Don’t ditch CIR, fix it

A Dominion Post editorial is highly critical of Citizen Initiated Referenda after the Green and Labour hijacking. I agree that the asset sale referendum was a Waste of Money.

To listen to Labour and the Greens one would think the Government had no choice but to begin buying back state assets following the referendum on state asset sales.

According to Labour leader David Cunliffe the people “clamoured” to have their voices heard and they have “spoken” against the partial sales of Mighty River Power, Meridian Energy and Air New Zealand.

According to Green party co-leader Russel Norman the referendum has shown the prime minister is out of touch with mainstream New Zealand.

There is only one problem for Mr Cunliffe and Dr Norman. The referendum on state asset sales was not the first held under the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993. It was the fifth.

…except that on each previous occasion a citizens-initiated referendum was held, the government of the day also ignored its outcome.

The asset sale petition and referendum was too cumbersome, too expensive, too late to make any difference. Easy to ignore.

The citizens-initiated referendum experiment should be abandoned. It is an unnecessary add-on that has contributed nothing but cost to the political system.

I agree that CIR are a failed experiment. Designed by politicians to be impotent, then ironically hijacked by politicians.

But giving up and abandoning is not answer.

What we should do is replace CIR with something that is effective – and not controlled by politicians or Parliament.

Something that is fast enough to express public opinion before legislation is debated and decided in Parliament. A system of public information, debate and opinion measurement that can contribute to MP knowledge of public opinion. If it is timely it will have more influence.

The citizens-initiated referendum experiment should be abandoned. It is an unnecessary add-on that has contributed nothing but cost to the political system.

I agree that CIR are a failed experiment. Designed by politicians to be impotent, then ironically hijacked by politicians.

But giving up and abandoning is not answer.

What we should do is replace CIR with something that is effective – and not controlled by politicians or Parliament.

Something that is fast enough to express public opinion before legislation is debated and decided in Parliament. A system of public information, debate and opinion measurement that can contribute to MP knowledge of public opinion. If it is timely it will have more influence.

Labour and Greens pledge binding CIR

Labour leader David Cunliffe and Green co-leader Russel Norman have pledged to abide by any results of Citizen Initiated Referenda.  They said this is consistent with their stance on demanding that National abide by the will of the people expressed in the asset sale referendum.

When pointed out that this would align them with the Crazy Colin Craig Party and that it could make Parliament a farce they said the principle was too important to be concerned about that.

Cunliffe and Norman said that if any petition for a CIR opposed any bills put forward by a Labour-Green government they would put the bill on hold for 12 months pending the result of the petition and if a referendum was initiated they would wait for the outcome of that before putting the bill to debate and votes in Parliament.


Referendum irrelevant to Air New Zealand sell-down

The announced sell-down of 20% of Air New Zealand shares has been slammed by opposition party leaders, criticisng the timing with the asset sale referendum about to be held.

David Cunliffe:

“This is an arrogant, out-of-touch Government desperate to get the sale done before the public has its say.”

Russel Norman:

“It’s a deeply cynical and desperate measure but a Government that knows there’s a referendum about to happen.”

I don’t know how sensible the timing is from a business and share-market point of view is except that Air New Zealand shares are at a record high which sounds like a good time to sell.

I don’t know if the Government has timed the sell-down to deliberately coincide with the referendum, if that was a primary factor in the timing it would be cynical and stupid.

But the referendum shouldn’t be an issue. It is irrelevant to the asset sale programme, it shouldn’t and won’t make any difference to whether the MOM sales programme continues or not. Like all Citizen Initiated Referenda everyone always knew it could and would be ignored. Cunliffe and Norman knew this.

Cunliffe and Norman know that Government will not pause or halt sales because of the referendum.

They are using the referendum as a political campaign weapon. That’s all it has ever been.

Their posturing is desperate and cynical politics.

Government programmes and parliamentary legislation can’t be scheduled by and dictated by the eighteen month timeframe of a Citizen Initiated Referendum.

Asset referendum question an ass

The question we will be asked in the asset sale referendum:

“Do you support the Government selling up to 49 per cent of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power, Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand?”

