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Larry Baldock

The Challenge of Citizens Initiated Referenda

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How hard can it be to collect enough signatures for a referendum?

Well first let’s look at the history of Citizens Initiated Referenda (CIR) since Parliament passed the legislation to allow for such a democratic process in 1993.

After the Muldoon years and the turmoil of the 4th Labour Government, the National party sensed 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.

On 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.”

Sadly this has not eventuated as yet.

Under the CIR Act 1993 all petitions to force a referendum on any question must be submitted to the Clerk of the House of Representatives so the wording of the question can be approved, and the petition form also certified by the Clerk.

The Clerk has received 45 proposals since the 1993 Act. One of those is yet to be determined by the Clerk – public comment recently closed on the wording. Of the other 44, 22 lapsed (not returned to Clerk), 12 were withdrawn, 6 had insufficient signatures, and 4 went to a referendum.

So if only 4 have successfully achieved a referendum I think we can conclude it is not ‘a walk in the park.’ Forty four individuals or groups who have been sufficiently concerned about an issue in New Zealand have taken the initiative to try and give all Kiwis the chance to have their say, yet forty of those have been very disappointed. After varying amounts of effort and personal sacrifice of resources and time, they have been unable to collect the required number of signatures after the 12 month period allowed by the CIR Act.

Since my name has been associated with four of those petitions I can say I have experienced both the highs of success, (shattered of course by Parliament’s refusal to recognise the 87.4% “NO” vote in the Anti-smacking referendum) and the lows of failure when, after the huge efforts of many volunteers, I have had to accept the disappointment of accepting reality.

  • Referendum on the Prostitution Reform Act, 202,000 signatures collected but 50,000 short.
  • Referendum urging the Government to address the real causes of Family Violence and Child abuse, 300,000 signatures collected but 22,000 short.
  • Referendum to make CIR binding, hardly got off the ground despite 7 out of 10 willing to sign.

I think it is fair to say that the deep frustration felt by so many New Zealanders after being ignored by the Government on the last 3 referenda has deepened the level of apathy in the country towards petitions and referenda in general. Until the government is held to account and CIR are made binding in some form at some threshold level of support, it has and will continue to become increasingly more difficult to find the volunteers needed and who are willing to give their time so generously to collect signatures.

It really shouldn’t be so hard for such a simple principle of any healthy democracy. When National passed the CIR Act they were fulfilling a campaign pledge in the 1990 elections. They had picked up on public concern about the tendency of political parties to ignore the will of the majority of citizens, but I think it is fair to say they took very cautious steps toward sharing power with the voters.

The number of signatures required, and the amount of money the petition organisers can spend on advertising a petition, are significant barriers to seeing a referendum held.

Consider first of all some comparisons. In Switzerland, with a population of 7.8 million, 50,000 signatures must be collected for a binding referendum. In Italy you need 500,000 in a population of 60 million. 24 of the States in the US have some form of citizens referenda.

In California with a population of 37 million, a petition (or initiative as it is called) must have the number of signatures equivalent to 5 percent of those who voted for the successful Governor at the last election. So while it currently takes about 390,000 signatures here in New Zealand to force a non-binding referendum, in California a binding initiative can be achieved with only 271,422 signatures. Admittedly they must collect those in 150 days instead of 12 months, but if they had to collect 10 percent of the 23.5 million eligible voters, as here in New Zealand, it would require 2.3 million. That means on a per capita basis we collect 6 times as many signatures.

Then there is the matter of how much we can spend on the task. Here in New Zealand in 1993 it was capped at $50,000 and has not been inflation adjusted since. In California unlimited money can be raised, and professional collectors can be employed.

The National minister in charge of the passage of the bill into law in 1993, Sir Douglas Graham, said, “It is my belief that we will rarely witness by Parliament the rejection of a referendum result”.

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 Douglas 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”.

Surely it is now time for that review!

The Hon Murray McCully said 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.”

So of course the first thing that needs to change is that Citizens Initiated Referenda results need to be binding.

Then the number of signatures required must be reduced. In my opinion 5 percent of those who voted at the last election would be a sufficient threshold to ensure we only had referenda on issues that evoked significant public support. This would mean only 118,824 signatures would currently be needed. The number would then be fixed in any three year election period rather than fluctuating as it currently does, based on the daily update of the electoral role.

Then the spending cap should be dramatically increased or done away with altogether. In this year’s election the Electoral Commission will allocate $3,283,250 among 15 political parties. National and Labour will get $1,150,000 each. After completing the Anti-smacking petition I was referred to the police for possible prosecution for overspending the $50,000 cap by $127.03!

Finally we should look at holding referenda only at elections. This could include the local body elections as well so costs are kept down considerably and the voter participation kept high. Who knows, perhaps one day we will have a binding referendum where New Zealanders will have the chance to decide if they wish to extend our electoral term to fours years. Elections for Local government could then be staggered with National elections so we would have opportunities for referenda every 2 years if there were CIR petitions that had been successful.

I have to say that would be a democracy I would take some pride in again!