Referendums Undermine Confidence in Democracy - An Opinion
By Graham Kelly
A reason for the public to lose confidence in our electoral and parliamentary system is the continuation of referendums, passed by Parliament in 1993.
These non-binding, well meaning, but worthless exercises, have no teeth and simply encourage governments, of both left and right, to ignore them.
I am not advocating that we introduce binding referendums, as they can cause severe and catastrophic results, just as it has done in California and other places.
Implementing policy is a serious business. We do this now through political parties where thousands of people have a say and have the opportunity to debate issues before a manifesto is written and the public makes a judgement about particular matters.
The problem with referendums is that they are a simplistic approach with often far-reaching implications. They raise expectations amongst the public that will not be realised. And the sometimes complicated nature of the issue being debated washes over many of the population.
Proposition 13 in California, in the mid 1970s, which I observed, was a binding referendum to cut taxes and was carried, as people were led to believe they would be better off. Before long, schools, teachers, roads, libraries, maintenance and other parts of local state government and its infrastructure and many other services, had to be wound down and many closed as the state gradually ran out of money. To this day they are still suffering from this decision.
And who funded the campaign? People with plenty of money who could afford to finance that expensive campaign. And did they tell of the downside implications of such a move? No. It was left to others, without the same resources, to try to do that.
The income divide grew wider as a result, and those on top incomes avoided paying taxes and could afford to pay for services they needed, but the majority were left to struggle to provide these services with a lower net standard of living.
The reason we elect political parties to govern our country is that they present a platform, which can then be compared to other party’s manifestos. This is debated in public and analysed during an election campaign and gives the public the opportunity to weigh up the factors that help them determine their vote.
One new factor that has emerged since the introduction of proportional representation in New Zealand is the fact that, in order to form a coalition government, each party has, to varying degrees, compromised on some issues in their manifesto. However the electorate has enough sense to make a judgement about this.
Should the successful political party or parties forming a government, either not implement the policy or policies in question without good reason and an explanation as to why, or do so and the public not like the result, they have the opportunity to vote them out of office at the next election.
This may not be a very satisfactory or sophisticated way to satisfy voters, but is sure beats giving the public a direct say on a particular subject (often simplistically stated) in non-binding referendums that a sizeable number will expect to be implemented. And the vast majority will not necessarily know enough about the subject, including unintended consequences.
Ignorant or blind voting is a fact of life in a democracy, but we should not be encouraging this by having non- binding referendums. (There is an exception over significant constitutional issues that arise very infrequently that could be in a binding referendum).
Confuses and upsets
Since the introduction of the legislation for non-binding referendums we have seen referendums on the number of fire-fighters, hard labour for serious violent offences, reducing the number of MPs, smacking children, and the partial privatisation of state assets.
Non-binding referendums confuse the public when the government of the day ignores them, as has happened on each occasion since the legislation was introduced. But more importantly, they undermine confidence in the democratic process and in our parliamentary system of government.
That is too important to be played with by well-meaning individuals or groups, or those who want to manipulate the political process for their own advantage, such as reducing taxes, as occurred in California.
The faster the referendum legislation is removed from our statute books, the better.
Graham Kelly was a Member of Parliament in New Zealand representing the electorates of Porirua and Mana between 1987 and 2003.