New Zealand First and Referenda

Winston Peters and all NZ First MPs voted against the marriage equality bill because they wanted it to be decided by a referendum. He closed his speech with:

Therefore, the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill without a referendum is opposed by New Zealand First. We oppose this Parliament again ignoring the people’s view, whatever the people’s view may be. I ask: why are so many here not prepared to trust the people on these issues?

Peters has made more statements about letting the public decide:

Let people make the decision – Peters

Take responsibility off politicians and give it to the public – that was the challenge from NZ First leader Winston Peters at a Taranaki Young Professionals meet last night.

Hot on the heels of Wednesday night’s decision to progress a bill to allow same-sex marriage, a bill Mr Peters voted against, he was justifying his vote on the merits of public referendum.

“I don’t understand why politicians can be so arrogant as to think they can address such an issue on behalf of the country.”

I’m a strong believer in referenda – when justified.

I’m a strong believer in MPs consulting (far more) with the people.

But MPs are elected as representatives of the people. Parliament is our House of Representatives. We have a representative democracy.

Issues like marriage equality and the purchase age of alcohol (and all the other alcohol reform issues currently being considered) need to be extensively consulted on and debated. It’s hard to see how a referendum could deal adequately with the complexitites involved.

There’s also the time required to have a referendum – far too long for normal parliamentary business.

And the cost would be substantial.

Peters has not made it clear to what degree he wants to have referenda.He has been talking a lot about it, for example:

Calling For Appropriate Referenda – Radio Live Column

16 August 2012
Rt Hon Winston Peters

There has been plenty of media coverage about New Zealand First’s calls for binding referendum on two issues – same sex marriage and proposed changes to our MMP electoral system.

It has been suggested in some quarters that our position on proposing referenda is an attempt to avoid issues or muddy the political water. Nothing could be further from the truth.

New Zealand First’s manifesto states that we want to form a practical partnership with New Zealanders by the judicious use of direct public referenda.

What does “judicious use of direct public referenda” mean? The marriage equality bill is relatively minor, and seems to be a very selective target fora referendum.

In New Zealand First’s Fifteen Fundamental Principles the only mention of referenda is:

  • Electoral reform will be determined by the electors.   The Government’s duty will be to ensure the fair representation of all views and the holding of appropriate referenda.

They also list:

  • All policies not contained in the party manifesto, where no national emergency clearly exists, will first be referred to the electorate for a mandate.

Did NZ First refer the marriage equality issue to the electorate? Or is that what they mean – if it’s not in their manifesto there should be a referendum. Here is what their manifesto says:


New Zealand First wants to form a practical partnership with the New Zealand people by the
judicious use of direct public referenda where:

  • there is neutrality and impartiality in the question;
  • there is fair dissemination of all of the facts on both sides of the argument;
  • there is certainty in the poll (i.e. the question can be clearly understood);
  • there is appropriate time for debate to be conducted; and,
  • the referendum’s objective is capable of being met within the country’s fiscal constraints.

Consultation on major constitutional changes, on the ownership of assets, on important social policy, on significant economic strategies, and on New Zealand’s relations with the world is fundamental to a healthy democracy.

‘People  power’ by means of referenda should, where possible and practicable, replace MPs’ conscience votes.

Binding referenda will be triggered by petitions achieving support of 10% of the electorate. Both government and members’ bills that have the support of parliament can, where stipulated, also trigger a binding referendum.

Referenda will be conducted either on the first Saturday of November each year or in conjunction with a general election.

Referenda qualifying before March 1 will be conducted in the following November to provide sufficient lead-in time.

A revamped Electoral Commission provided with greater resources will conduct up to four citizens initiated referenda, as well as any government or parliament designated referenda each year, and will also be responsible for ensuring that balanced dissemination of all of the facts on both sides of the argument occurs in timely fashion.

A successful referendum result will be achieved by simple majority and may only be vetoed by the vote of 75% of all Members of Parliament within one calendar month of the result being declared.

So the NZ First call for a referendum on marriage equality is consistent with this – but to be consistent shouldn’t they also be calling for a referendum on alcohol reform?

I used to think we should make much more use of referenda. But there are many problems with referenda, especially the timeframe involved, the cost, and trying to deal with complex legislation with simple questions.

I think that almost all parliamentary business can and should be dealt adequately by MPs as representatives.

What is needed is a better connection between MPs and the public on an ongoing basis.

How much did NZ First consult with the people on the marriage equality bill? And how did that affect their votes – all voted against it. All other parties voted for marriage equality or split, reflecting mixed views of the public.

There seems to be some inconsistency in democratic principles here.

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