No, I don’t. I doubt that anyone would support selling Solid Energy in it’s current state. Government have indicated it won’t be sold at this stage.

I do support the right of Government to have sold Mighty River Power shares, they campaigned on it, they were elected, and they got support to get their legislation through Parliament.

But I would honestly say No to the referendum question.

And then the Opposition would claim that supports their “no asset sales” campaign. Which would be false.

This illustrates the absurdity of our Citizen Initiated referenda system.

A single question has to be designed to attract petition signatures, and then cover all possibilities in a referendum question eighteen months later.

Time has passed by the original premise of the question.

And a single question is unable to address more complex possibilities and preferences.

The infamous smacking referendum question was just as flawed. It was designed to get a particular negative response, regardless of the actual arguments for and against.

Questions have become simplistic political tools, campaign tools. They do not accurately capture complexities of public opinion, they are not designed to do that. They can’t do that anyway, so they are used to try and score political points.

The asset sale question is an ass, as is the system of citizen democracy that has been taken over by political campaigners.

This petition is a waste of time and taxpayer money. It is simply a means of parties extending their campaigning between elections. And we pay for it.

Time to end asset petition farce

As a supposed Citizen Initiated Referendum the asset sales petition was always a politicised farce. It was known from the start that if a referendum was held it would be ignored by Government, as past Governments have done with past referenda.

But the Greens poured considerable resources into using the referendum as a between elections campaign tool. And as seems to be common practice these days Labour followed along.

As far as political PR stunts go Greens and Labour have been majorly embarrassed by failing to get the required number of signatures.

They are initially putting on brave faces, albeit considerably egg covered. Russel Norman and David Shearer are vowing to get back to gathering signatures again to get the additional signatures required.

I wonder how many of the Green and Labour troops are groaning with trepidation. A year long signature gathering campaign was a major slog. Now they are being asked to psych themselves again for another burst of pleading to the public.

For what?

If they get the signatures a referendum will be held, perhaps later this year – well after Mighty River Power shares go on NZX (this Friday), and quite possibly after Meridian as well some time in the next few months. Too toothless, too late.

A referendum would be a multi million dollar exercise in futility.

Greens thought they were onto a winning strategy where they could use taxpayer money to fund a long running party campaign leading in to the next election.

They have now lost face, big time.

And if they continue on with the petition they stand to gain little if anything more, and could lose more egg covered face.

If Greens and Labour can’t organise a successful petition together, how would the look organising a government coalition?

A referendum will have zero effect on the asset share sale programme. It will keep reminding voters of the ongoing CIR farce.

If Greens and Labour had any sense they would cut their losses and move on to something more positive.

But by the sound of Russel Norman’s response to the news yesterday the Green petition machine is likely to continue.

And Labour sound like they will continue – Anti-asset sales campaign not over yet – Labour

Talk about flogging long dead horses. I think it’s time to end the farce.

Did David Farrar sabotage the asset petition?

Russel Norman’s last tweet yesterday:

So if the National Party activist David Farrar signed the asset sale petition 13 times, did Nats organise this nationally?

Funny to see Norman referring to Farrar as a “National Party activist”.

Farrar has responded on Facebook:

Seeing the response to today’s joke tweet, I am thinking of becoming a professional troll. The waves of outrage are quite addictive!

Farra’s “joke tweet” was amongst an exchange on the number of disallowed signatures on the asset sale petition. On a Kiwiblog post Massive fail for Labour and Greens Farrar claims:

This is incredible. They spent around $400,000 gathering signatures for their asset sales petition, and they failed to get enough valid signatures.

They needed 308,753 valid signatures but fell short by 16,500.

That is a massive fail and gross political incompetence. They didn’t have to submit the petition when they did. They could have carried on getting more signatures to make sure.

I’m still staggered for now that despite spending $400,000 and having the entire memberships of the Labour and Green parties, and most unions, they proved unable to get enough valid signatures.  You could understand it if they were close to the deadline to submit – but they were not. They made a tactical decision to submit early for political posturing, and have ended up with egg on their face.

