Give our referendums bite for a taste of real democracy

STEVE BARON
Last updated 09:29 20/12/2013

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OPINION: As New Zealanders it's high time we asked ourselves what we want from our democracy.

Voting once every three years hardly seems like a democracy to me and I would suggest that most Kiwis feel we give our politicians far too much power.

That's a real problem, especially given that elections here now appear to be nothing more than a tasteless choice between the Coca-Cola or Pepsi Party. We therefore need to ensure we have extra checks and balances, for reasons I will now explain.

It's a fallacy to argue that the Government has a mandate to do as it pleases simply because it won the last election - in fact the majority of New Zealanders vote against the Government.

Even the most zealous National/Labour Party voter will not agree with everything they plan to do in government. Democracy in New Zealand is unfortunately a package deal - all or nothing, and a style of democracy that has become outdated and risky.

For example, the "urgency" procedure is often abused with laws being passed overnight without public input or debate. Parliament is also often empty as decisions are made behind the closed doors of the Cabinet room. The Upper House - a check and balance on the House of Representatives - was abolished way back in 1950. Adding to this, many of the decisions a government makes are irreversible by the next government.

New Zealand is also a nation where the prime minister and his Cabinet effectively have more power to pass laws than the President of the United States. Sir Geoffrey Palmer once described New Zealand's legislative process as the "fastest law in the West". While MMP has improved this just a little, our democracy lacks the checks and balances available in a country like Switzerland, or even the US.

That's why referendums should be binding on the Government. While a referendum may cost around $10m, it encourages voter participation and an inclusive society where power is shared, not wielded - a small price to pay for real democracy and a microscopic amount in the country's annual budget.

It's a real shame to see editorials in our major newspapers calling referendums a waste of money and suggesting they be abolished. Given it was a foregone conclusion the National Party would win the last election, it would be logical to argue that we didn't even need to bother having the election - it only wasted millions. Now that would be ridiculous, wouldn't it!

Democracy is changing and evolving, and so it must here in New Zealand. Prime Minister Key, and other prime ministers before him, have shown utter contempt by ignoring the spirit of our democratic system. Modern direct democracy is expanding around the democratic world because it works, and because citizens now demand more say on issues that directly affect their lives.

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Granted, our Citizens' Initiated Referenda Act 1993 needs to be overhauled and made more robust-but not done away with, and New Zealanders definitely need to have the final say in a referendum as to whether or not referendums should be binding on the Government.

As for populism prevailing, Wikipedia states: Populism is a political doctrine where one sides with "the people" against "the elite". Perhaps much of the media sees itself as part of the elite, rather than of the people, when it calls for less democracy? But can we trust the people to make wise decisions?

The Swiss have proved this to be a stupid question. From all the Swiss people I've met, they don't seem to be any smarter than you or me, either. There, hundreds of referendums have been held on simple Yes or No questions over the past 140 years and the Swiss government is forced to fulfil the wishes of the people it represents - even if it disagrees.

The words of United States President Thomas Jefferson bear careful consideration . . .

"I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education."

- Steve Baron is the founder of Better Democracy NZ, established to encourage the use of direct democracy through veto, citizens' initiated and recall referendums.

- The Dominion Post

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