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Dump Citizen Initiated Referenda?

  • December 17th, 2013

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.



No No not all .
Everybody knew exactly what this referendum was about, no matter how confusing the
language. In fact if anything will change the Nat Government this is it.

We have referendums and then hear the arrogant excuses from Government for refusing..
To think we need to treat people as so stupid they need a yes or no answer Stephen.
dear me.

  • Brendan
  • December 17th, 2013
  • 8:35 pm


I’m afraid the vast majority are that stupid, and increasingly that’s is exposing the flaws inherent in the democratic process.

If Egypt can democratically elect the Muslim Brotherhood, we can through the power of referendum or the political process do things equally stupid.

  • Angry Tory
  • December 18th, 2013
  • 1:38 pm

Colin Craig’s policy is right here (in more than one way).

Nullification votes (as in Switzerland) plus Binding CIRs. Binding referenda must obviously be written as amendments to statutes, because they become immediately effective upon passage.

On that basis, the “don’t sack a fireman” referendum was not stupid, it would presumably have to have been rewritten to require the government to ensure the fire service maintained a given staffing level.

For asset sales, there was no excuse because the actions are almost all in the past. Perhaps it could have stopped the one sale to come, although as legislation has not yet passed it would have had little effect (unless BCIR results were formally entrenched as a result of being passed by BCIR).

But think about the good things BCIRs would bring
– armed police
– open & concealed carry, stand your ground, castle doctrine
– end to most welfare
– much lower taxes
– reduced size of parliament
– smacking law repeal
– end of Red Len as mayor

Hmm: the more I think about this, the more I realise the problem with CIR’s isn’t that they exist – it’s that they’re not binding and there’s been nowhere near enough of them.

  • Steve Todd
  • December 18th, 2013
  • 5:23 pm


People are not dumb or stupid, just because they think, act, or vote, differently to you. You haven’t put up an alternative to democracy, so one must assume you believe that a dictatorship – run by people that you approve of, of course – is the optimum form of government. Let’s all hope you don’t get what you seem to want.

I come from the point of view that the people are sovereign, and that our government should be a meld of fully independent, sovereign citizen law-making with representative government, as pioneered in ancient republican Rome, middle-ages Switzerland, and Reform Era USA. There is a lot of information available about how such a system might work, but to start with, if you’re interested, you could have a look at Steve Baron’s draft constitution for New Zealand, at Better Democracy NZ (, then scroll down to Saturday 13 April 2013). Also, check out the Swiss constitution online.

However, my purpose in responding to your comment is to point out that you are being overly harsh on the Egyptian people. The problem with the presidential elections in May and June 2012, was the electoral system used, not the people.

The system used was first-past-the-post, in two stages (if necessary); the system used to elect the president of France. After the first round of voting, Mohammed Morsi of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party received 5.7m votes (24.3%), followed by Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak’s last prime minister, with 5.5m (23.3%). Hamdeen Sabbahi, the independent Nasserist, got 4.8m (20.4%), Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh, an independent Islamist, 4m (17.2%), and the former Arab League chief Amr Moussa (who tried to capture the centre ground), 2.5m (10.9%).

As no candidate attained 50% of the votes, there was a run-off election, with all but the leading two candidates eliminated. Note, though, that Morsi and Shafiq had fewer than half the total votes between them – and the turnout was only 46%.

In other words, most Egyptian voters did not want either of them to become President and yet they were the only choices available in the decisive second round; one who was associated with the previous military regime and one of the Islamist-based Muslim Brotherhood. Given such a choice, most Egyptian voters probably voted for the candidate they disliked less, as the system did not allow them to vote for a candidate they really wanted.

As George Ishaq, a founder of the leftwing Kifaya Party lamented after the first round, “It feels as if the revolution never took place. The Brotherhood are despotic and fanatical and Shafiq is the choice of Mubarak. It is a very bad result. The revolution is not part of this contest.” (Source for this quote: The Guardian, Friday 25 May 2012.)