UPDATE: They claimed to have 400,000 signatures but got 292,250 valid ones. That means 107,750 were invalid which is a massive 26.9%. Maybe they should have put their paid petition gatherers on performance pay!

Here’s the offending tweet:

So was it wrong of me to sign the #assetsales petition 13 times? I used a different name each time, so figured that was fine 🙂

I saw that tweet at the time, 8.37 pm last night. I can only see minor response to that tweet, Farrar then went out fot the evening (according to another tweet) and Norman was not very active, a few tweets defending the petition and then the one accusing Farrar.

Farrar was obviously joking. Norman must know this but is trying to score some political mileage by trying to portray it as an organised National sabotage of the petition.

Over the last year when the petition was gathering signatures I saw many quips and claims in social media that people had signed the petition using fake names – eg Mickey Mouse. It’s impossible to know if these commenters were saying what they had actually done or were trying to encourage others to do it.

I don’t agree with deliberately spoiling a petition but I’m not surprised, the Greens used what is supposed to be a Citizen Initiated Referendum into a party campaign tool, using it to promote themselves and to harvest contact email addresses, phone numbers and postal addresses (as did Labour).

So it shouldn’t be surprising that political game playing may have occurred with the petition. Norman played down a country wide 2011 campaign stunt by Green activists defacing National election hoardings.

Defacing petition forms is probably a degree worse but as a Citizen’s referendum it was farcical and futile, so making it more farcical doesn’t seem to be a big deal.

Not that I think Farrar signed 13 times, I highly doubt that he did, he was joking on Twitter. Some will have deliberately the spoiled petition, but there will be many reasons for invalid signatures.

Someone I know told me that a signature gatherer was so pushy they found it easier to just sign (again) than say no.

And a couple of examples from a petition supporting blog, The Standard, in Asset sales petition has more work to do.

tamati 9

I remember seeing a petition at an op shop on Dominion road. Was just sitting on the counter, with nobody actually supervising. Saw a bunch of girls in school uniform sign up, and nobody seemed to know this was wrong!

shorts 13

I wonder how many are disallowed due to them not being on the electoral role – given over a million eligible voters didn’t vote last election, one could surmise there’s a lot of young people whom may have signed simply not on the roll?

Yep as someone who spent a lot of time collecting signatures the number of people who had changed addresses were significant. And without a date of birth date the chances of identifying them on the roll would have been very poor.

I am actually not surprised at this problem. It is just what happens when you have volunteers talking to ordinary people and collecting signatures without the benefit of electoral rolls being on hand.

The Al1en 16

I signed the petition in the Labour party Hamilton office in Te Rapa.
I was told to only sign my name and date of birth.
And they want to run the country when they can’t even get a form filled out properly.
Good work, front desk nobody.

With consideration, I remember I queried it at the time and did put my name down, but I do recall seeing a lot of just names and birth dates. Hope that page wan’t pulled out for a scan by the clerk.

karol 23.3

I’m still concerned about the fact that I moved since I signed the petition – wonder if that makes my signature invalid.

So obviously it’s very difficult ensuring that only valid signatures are collected, and a high failure rate isn’t surprising.

Greens and Labour will have known there was a high error rate, as they were harvesting data off the petition forms, Duplicates and obvious bogus names would have been known about.

They delayed presentation of the petition. This was probably due to known error rates. But they miscalculated – and were under pressure to present the petition before Mighty River Power shares were floated.

Russel Norman could look at any number of reasons why the operation failed to make the required threshold.

Blaming David Farrar and a National spoiling campaign looks a bit desperate.

But I guess a highly party politicised “citizen’s” petition/referendum campaign is going to remain highly politicised.

Asset petition failure

The asset sale petition has failed, but gets a chance to top up the numbers:

Andrea Vance ‏@avancenz

The asset sales referendum bid has failed – see @NZStuffPolitics It is short by approximately 16,500 valid signatures.

“Some signatories could not be found on the electoral roll, either because they were not enrolled or because the identifying information they supplied was insufficient or illegible. Some duplicate signatures were also identified.”

The Greens says the Keep Our Assets coalition will continue to collect petition signatures

Office of the clerk says: “if the promoter wishes to resubmit the petition he has two months from today to collect additional signatures.”

