At 1730 today Paul Henry wants to talk to me about CIR, given the Labour/Green failed stunt with the recent one on partial floats of SOEs.
It is some time since I thought about them, and time has reduced my scorn for them. They are much more expensive and generally no more useful than a well conducted opinion poll. The 'dont sack a fireman' poll was the most stupid.
But I will offer a defence in relation to issues that are permanently politically difficult. For issues that won't go away despite a fervent consensus in the political class, they serve as an incontrovertible record of awkward voter opinion.
For example, through-out my time in Parliament the Norm Withers petition on criminal justice sat like a cop car parked just off the road of debate. Whenever drips on left and right were sneering at the instincts of ordinary people on criminal justice, we only had to mention that petition to cause a sudden standing on the brakes, to get back within the speed limit of pretended respect for voters (from all but the most arrogant).
Supporters of making referenda mandatory often refer to Switzerland. I'm attracted by the initiatives that sometimes direct US States toward democratic respect (like three strikes). But on balance I think our non-mandatory position is prudent.
Many people look enviously at Switzerland's great democracy. Years ago I asked a Swiss Minister about direct popular voting. It appears that its usefulness is a direct reflection of the seriousness and high-mindedness for which the Swiss are famous. We may have become too frivolous for such direct democracy. Swiss friends once opined that few other people could entrust themselves with it. We spend more time on celebrities and sport and knowing wines than we do on knowing detail, self restraint, and community responsibilities. Rugby, The Block and celeb gossip mags take the time our forebears might have devoted to less selfish interests.
Referenda could be more useful if they were more confined, for example to yes no decisions on questions thrashed out before with proper analysis. But no one has really cracked the problem of distinguishing between dopey questions and issues, and ones that should be decided with the benefit of a broad consensus developed over a campaign.