Kevin Hague on referenda

In response to Asset petition good, smacking and marriage petition bad Green MP Kevin Hague has responded.

It’s a very interesting discussion. I’ve been thinking about it during the day and I am struggling to find a simple single rule that can be used to distinguish useful from useless referenda.

It’s good to see MPs prepared to think and engage.

I don’t think there is a single rule that covers everything.

I suspect we would agree on at least some of the situations where referenda are unhelpful, judging by your comments. Referenda on issues that are too complex to be reduced to a straightforward question are almost always going to be unhelpful.

Yes, and that is complicated by the process of coming up with questions that are balanced and comprehensive.

Similarly where the question is ambiguous or requires interpretation to be applied to public policy (which is most of the CIR to date).

The smacking referendum being the most recent example. I could have given legitimate Yes and No answers.

Referenda are also not useful where no actual choice exists, or where ethical leadership requires that governments act a particular way. For example, where an issue relates to the human rights or fair treatment of a minority group or a group that needs protection for some other reason than being in a minority clear and comprehensible questions could probably be constructed but certain response options may be unethical.

I agree again.

For example, say we were looking at a referendum question about whether the human rights of refugees should be honoured. Judging by the ease with which it seems to be possible to whip up a moral panic about refugees there would seem to be a reasonable possibility that a referendum may conclude that their human rights should not be honoured. But human rights are inalienable, so a Government could not ethically implement the referendum outcome.

And again. Especially because of the ease that angry crowds can be whipped up with devious and dishonest means, which are widely known. I’m sure you’ve seen many of the tricks on the marriage bill.

And another factor often forgotten is the influence of the media, they can swing public sentiment quite quickly and easily, and if sensationalist momentum cranks up it’s very difficult to influence in any reasonable way.

So lots of situations where referenda are not helpful tools. Obviously they can be tools where the relevant public policy question is what the majority view is.

They sound good in theory but in practice can be quite flawed. Especially if they are designed to be toothless by politicians. Like CIR.

I suggest that in the case of asset sales there ate quite a number of aspects which are not helpful referendum topics, but the Prime Minister created a legitimate referendum topic through his claim that there is a public mandate for the Government’s programme. The question of whether or not a mandate exists is well-suited to a referendum, and it would be entirely possible for the Government to hold this referendum before selling any of our state assets.

That’s just about the only thing I disagree on.  Yes, Government could have delayed their asset share sales even longer and waited for a referendum result. And if they had agreed it was to be binding and lost, what then? Half way into a term and their flagship policy is canned, and they have to rethink all their plans, projections and budgets. Not much time to do anything significant in the remainder of the term.

I know that’s exactly what the opposition want. But if referenda become a normal party tactic what of a hypothetical Labour Green government from 2013? FBT? Minimum wage? If a referendum is cranked up by National or a proxy will Labour-Greens wait for that before implementing major policies?

Is the Green Party prepared to commit to abiding by the result of future referenda? If you prefer to look at each on it’s merits then it’s very hard to escape criticism for self interest.

I can guarantee that if opponents of a Green-Labour government decide to use a CIR to oppose or delay they will be as convinced of their right to do it as you are on the asset sales.

And I don’t think the intent of CIR was ever for parties to contest opposing party policies.

If using CIR as a party political weapon succeeds once  it will only lead down a bad path. Greens can’t suddenly become anti CIR becasue it looks likke it suits.

Apart from the ease with which referenda can be misused by parties, a major problem with CIR is the timeframe. Look at the current one as an example. A year to organise and gather signatures. Two months to check. It would take a minimum of a few months to organise and hold the referendum.

The quickest you can expect a result is half way through the term. What if National lose and come up with a variation? Crank up another petition?

We have a representative democracy for good reason, even if we could have sensible and fair referenda they have many flaws, too many in my opinion, except for things like the MMP one held during the election. Monarchy, flag change etc are also suitable for a referendum.

But referenda on policy is too problematic. I was keen on them for more direct deocracy but have gone cold on them, too impractical.

I have ideas on what might work better, but that’s for another post, this one was for a respnse to your comments

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