Everyone loves a referendum

datePosted on 01:18, April 25th, 2009 by Lew

… but only when they serve our political purposes.

That’s the message you can draw from the two cases in which referenda have been recently proposed; for s59 and for the future of Auckland. The clearest distinction is between ACT and Labour, with Labour calling for a referendum on the Auckland issue in much the same way that ACT pushed for a referendum on s59; and Rodney Hide declining on a pretext, as Helen Clark was widely criticised for doing.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to equivocate on the two issues. I think the Auckland supercity referendum has merit (though phrasing the question will be tricky) and I think the s59 referendum is a jack-up for pure PR purposes – the point I’m making is about parties’ willingness to resort to plebiscite when it suits them, but not when it doesn’t.

L

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8 Responses to “Everyone loves a referendum”

  1. Jack Tanner on April 25th, 2009 at 22:07

    The referendum question is potentially simple. Labour needs to push for a clause in the bill which says the rest of the bill does not come into effect unless a majority of the voters in Greater Auckland agree. The referendum question then becomes: “Should the Act come into effect?”

    Let the campaigning begin.

  2. Jack Tanner on April 25th, 2009 at 22:09

    The referendum question is potentially simple. Labour needs to push for a clause in the Aucland restructuring bill which says the rest of the bill does not come into effect unless a majority of the voters in Greater Auckland agree. The referendum question then becomes: “Should the Act come into effect?”

    Let the campaigning begin

  3. Rich on April 25th, 2009 at 22:18

    The child-beating referendum is on ordinary legislation – with that, we have a representative democracy where parliament decides what our laws are going to be. Those laws work as a whole – in this instance the government has to deal with damaged children and adults who’ve been beaten by the parents. (It also deals with the enforcement of basic human rights).

    The proposed changes to Auckland’s councils are structural, and it’s reasonable that people should be able to decide on the structure of their government. It’s also good for stability if a decision is in some way entrenched by referendum, so the next goverment doesn’t change it all again.

  4. Anita on April 25th, 2009 at 22:54

    Labour could simply run a referendum.

  5. Steve Baron on April 26th, 2009 at 14:00

    We now have the Government and Auckland Mayors bitterly arguing over what they consider to be the democratic way to run the new Auckland supercity. This argument is nothing more than two packs of hyena arguing over the carcass of democracy. Democracy can mean many things to different people. The word conjures up a feel good factor whenever it is used. Because of that it runs the risk of meaning nothing at all. For some, simply voting once every three years and having no say in what happens inbetween, is considered democracy. Unless the people of Auckland demand more control over their politicians, through the use of Binding Referendums, it makes no difference how the carcas is devoured. The ultimate insult to democracy is that the people of Auckland do not get to make the final decision via referendum on this constitutional type change. Our elected representatives should be ashamed of themselves for calling this democracy. This process of centralising power will not stop in Auckland. Wellington is also on the agenda and where will it spread to next? Wanganu & Palmerston North amalgamating, or perhaps Napier & Hastings, Hamilton & Waipa or Invercargill & Dunedin?

    Steve Baron
    Better Democracy NZ
    http://www.betterdemocracy.co.nz

  6. Lew on April 26th, 2009 at 22:21

    Wow, what is it about direct democracy which robs people of perspective and moderacy?

    Jack,

    Labour needs to push for a clause in the bill which says the rest of the bill does not come into effect unless a majority of the voters in Greater Auckland agree. The referendum question then becomes: “Should the Act come into effect?”

    Several objections:

    1. How do you anticipate Labour will have this sort of influence over the bill? Labour’s only trump card here is the symbolic “will of the people” and the media and electoral attention that an appeal to such will (should) attract.

    2. I agree with Rodney Hide on one point: consultation is more complex than asking people to vote `aye’ or `nay’ without really having a decent understanding of the issues at hand. Partisans might claim to know that one side is exclusively bad and the other exclusively good, but most people are not so certain.

    3. Further to 2 – plebiscite responses to complex issues such as this are often less to do with the issues themselves and more to do with their packaging; viz. who is backing which changes, in what way, with what perceived ends. A referendum in this case (as in the smacking debate) will, if not very carefully formed, measure only the relative standing of the various political actors at work here, and precious bloody little to do with the issues themselves. If you take a crude majoritarian approach such as `majority must agree’ as a necessary condition for such a programme to be enacted, then you sign the people of Auckland up for a never-ending PR war on the relative merits of the schemes proposed and their backers. Never-ending because as one proposal fails (which it inevitably will, since barely anyone votes in referenda), then it goes back to the drawing board and starting again – because, some way, some how, Auckland governance will change – unless you want to argue it’s excellent already – which is, I think, a big call.

    In summary: I think a referendum for Auckland governance has potential in principle, but the implementation is a massive problem, and taking the “well it’s simple see” approach makes it no less massive.

    Rich,

    Yes, I agree on both counts. I think that the s59 referendum ought to have been declined until the necessary support for a CIR was demonstrated, as it was. I think there ought to be an Auckland referendum because it’s a matter of different political magnitude (and because the LGA provides for such).

    Anita,

    This occurred to me, as well. I think that Labour’s (and allies’) fall-back position should be a CIR, in spite of the bad press this will garner them (shoe on the other foot, etc. as in my OP). Big job, though – the ~400k needed for a CIR is nearly one in four Aucklanders.

    Steve,

    You lost me the moment you forced me to listen to your voice upon clicking your link.

    Actually, you lost me a bit earlier than that – with a polemic-laden appeal to `real democracy’ by referendum without an adequately-considered argument for such. It’s a bit sad, because in this case you probably have a point – but trying to extrapolate as widely as you do, and by making the (Milne-capitalised) Binding Referendum out as all-singing all-dancing panacea for all of democracy’s ills you undermine that point.

    L

  7. Anita on April 26th, 2009 at 23:05

    Lew writes,

    This occurred to me, as well. I think that Labour’s (and allies’) fall-back position should be a CIR, in spite of the bad press this will garner them (shoe on the other foot, etc. as in my OP). Big job, though – the ~400k needed for a CIR is nearly one in four Aucklanders.

    It doesn’t need to be a legal CIR, it could just be a referendum.

    Labour and the Greens have access to the electoral rolls, they have access to parliamentary services funding for mail outs, they have free in bound parliamentary mail.

    They could just run a referendum.

  8. Jack Tanner on April 27th, 2009 at 00:27

    1. How do you anticipate Labour will have this sort of influence over the bill? Labour’s only trump card here is the symbolic “will of the people” and the media and electoral attention that an appeal to such will (should) attract.

    Of course the government could steamroll over the proposed ammendment. (Act and National have the numbers, but I cant help thinking some Nats might waver.) Think of the public outcry. But even if it did it would have to compromise with more thoughtful crticisms.

    As for the complexity issue. That’s inevitable. The point is that this involves a simple yes or no,’do you support the proposal the government intends to implement’.

    For those who want a referendum, the best way would be to incorporate it in the bill. Done in March 2010 it would not delay the implementation if that is what Aucklanders want.

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