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The case against Citizens Initiated Referenda

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 5th November 2009

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In the latest New Zealand Law Journal, Andrew Geddis and Bridget Fenton advance the case for the abolition of citizens initiated referenda.

I suspect most members of our communities would agree with these respected legal academics. We are all too aware of the damage that binding so-called citizens referenda have inflicted on same-sex marriage equality in the United States.

Fenton and Geddis are particularly critical of the recent pro-belting indicative referendum, for reasons that are familiar to most involved in debates over the controversial plebiscites. Their criticisms are that they pose leading questions, do not propose effective solutions and they also question the utility of Sue Bradford's proposed CIR (Wording of Question) Amendment Bill, which would empower the Clerk of the House to reject 'ambiguous, complex, leading or misleading' question content.

Instead, they favour wholesale repeal and abolition of so-called citizens referenda. As matters stand, the CIR Act 1993 only provides for indicative referenda, given fears that referendum petitions could be motivated by 'passion or political expediency.' The legislation is badly drafted, with no real controls over the process of approval or refusal. Geddis and Fenton argue that this imposes weak constraints. Even so, only four indicative CIRs have made it to the final stage of public referenda- the firefighters staffing question, generic calls for greater severity in criminal justice policy, MMP MP numerical reduction and finally, the accursed probelting referendum. Bradford's bill would eliminate 'complexity, rhetoric and innuendo,' and probably curtail any further mischievous use of the tactic and taxpayer funds for these costly exercises.

Therefore, they argue that it should be abolished instead. CIRs are nothing more than glorified public opinion polls. If one wants meaningful democratic participation, then there are the existing avenues of party membership and activism, party candidacy, protest action, pressure group formation and elections themselves- to which I would add a written constitution as a desirable development as well. CIRs are too expensive and government funds need to be earmarked for social services in a time of recession. Low voter turnout, mischievous leading referendum questions and ill-considered subject matter should be sufficient reason for repeal. In the words of the Royal Commission on the Electoral System, it is 'too blunt, too crude' and in the words of the late Prime Minister David Lange, 'a fraud on the community.'

Why can't we have a referendum on these wastes of time and money?

Recommended:

Andrew Geddis and Bridget Fenton: "CIRs" New Zealand Law Journal (October 2009): 334-336


Craig Young - 5th November 2009

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