amending the state constitution to prohibit public institutions from discriminating against or giving preferential treatment to groups or individuals based on race, gender, color, ethnicity or national origin…’

“As is the case in the USA, New Zealand could also begin the process of phasing out divisive politics and policies that support race-based separation and or preference. These are identified as separate race-based parliamentary seats, a race-based political party, separate race-based education (Kohunga Reo and Kura Kaupapa Maori), race-based health and welfare (Whanau Ora) and race-based law and order (Marae Courts).”

The number of US States that are banning the use of race or ethnicity as a criterion for government measures is growing through the use of Direct Initiatives. California was the first state to end preferential treatment based on race in 1995. Washington State followed in 1997, Michigan in 2006, Nebraska in 2008 and Arizona in 2010. With elected officials clearly not prepared to reign in the escalation of race-based privilege, it has fallen back on the public to push these changes through themselves.

As New Zealand faces the November election, there is now a widely held belief that under MMP our elected representatives are much less focussed on the views of voters than they were under First Past the Post. Political self-interest has brought us to the ridiculous situation where minority parties, with only 2 or 3 percent of the popular vote, are now controlling the direction that the country heads in. And while a referendum on the voting system is scheduled for November, it is hardly a level playing field given that the Prime Minister has already endorsed MMP and promised a review to make the system more acceptable.

New Zealand, of course, already has in place a system which enables the public to call for a Citizen’s Initiated Referendum (CIR) on any matter of concern, but unlike the US and Swiss systems, such referenda are not binding. Because of that, unless the CIR is held in conjunction with a general election, voter turnout can be low as citizens recognise the propensity of governments to largely ignore referendum results. That was certainly the case with the last three successful CIR that were held – the 2009 referendum to overturn the smacking ban, and the two 1999 referenda to reduce the number of MPs down to 99 and to introduce hard labour for serious violent offenders. All were ignored.

The answer surely, is to adapt the principles of direct democracy to New Zealand, in order to strengthen representative democracy and engage the public more fully in policy development. But while opponents of greater democratic rights for citizens like to argue that the US system of direct democracy can lead to political paralysis – citing California as an example – they would do well to look at the facts. Dr John Matsusaka, the Chair of American Enterprise at the University of Southern California, has done just that in a working paper published last year on whether direct democracy voter initiatives have paralysed California’s budget. He reports that while two voter initiatives – the much maligned Proposition 13 of 1978, which set the maximum property tax rate at 1 percent of assessed value with limited increases, and Proposition 6 of 1982, which eliminated death and gift taxes – did constrain revenue gathering by the legislature, because property and inheritance taxes are a relatively minor source of state revenue, “Initiatives are not to blame for the state’s budget crisis”.1

The reality is that government without the consent of the governed is tyranny. Given the increasing regularity with which our elected representatives are turning their backs on the public interest in order to pursue their own self-interest, is it not time to reinstate democracy and demand a system of checks and balances similar to those that so successfully empower citizens in over half of the American States and Switzerland?