Why New Zealand needs binding referendums

GORDON COPELAND
Last updated 14:21 21/01/2014

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OPINION: Former prime minister Sir Geoffrey Palmer is wrong to conclude that referendums endanger our democratic system (Opinion, Dec 24). Rather, I think our democracy will be enhanced by the selective use of binding referendums because I believe, to quote Abraham Lincoln, democracy should be government "of the people, by the people, for the people".

My point of difference with Sir Geoffrey is shaped by the fact that my parliamentary experience has been under the mixed member proportional (MMP) voting system while his was under the old first past the post (FPP) voting system.

It is true that MMP has given us a more representative Parliament. The Greens and NZ First would not be there under the FPP system.

However, it is also true that MMP has given prime ministers greater power, and that is where the problem lies. They have always played a major role in the selection of the Cabinet, but under MMP they also determine the ranking of list MPs. MPs who cross the prime minister risk not only their chances of being a cabinet minister, but also of being demoted on the list at the next election.

The position was different under FPP. MPs, all of whom represented electorates, were then free to vote either way on conscience bills and that freedom was respected from the prime minister down.

During my time in Parliament, I saw that prime ministerial power exercised ruthlessly by both Helen Clark and John Key.

Let me give you two examples.

The first is in relation to the Prostitution Reform Bill of 2003, which, for the first time in New Zealand's history, decriminalised brothel keeping and legalised street prostitution.

It was supposed to be a conscience vote for Labour MPs, but Miss Clark lobbied those who opposed the bill to change sides. The media tackled the prime minister about that, to which she replied that everyone was talking to everyone.

But the prime minister is not an "everyone" in this context. I saw it as an abuse of power since it is morally unacceptable to override a person's conscience in those circumstances.

In the event the bill passed by one vote, with Labour MP Ashraf Choudhary abstaining. When asked why, he stated that as "a Muslim I could not vote for the bill" but till pressure was brought to bear he had been staunchly opposed. In the event, just seven Labour MPs voted against the bill. All were electorate MPs; none were in Cabinet.

Polling at the time showed a solid majority of voters opposed the bill.

The second is in relation to the "anti-smacking" bill which, for the first time in New Zealand's history, criminalised parents if they smacked their children for the purpose of correction.

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Sadly, then Opposition leader John Key followed Miss Clark's example. The overwhelming majority of National MPs had consistently voted for a sensible amendment to the bill to allow a light smack for correction, but all were forced to change sides and vote for the bill after Mr Key cut a deal with Miss Clark. Again, many of those MPs were very unhappy.

As a result, the bill was passed with just nine MPs voting against it, even though polls indicated it was opposed by more than 80 per cent of voters. It gets worse.

Voters collected about 390,000 signatures to force a referendum in 2009. An overwhelming 87.4 per cent voted against what had now become law, but Mr Key, by then prime minister, ruled out repeal immediately.

Where is democracy in all this? Did Miss Clark and the Labour Party campaign in the 2002 election to decriminalise brothel keeping and prostitution? No, they did not. Did either the Labour Party or the National Party campaign to criminalise a light smack by good parents in the 2005 election?

No, they did not.

When the issue was raised, and it was, both Labour and National MPs informed the people that it would be a conscience vote. Yeah, right.

On issues such as these it turns out that MMP is not a democracy but an oligarchy, that is government by the leaders of the Labour or National parties when they are in power.

What use are polls in these circumstances? What use are non- binding referendums? Does Sir Geoffrey really want to drown out the voice of the people who are negatively affected by these undemocratic decisions?

Kiwis deserve better. Given these realities, if we are to reform our government in a way which fits Lincoln's definition of democracy, we need binding citizens initiated referendums as never before.

Gordon Copeland is a former United Future MP.

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