Good ways and bad ways to conduct referendums

Our binding referenda on constitutional issues like MMP have followed good process.

There were some valid questions about how the two referendums on the New Zealand flag were conducted, but the main problem with that process was political interference with attempts to discredit the process by some because they didn’t want flag change, and by others because while they supported flag change they opposed it being initiated by John Key – in other words, the process was trashed by petty politics.

The smacking referendum was a waste of time, it was non-binding so was toothless, and the question asked was vague and therefore futile.

We will have at least one referendum during or at the end of this term, could have two and may have more.

Graeme Edgeler has posted about good ways and bad ways to do referendums in How not to waste millions of taxpayer dollars

There is a good way to conduct government-initiated referendum, and there are bad ways to conduct them.

During the course of this Parliament, New Zealand will conduct one or perhaps two, referendums – one of the legalisation of cannabis use (a result of the Green Party’s confidence and supply agreement with the Labour Party), and perhaps another on euthanasia. Unfortunately, indications are not promising that the process for either these referendums will be good.

During September, October and November last year Australia conducted a referendum. We should learn from its mistake. Australia’s nationwide “plebiscite” on the legalisation of same sex marriage, in an exceedingly useful example of how not to conduct a public referendum.

How it went is no longer breaking news: a sizeable majority of the voting public indicated support, and then the Federal Parliament passed a law providing for it.

The marriage vote asked Australia voters to give a yes or no answer to the question:

“Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?”

This is a perfectly reasonable question to ask to get a general sense of public feeling about a general issue, but is a stupid question to ask when wanting guidance on what a law should say.

So it’s better if a law change is defined then voted on.

How should you vote if you wanted politicians yet-to-consider a same-sex marriage bill to know that you would support changing the law to allow people of the same sex to marry, but would object to a law which might require churches to marry people in breach of church doctrine?

How should you vote if you wanted politicians to know that you thought people of the same sex should be able to marry, but would find offensive a system where a whole new law was created, setting up a separate same-sex marriage register, with separate same-sex marriage celebrants wholly separate from marriage celebrants?

You couldn’t. Holding a vote in advance of a bill being written makes that impossible.

This is a trap we should aim to avoid in both the cannabis referendum, and the potential referendum on euthanasia that New Zealand First is pushing for (and which David Seymour, the sponsor of the euthanasia bill, says he supports holding).

I hope the Government avoids these traps. They are fairly fundamental.

Will it be legal to sell cannabis, or just to possess and use it? Will people be able to grow their own, or will they have to buy it from specific government licenced dealers? Will you be able to smoke it outside in public places, like tobacco, or will that be prohibited, like the public consumption of alcohol often is? How will it be taxed? Will cannabis advertising and sponsorship be banned? Will councils have a role in regulating where it can be sold, or used? Will they be able to set up enforceable non-cannabis zones (like they can with alcohol), or only unenforced zones (like non-smoking areas)?

Will euthanasia be limited to the terminally ill? Will it need a judge to sign off a decision to offer aid in dying? What will a doctor who refuses to take part have to do, if anything? Will advance directives be able to be enforced, or will applications have to be made by people who are conscious?

Unfortunately, while the legislative process underway for the euthanasia legislation should work through the detail of the scheme, any referendum seems likely to be an afterthought.

I hope that Parliament (MPs) will have the fortitude to make a decision on medical cannabis without the need to then delay it by going to a referendum.

I think that in our system of representative democracy MPs can also decide on what is best for the minority that may want to consider euthanasia.

Fortunately, it’s not too late. The euthanasia law is still early in its early legislative process, and the cannabis referendum isn’t set up yet. Hopefully, we can avoid not only the mistakes Australia made, but also new ones of our own.

It may be a mistake to even have a referendum on euthanasia, but at least it won’t happen prior to legislation being debated and voted on in Parliament.

As Edgeler says, there are good ways and bad ways of having referenda – and there are also times when they aren’t appropriate, especially if used as a way for MPs to cop out of their responsibilities as representatives.


  1. Chuck Bird

     /  January 8, 2018

    The cannabis one is putting the horse before the cart. The wording of the euthanasia is straight forward. The referendum will come after public submissions and the select committee will have alter the bill taking them into account. The question will be be do you agree with the proposed bill becoming law? The bill will be on the internet and at libraries and people can request copies.

