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.

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.