Most against binding referenda

A side discussion on binding referanda developed at The Standard in the Against a four year term thread. Most comments were against binding referenda. It was started by Amakiwi:

With referendums we can have the policies the majority of us want. It’s our country. We decide.

If the majority of the PEOPLE, think the policy was a mistake (legalizing drugs, lowering the drinking age), we can call another referendum. No waiting for 3 years for another government.

You want prompt decision making, vote for binding referendums.

Referenda are anything but prompt. The length of time it takes to run them is one of the major drawbacks, especially if there were going to be a few. The Contrarian pointed out…

How much time you got AmaKiwi because last year alone some 249 Bills were introduced to Parliament.

Many bills are routine so wouldn’t go to a referendum (presumably) but there would still potentially be a major logistics problem.

Amakiwi: If a bill is passes parliament we have 90 days to collect 25,000 signatures to challenge the bill in a binding referendum.

The Swiss have a 25,000 signature trigger for binding referenda. But the Swiss system hasn’t been ideal, the country only gave women the federal vote in 1971 and one Canton, Appenzell Innerrhoden, was forced by federal court to give women the vote in 1990. The voters of the canton had refused women’s suffrage in 1959 by 2050 votes to 105 – the voters were all men. This highlights a problem of the power of the current voters excluding others by popular vote.

And another major issue was highlighted by Pascal’s Bookie:

Yeah, my main reason for not wanting binding referenda are civil liberties. It’s a nightmare. One shocking crime and we’d have the death penalty back on the books, till we execute some poor fucker repeal it, rinse , repeat.

Treaty issues? Forget about it.

He is probably right, there’s a good chance a popular vote would stop Waitangi claims, which would be obviously unfair on those who have legitimate claims still pending.

And being swayed by savvy media campaigns:

So the argument is based on the assumption that the general populace is too ignorant to make reasonable choices and can be easily swayed by media manipulation?

No, “ignorant” is a judgement call. I wouldn’t use that word, I would say the general populace can be seduced. See the 2008 and 2012 election as proof of that. How else would you explain John Key’s popularity?

Its not so much media manipulation, but more manipulation by some people who have the ability to use the media as the vehicle for their message.


There’s a fair amount of empirical evidence behind the assumption.

Whipping up a crowd against a minority isn’t exactly an uncommon tactic.

There’s also the issue of a lack of general knowledge and expertise when voting on complex issues.

I do not “distrust” my fellow citizens. I trust them to be nice to me, I trust them not to be violent, I trust that they would treat me with compassion and care. However, within today’s society, I do not trust my fellow citizens to be able to understand and explain the complex cause and effect of social & economic policies.

I also don’t trust them to understand how our colonial history continues to shape our current race relations. I don’t trust that my fellow citizens understand the complexity of society when I look at our TV, newspapers and general chat around the water cooler.

I trust them as people, I do not trust their knowledge. I hope people don’t trust my knowledge of car engines.

In theory are a good way to allow the people to participate in the democratic process, but there’s good reasons why most countries use forms of representative democracy more the direct democracy.

Referenda are important for allowing people to decide major issues such as constitutional – on the structure of our democracy. But on specific issues referanda can be flawed. Here are some of the reasons:

  • Time it takes to run a referendum
  • Cost and logistics of referenda, especially if there are many
  • Referendum questions need to be simple but that often can’t properly address complex questions.
  • Referenda can be hijacked by special interest groups who mislead with contradictory questions – like the smacking referendum
  • Referenda can be hijacked by political groups or parties – like the asset sales referendum
  • Referenda risk being knee jerk reactions to topical events
  • The majority can overule minority interests – it would be possible to unfairly target specific ethnic, political or religious groups

My preference is to use referenda for things like the MMP decisions (introducing and retaining). But generally our representatiive democracy model is close to beinmg the right balance. It does need a better means of public input into decision making.

I have proposals to make on a better way of addressing this through a two tier system of public focus group (a form of credible peoples lobby) and an effective ongoing means of measuring wider public opinion.

More on this in following posts.


  1. Steve W

     /  February 9, 2013

    I definitely oppose binding referenda. One need only look at the questions and outcomes of the non-binding referenda we have already had to see they are a serious danger to good government. The referendum around the repeal of Section 59a’s defense against an assault charge on a child was BASED ON a deliberately created, profound misunderstanding in the public mind of what had really happened with the change in that law. If I had ever had any doubts about the dangers of referenda, that cemented them into stone. That 80+% had NO IDEA what had really happened…..and voted against it…..was too bizarre for words.

    I’m satisfied the average person can make good choices if adequately informed on a specific issue. But that, in my experience, is almost never the case. I have also seen referendum campaigns perverted by governments who deliberately make the information available partial and confusing unless you have a political science degree. No thanks.

    The other referendum that was appalling was the one calling for 99 MPs. No one seemed to understand the government of the day needs a big enough pool of talent to be able to appoint competent Ministers……but even more importantly, the governing caucus needs to have a back bench bigger than the Cabinet so that it doesn’t become a dictatorship…as Muldoon’s governments clearly did. History showed clearly that 50 MPs in a governing caucus with a Cabinet of up to 25 people just wasn’t big enough.

    But people remained blissfully unaware of any of this…and instead voted to LIMIT their own representation.

    That was another completely bizarre outcome. The whole thing was bizarre….highlighting most people don’t know how Parliament works or what it actually does all day.

    Ignorance on that scale should not be unleashed on the minority who do know what’s going on ……and make the effort to find out.

  2. Steve W, have to disagree with your statement. Rubbish, I say!, Rubbish!

    The fact that parents understand the dangers of conflating a smack with child abuse, and how such equivalences only give the more unfounded power to the state on getting involved in minor matters proves exactly why we need binding referenda – to protect people from misguided politicians – in that case the Greens and the fellow MP fools they convinced to fix the wrong problem.

    If a judge lets a person off for beating their child to an inch of their life with a plank of wood, fix the judge not the law. That was always illegal, even if a judge couldn’t quite see it. And on the other hand, some of the reports of the flagship cases to justify the law change were built on distortions.

    The s59 referendum proved to me we need the option of binding referenda precisely because such a huge turnout and overwhelming result gets dismissed out of hand by Steve W. and others. The result proves parents understood exactly the point they wanted to make with an 88% percentage point slap down. And how did Key respond? Ignored it. And yet you only need to post the results of a straw poll in the paper of 5,000 on a conservation issue and the Greens will claim mandate to change the law based on “popular opinion”. O a march down Queen Street by 5,000 people supposedly should be listened to when it suits, but a 1.84 million vote result is trashed? Rubbish.

    I’ve written so many posts on this topic, I’m not going to repeat myself here, but they are on my blog duly filed.

    The weaknesses of the Swiss model were cited, but nothing about the strengths. That’s also worthy of further debate beyond this quick comment – I might post a counter to some of the above points when I get time. Short answer though – NZ has a lot more room for binding referenda in the political space, especially because we don’t have a two chamber system, and we have politicians deliberately ignoring “the will of the people”.