  2. Zedd

     /  January 8, 2018

    methinks any referendum that gets over 66% should be binding, regardless of the ‘official line’ else whats the point of running it.. if the outcome is ignored, because the Govt./powerbrokers dont like the result !

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  January 8, 2018

      Any referendum must be checked and rechecked to avoid any hint of a leading question.

      • phantom snowflake

         /  January 8, 2018

        All day I’ve been waiting, expecting that at any moment you would point out that the plural of “referendum” is “referenda”. I’m soooo disappointed in you Kitty!

        • The plural can be either referendums or referenda, so I mix it up.

        • Kitty Catkin

           /  January 8, 2018

          As referendum is now de facto an English word, it is, I think,, acceptable to say referendums….nobody talks about ‘circi’ or ‘disci’.

        • Kitty Catkin

           /  January 8, 2018

          In fact, as referendum is a verb, it doesn’t have a plural. It’s a gerund of refero and means a first consultation of the people as in ‘censeo referendum (Cicero) Referenda means something else altogether. My Latin dictionary doesn’t have this-that’s the main problem with case endings. One needs to know the orginal form.

        • Kitty Catkin

           /  January 8, 2018

          It doesn’t have a Latin plural, I mean.

          • phantom snowflake

             /  January 8, 2018

            Alas, I’m even a failure at being what Corky would call a “grammar prat.”

            • Kitty Catkin

               /  January 8, 2018

              My Latin Dictionary is 720 pages of small print…and it’s the smaller Latin-English dictionary. I don’t want to know what the large version looks like. I have a Latin-English, English-Latin one. but it doesn’t have all the etymological quotes of the other.

            • Gezza

               /  January 8, 2018

              Corky calls all sorts prats. It’s just a phase.

    • PartisanZ

       /  January 8, 2018

      Referendum, especially if conducted electronically and hence much more cheaply, can also be used as mass polling so elected representatives can make deliberative, considered decisions which involve more than simple ‘public opinion’, while seriously taking public opinion into account.

      The so-called ‘anti-smacking’ law is a perfect example at one end of the scale, the recent same-sex marriage poll in Australia epitomizes the other … [wisely they chose to not even make it a referendum, which would have brought all the elite influence buyers [Peter Shirtcliffes] out of the woodwork …

      Conversely, referendum can be and have been used to ‘palm off’ issues …

      Watch for massive private, corporate and church funded ‘anti’ campaigns against both Cannabis and End-of-Life-Choice referenda, especially Churches against the latter if there is one. I hope not. Expect, for instance, EoLC to constantly be called ‘euthanasia’ or ‘assisted suicide’ for maximum fear-mongering value.

      • Blazer

         /  January 9, 2018

        there is the danger of corruption with electronic voting .Not to be…trusted.

  3. PartisanZ

     /  January 8, 2018

    The good ways are obvious, the bad ways always purposefully bad …

    All this talk of “the main problem with that [Flag change] process was political interference” presupposes some fantasy-perfect process absent of all influence whereby Flag change was absolutely inevitable … This is absolute BS …

    Lest we forget Peter Shirtcliffe’s ‘political interference’ in the MMP referendum, which reduced support down to 53-ish% on the night …

    Righties always have more money to spend on ‘interference’ and if they don’t they have the power instead, as in the jamming Uncle Scrim on the night of 25 November 1935 … another P&T ‘interference’ …

    • PartisanZ

       /  January 8, 2018

      Funny really, 58 years after the elite of Post & Telegraph jammed Uncle Scrim on the eve of radical political change – the election of the First Labour government – the elite of the P&T’s Rogerednomics and Ruthanasia successor, the New-Right’s SOE ‘Telecom’, attempted once again to subvert (or pervert) the course of electoral change …

      And therein lies the danger of ‘bad’ referendums …

      Bad people …

  4. Missy

     /  January 9, 2018

    It is an interesting discussion, one that is happening – and has been for 18 months – in the UK. There is a lot of debate over the EU referendum, not so much on the outcome but the way it was run, and the flaws in the process are being used by the losing side to try to invalidate the result and stop Brexit.

    I have found it quite instructive being here during this process especially considering the experience of referenda in NZ. There were a lot of mistakes in my opinion on the way the referendum was conducted, but in general it wasn’t the complete disaster those who voted remain try to convince everyone it was.