In my view, the election should have been by single transferable voting (STV); in the single-seat case also known as PV, AV or IRV, i.e. the system used to elect the president of Ireland and the mayors of Wellington, Porirua, Dunedin, etc.

Voters would have voted only once and would have had a free choice of ALL the candidates. The winner would have attained more than half the votes at the completion of the final round of vote-counting.

With STV, the winner might or might not have been one of the two who went through to the second round, but he would have had, and be seen to have had, majority support; i.e. genuine democratic legitimacy.

With STV, there was a good chance that the winner would have been less extreme than either President Morsi or his runner-up, and would have been more acceptable than either of them to the Egyptian public. Even if President Morsi had won under STV, it would have been clear from the transfer of votes to whom he owed his power. He might then have governed with them in mind as well as his core Muslim Brotherhood supporters, and been less unpopular.


Stephen- you have said “We may have become too frivolous for such direct democracy”. Such a view-point would be understandable if you relied on ‘media’ (such as shows involving Paul Henry) to sample public opinion. I have been very impressed by the thoughtful sagacity of my fellow citizens- and especially those who have the perspective of immigrants to NZ. I do agree with the importance of the framing of questions- e.g. it is not enough to ask citizens if they disapprove of selling assets, without expanding the question to cover the alternatives- such as “Do you support selling assets to pay debts”, or “keeping the assets paying increasing taxes to service the debts”.


I believe that Brendon is too arrogant to say “I’m afraid the vast majority are that stupid”.
As one comedian said- “God must love stupid people- he keeps on making them!”.
From the same source also comes large numbers of intelligent, thoughtful people- who are not necessarily wrong of stupid because they have a different opinion to you. We do not need self professed intellegencia to tell us what is good for us.

  • jeremy laurenson
  • December 19th, 2013
  • 11:30 am

Yes, I’d ditch the CIR. In each case it’s been a waste of time and an attempt to stop a government doing what it’s supposed to do – govern.
Except in the case of the ‘conscience vote’. We elect people from parties whose policies we more or less know about but we have no idea of the views of an individual mp on ‘conscience’ issues. I trust ‘my’ mp to vote the way I expect on party policy issues but I can’t see that ‘my’ mp has any better contribution to conscience issues than I have. Indeed, the exercise of their conscience could well be quite different from my view.
The net is that I would get rid of conscience votes for mps and replace these with a binding referendum.

  • Steve Todd
  • December 19th, 2013
  • 6:21 pm


It seems to me you have the politician’s typical attitude towards citizens initiated referenda, in that the people are not to be trusted with too much power, presumably because they wouldn’t know what to do with it, or would not be capable of exercising it “wisely”.

You would no doubt agree that power resides with the people, but you prefer elected representatives to exercise that power almost exclusively, on their behalf, rather than have a system whereby citizens and their elected representatives govern together. Basically, you agree with Brendan – the people are too dumb, insufficiently intelligent / educated, to participate in governance in any meaningful way.

You make the same mistake he makes, in arrogantly assuming that those things (such as questions put to a referendum) that you don’t agree with, are “dopey”: like him, you are not prepared to concede that you, or others you perceive to be like you, are not the font of all wisdom.

I would take issue with your final paragraph. Although their system of direct democracy is not perfect, there being plenty of room for improvement, the Swiss have pretty much “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.”

An excellent book (one of many) on the subject of referendums and how they work is The Referendum: Direct Democracy in Switzerland (Dartmouth, 1994), by Kris W. Kobach – the current (Republican) Secretary of State of Kansas. It is a real eye-opener, and dispels any notion that the people cannot be trusted to participate in their own governance.

In the modern age, a comprehensive system of direct democracy would utilise the modern tools of television, the telephone, and computer technologies, to bring about full citizen participation in governance, both local and central.

As with voting generally, the questions / issues put before the people will be decided by those interested enough to engage in the process. The views of those who choose not to participate, need not trouble us.

A meld of direct democracy and representative government is quite do-able. It only needs political will and / or for the people to organise, to make it happen. Unfortunately, either way, bringing it about will be a long process.

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