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February 29, 2008 | by  | in Online Only |
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Plebiscita

A referendum is where an electorate of some description is asked to answer a question on a topic of importance. New Zealand has two types of referenda, Citizens Initiated and Government.
Governments have the ability to call for one at anytime. Citizens initiated are ones that percolate from the public upwards. So far there have been 3 citizens initiated ones in NZ history.

The rules for starting a CIR are outlined in THE CITIZEN INITIATED REFERENDA ACT 1993. This was a provision that the Commission on electoral change said was unneeded because “initiatives and referendums are blunt and crude devices…. [that] would blur the lines of accountability and responsibility of Governments”

The three CIR have been about decreasing the number of fire fighters, reducing the number of MP’s to 99, and about Justice reform. Three CIR that have succeeded in getting through the three stages, out of thirty-three petitions started.

Petitions in general are badly worded vague and loaded. The 1999 CIR on law reform asked:

“Should there be a reform of the justice system placing greater emphasis on the needs of victims, providing restitution and compensation for them and imposing minimum sentences and hard labour for all serious violent offences?”

92% of the voters answered yes. But that was inevitable. Who would answer no to that question. I bet you a lot of the then National government voted in favour of it as well.

In 1995 the question:

“Should the number of professional fire-fighters employed full time in the New Zealand Fire Service be reduced below the number employed on 1 January 1995?”

87.7% of the voters answered yes. But once again that was also inevitable. Who would want fewer firemen protecting our lives and property?

The problem with CIR sprouts from the fact that they are citizens initiated. The questions asked have been loaded and one sided. The responses they elicit are exactly the same.

One of Victoria Universities leading political scientists, Elizabeth McLeay, wrote: “The New Zealand experience shows that citizens’ initiated referendums are flawed decision-making instruments that ought to be avoided”

This brings me to the latest attempt for a CIR, about the repeal of the anti smacking legislation. Once again the questions are loaded and vague, albeit the first question is worded better than the second

1) “SHOULD A SMACK AS PART OF GOOD PARENTAL CORRECTION BE A CRIMINAL OFFENCE IN NEW ZEALAND?”

2) SHOULD THE GOVERNMENT GIVE URGENT PRIORITY TO UNDERSTANDING AND ADDRESSING THE WIDER CAUSES OF FAMILY BREAKDOWN, FAMILY VIOLENCE AND CHILD ABUSE IN NEW ZEALAND?

Elizabeth McLeay wrote: “There are many better ways of voicing citizens’ views than instituting these sorts of devices.”

This is because we have so few of them, they are tricky to bring about, and they are vague and loaded. Another fact is that governments generally ignore the results of CIR. Since ’95 the number of Fire fighters have stayed roughly the same. Penalties for violent crime have not become harsher and, there are more MP’s in parliament than ever before (due to overhang MP’s. Nigel Roberts and I got a bit excited about that).

Although petitions do draw attention to problems with law, and society, they have a proven record of not following up on them, or legislation. New Zealand has fallen into a trap where signing a piece of paper is all that we feel we have to do to affect change.

If people want to affect change on a national scale they need to get involved. The best way of doing this is turning up to a polling booth on election day, and having co-ordinated lobby groups that can run campaigns that have no limits on spending and no rules about distribution.

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The editor of this fine rag for 2009.

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