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Chris Ford: From the Sublime To The Ridiculous - Larry Baldock's Referendum On Referendums

Chris Ford
Chris Ford

Yesterday, Larry Baldock presented his latest citizens initiated referendum petition wording for approval by the Clerk of the House of Representatives. This time, Baldock (one of the initiators of the pro-smacking referendum) wants to see the holding of a referundum on whether CIRs should be made binding on Governments.

What this referendum proposal is all about is merely the holding of a referendum on referendums. We have now gone from the ridiculous to the sublime with this idea.

Citizen Initiated Referendums (CIR) were first introduced in the United States and are modelled on the Swiss-style popular referendums where citizens are able to bring forward propositions to be voted upon which are then made binding upon government if they are passed by voters. Several US states (including California) have legislation permitting these referenda which are usually held in conjunction with either presidential or mid-term elections in most states.

These citizens referendums are mostly used by elements of the right-wing business, religious and political communities in the US to push their own agendas in terms of promoting issues like the need to lower taxation, increase criminal penalties, limit abortion and gay marriage rights and insist on the teaching of creationism in school classrooms, etc. Their campaigns are usually well funded by wealthy business interests and rich private donors meaning that more liberal/left political groups are not able to organise effective counter-campaigns to challenge right-wing populist propositions.

Our CIR experience is beginning to mirror that of the United States and after all, the Jim Bolger National Government introduced these referenda as a sop in an attempt to stop MMP back in 1993, and this move was endorsed by none other than the anti-MMP Campaign for Better Government headed by Peter Shirtcliffe. The first citizens referendum in this country was instigated by the Fire Fighters Union in an attempt to defeat the cuts to fire fighter numbers proposed by the previous National Government in 1995 (and unsurprisingly, this referendum which had a very low voter turnout of around 30%, was not heeded at all).

Apart from that first example, the last three successful citizens referenda have all been sponsored by right-wing leaning organisations or individuals. In 1999, the two referenda held in conjunction with that year's election, namely, those concerning longer sentences and cutting the number of MPs in Parliament were put forward, in the first instance, by Norm Withers of the Sensible Sentencing Trust and the second by a group of individuals, including an elderly grandmother, who wanted to see the number of MPs reduced.

Both referendum propositions were approved overwhelmingly by the electorate with some action being taken on lengthening sentences for serious crimes by the Labour-Alliance Government under their Sentencing and Parole Act 2002 while the second referendum was ignored and probably on good grounds for reducing the number of MPs would not only have impacted on the proportionality of Parliament under MMP, but it would also have improved the ability of Cabinet to dominate Parliament, something that had diminished since the introduction of our current electoral system.

Obviously, the fourth and latest referendum was on smacking and this proposition was jointly put up by former United Future MP Larry Baldock and Bob McCroskrie of the Christian fundamentalist Family First organisation. Now that John Key and his Cabinet have rightly rejected the proposition that we should return to the days when we had a legal defence to assault children, Baldock, McCroskrie and their merry band of men and women are about to launch another citizens initiated referendum petition to urge that all CIR propositions, if passed, be made binding on Government.

What this will do is clear in that it will undermine the ability of Governments to govern. At election time, we have parties who come forward with their manifesto promises and if we like what we hear, then we elect them. If we believe that parties or governments or individual MPs are not doing the job we want them to, then we have the ability as voters to eject them from office. CIRs are potentially undemocratic too in that they potentially allow for fundamentalist right-wing organisations to try and gain support for propositions that could potentially impinge on the legal and civil rights of other groups, e.g. the right of women to undergo abortion if they so choose, etc.

While I would concede that the current CIR petition campaign by Unite (a union to which I belong) on the issue of raising the minimum wage to $15 is being undertaken by a left-wing aligned organisation, this still hasn't changed my scepticism about CIRs as a useful political tool for holding politicians to account.

That's why I believe that the CIR system should be scrapped and a more suitable alternative put in its place so that the population is enabled to have its say if it feels it is being ignored through, for example, citizen recalls of recalcitrant MPs and the holding of binding referenda on MPs pay and conditions. The current referendum on referendums proposal finally shows that the CIR process has had its day and is now looking ridiculous as a means of enforcing democratic accountability.

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