That must mean a very high error rate.

Patrick Gower ‏@patrickgowernz

early estimate – 100,747 bogus signatures on Asset Sales petition

Sabotage works both ways?

Stuff: Asset sales referendum falls short

Greens quickly back into action.

Green Party NZ ‏@NZGreens 

You can help get the last signatures we need for a referendum on asset sales. Download the petition form here

And so are the jokers:

Gareth Richards ‏@garethmr

Greens announce a ‘single buyer of signatures’ model for their asset petition. All who generate signatures must sell them to Labour-Greens

Better options than referenda?

There was a big discussion on Whale Oil yesterday on government and on the Conservative Party, including on one of Colin Craig’s key policies – binding referenda.

Whale was anti referenda, anti Craig, anti Conservative Party, anti MMP. He is into old school politics, wanting one party rule (the party he prefers of course). He was also anti me:

There is no old school or even new school, just politics. It is blouses like you Pete who think there is another way, and it is people like me who run over the top of you.

But I agree with one thing he said.

The answer isn’t to change the system, it is to use the system more effectively.

I got involved in politics to look for better ways to do democracy. I had favoured more direct democracy including more use of referenda. But I now think referenda have limited benefits and a number of problems.

I think our use of binding referenda about right, having them occasionally on constitutional issues like MMP.

But our system of Citizen’s Initiated Referenda is a farce – designed by politicians to be ineffective and they can ignore them anyway. There are significant problems with referenda.

The petition/referendum system takes far too long. The current asset sales petition has taken over a year, and the referendum hasn’t been scheduled yet. That will take a few more months. In the meantime the Mixed Ownership Model legislation has passed through Parliament and the first share float has just taken place.

Referenda are far too simplistic for complex legislation, one or several Yes/No questions are often inadequate.

And it isn’t a good idea to have referenda – majority determination of legislation – for things that affect minority rights. It would be possible for the majority to disadvantage minorities.

Systems of representative democracy have become the dominant way of doing democracy for a reason – it is the most effective and practical way of doing democracy.

We elect representatives (MPs) and parties to do the decision making.

Our legislative process revolves around MP votes in Parliament, but it includes an opportunity for public input via submissions during the select committee stage. This is an important aspect but has limited use. The number of submitters is not a democratic measure, opposition to bills is often organised by parties or special interest groups who can inflate the number of submitters on one side of the argument.

But the public wants to have more say in what our Parliament decides. I think we should have more say.

If Committee submissions are too limited and referenda are too lengthy and limited how do we achieve this?

The Craig/Conservative bottom line of binding referenda is very unlikely to be accepted by either National or Labour, nor by Parliament – MPs tend to vote against reducing their power. And if it was put to Parliament it would take years to be agreed to and implemented.

And who would decide what went to referenda? Anyone wanting to oppose legislation they didn’t like would try to have it go to a referendum.

I think there is a much better way, a much quicker way – quicker to implement and quicker to operate.

I have a good idea on what I think could work, what would be more effective at giving us, the public, a better say in our politics and our legislation.

It would work with the current system. And it would be designed and used by the people, not by politicians (who generally try to increase their own power and reduce the power of the people they represent).

But I’d like to find out what other people think.

How can we, the people, use our current democratic system better? What do you think?

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

Parties versus people

The Green and Labour parties seem to be using and abusing an imbalance of power in their CIR petition campaigning by using taxpayer funded staff and resources and that are not available to ordinary people.

There’s been much discussion about the involvement of the Green and Labour parties in the asset sale petition. This is the first time parties have taken a lead role in a Citizen Initiated Referendum petition and campaigned extensively using parliamentary resources.

I and others have questioned whether parties and MPs should be getting involved in one of the few options available to citizens for questioning what MPs do.

Also queried is whether opposition parties should be contesting a policy that has successfully passed through our legislative system (and survived court challenges).

These questions have been countered by the argument that MPs are citizens too so have as much right to petition and try and have a referendum. Strictly speaking that’s correct, but I think it’s still contrary to the People versus Parliament principle of Citizen Initiated Referendum.

