Bound to fail

18:58, Dec 01 2013

Imagine you're in hospital, waiting for surgery. The surgeon walks over, and you realise they're holding a butter knife, not a scalpel. They grin sheepishly, and mumble that maybe they're not totally qualified to operate, but they definitely have an opinion on what to do.

I think this is a pretty good analogy for the case for binding citizens initiated referenda (CIR). As the asset sales referendum hits our letterboxes, various people argue that CIR should bind the Government and lead to law change. The trouble is, a CIR is usually the wrong tool for direct law change because it's too blunt, and, while we will generally have opinions about most referendum questions, we're not typically experts on the issues involved.

Take the current CIR question: "Do you support the Government selling up to 49% of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power, Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand?" How should you answer if you think the Government should flog the energy companies but keep the airline? What if you think the Government should sell 100% of all of them? A "no" vote would be strictly accurate, but would sound like you reject asset sales, which isn't really what you're saying. This is the bluntness problem-a simple "yes/no" choice doesn't actually cover detailed real-life scenarios very well.

Of course, this question is supposed to test the appetite for a specific Government policy, so it needs to be detailed, and you could argue that the results will still tell us something meaningful about support for the Government's policy. Let's accept that for a moment, and then let's be honest with ourselves-most of us aren't really experts on the pros and cons of asset sales. That's why we elect politicians as our representatives to take the time to propose, investigate and debate these kind of ideas, to talk to experts, and (hopefully) to make wise choices for us. If we don't like the choices they are making, we can take action at the next election.

At the very least, politicians should engage constructively with the sentiment behind CIR results, even if they're not a precise guide to action. There may also be issues where some other kind of binding referendum is appropriate. For example, if we're talking about changing the rules that get people elected, or changing the constitution, a binding referendum might be a better option than leaving the decision with politicians who benefit directly from it.

But this doesn't support a general argument for binding CIR. The limitations of CIR that I've discussed aren't a problem if the referendum is just testing what people think, which is what CIR do now. But those problems will matter a whole lot if CIR were to be binding, and overrule our parliamentary process. Referenda might be good for diagnosis, but they're not good for surgery. 


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