I have also questioned the motivation of Greens and Labour, as they know that even if the referendum takes place and supports their view the Government can and will ignore it. Both Greens and Labour have been part of a Parliament that has ignored past referenda. So it’s reasonable to assume that they are running their asset CIR campaign for political campaigning purposes.

But even if it was accepted that MPs and parties have a legal justification for using the CIR process (moral justification is still questionable) there is one aspect of concern that deserves being addressed.

David Farrar at Kiwiblog has asked Have Labour, Greens and unions broken the CIR Act? He claims that they may have spent more than the limit allowed for running a CIR campaign.

It is clear that Labour, Greens and the unions have spent well over $50,000 in promoting the petition. They have trampled over the intent of the CIR Act which is to stop people or groups from purchasing a referendum. Even worse, they have done it with our money.

In an exchange with Farrar on Twitter Andreew Campbell of Greens has responded:

As I said electoral commission engaged throughout to check if ok

On Kiwiblog lawyer and constitutiional guru Graeme Edgeler gave details of the law relating to spending levels, but raised another point:

While the intent of the CIR Act is to allow people outside Parliament to make their voice heard, the use of it by people inside Parliament doesn’t diminish that in any way.

I do have a problem with parliamentary resources being spent on it, but I don’t have a problem with political parties in Parliament campaigning for a CIR. I just think they should spend their own money to do it.

Edgeler has raised this before on blogs, but also in a submission to the Electoral Legislation Committee on the Parliamentary Service Amendment Bill:

Referendum advertising

17. One of the small changes from the interim legislation is an additional prohibition on the use of parliamentary money to fund referendum advertising. I support this extension, but suggest it should go slightly further.

18. I submit that there should be an additional exclusion on the use of parliamentary money expressly promoting a CIR petition. If it is considered improper for parliamentary money to promote one option in a citizens initiated referendum, promoting the petition to force that referendum to be held must be equally improper.

Having the use of parliamentary funds and staff and the availability of unlimited travel and accommodation for MPs gives political parties a substantial advantage over private citizens when promoting and influencing a referendum vote, and this also applies to petition campaigning.

In a post at The Standard he called The right’s fear of democracy IrishBill claimed that motivation for questioning what Labour and the Greens are doing on the asset sales petition is “is their fear of democracy”. Apart from the nonsense of the fear of democracy claim Irish defends the spending:

“Look” they get their proxies to cry, “look at these leaked documents showing public money being spent on this referendum, oh and unions! boo!”. Of course the problem with this is that the money spent by the Greens and Labour on this petition would have been spent by them on this kind of thing anyway.

That they would have spent their money on politicking anyway is poor justification.In a comment Irish then inadevertently drew attention to one of the biggest concerns with this.

I’m happy for anyone to start a referendum on anything and if they get the requisite number of signatures all power to them.

The problem is that the power is not even. If parties use taxpayer funded parliamentary staff and resources and MPs use taxpayer funded travel and accommodation it puts them at a substantial advantage over private citizens and citizen organisations who would have to fund the petition campaign themselves.

Most citizens don’t have anything like the resources that parliamentary parties have available.

CIR should be a tool for citizens to contest the power of politicians, but when the politicians have substantial advantages the balance of power is severely weighted against the private citizens.

It may be that what the Greens and Labour are doing fits within the letter of the CIR petition regulations, but the parties could easily be seen to be abusing their positions in power.

Greens list a number of their long term goals, including:

11. Power imbalances are reduced and resources are shared more equally.

By using taxpayer funded staff and resources to campaign the Greens are increasing power imbalances.

What Greens and Labour are doing with their CIR petition campaigning is as imbalanced as it would be if National were given say $1 milliion for election campaigning and Greens were given nothing.

Greens often pride themselves on their democratic processes, but seem willing to abuse the spirit of democratic processes (and the spitit of their principles) when it suits them.

I twice asked the Green’s media co-ordinator Andrew Campbell yesterday while he was actively engaging on Twitter:

Do you see how it’s an uneven playing field between parties with parliamentary funding and citizens having to self fund?

He didn’t respond. I’ll keep seeking a response. The balance of power between people and parties is important.