Saturday, April 16, 2011

Politics: stop. think. then engage.

Via the book of face, I came across a new group on the New Zealand political spectrum today. They're called the no confidence party. Which, given the lacklustre quality of our politicians at the moment, at first sounds like a grand idea. There's a few problems though. Going through their statements of intent. The first point is fine. If people want to waste their vote by voting no confidence that's their business, I've got no problem with that. And given that our political landscape is dominated by a bunch of ideologues (seriously, who else would use urgency to help a broken city and use it to put copyright legislation through, it's offensive) who haven't quite figured out this whole "internet thing" yet and a bunch of idiots who couldn't oppose a wet paper bag without imploding on them selves, I can see the attraction.

The problems start in their 3rd statement of intent though.  "if an MP fails to represent their constituent, the No Confidence Partywill act as the constituent's representative" If an MP fails to represent their constituent, the constituent should be taking it up with the MP. And if that fails, with the press. To have a 3rd party come in and attempt to mediate something like this is an abdication of responsibility on the part of the citizen. And I'm not comfortable with that. Still, it's not a fatal problem.

The 4th and 5th statements are problematic though.
4. Any bill before parliament that does not have the support of the
people will not have the support of this party. For example, the 86% of
people who disagreed with the anti-smacking bill and the majority of
people who disagreed with the lifting of the GE moratorium will have
their voice correctly represented.

5. Any petitions, commissions
and enquiries previously ignored by government will be re-presented to
the people upon request and reactivated in order that remedies may be
provided for the people to benefit.
A couple of things. If you are advancing the idea that no bill should be passed into law without the support of majority of the voting public, then you are forgetting large chunks of history and advocating a method of governance that makes the oppression of minorities very easy. If government worked like this, then women wouldn't have got the vote until probably the 1960's or 70's. It would probably still be legal to discriminate on the basis of race and sexual orientation. Governments of the day put these through without the support of the majority of the population. I would hazard a guess that not being able legally to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation has made life a lot easier for a lot of gay people (not perfect, better) and has played a significant role in normalizing the acceptance of homosexuality. The point being, that sometimes you want governments to take the lead. Which is why it's important to be part of the process - to be able to push the government to take the lead in the direction that you want it to go in. There is a hint here in reference to the anti-smacking bill that referenda should be binding. Which is a bad idea. Look at how badly some of our recent referenda have been worded. Then look at the mess California is in with binding referenda that have forced the state to provide more and more services while specifically prohibiting the raising of taxes to fund those services.
Secondly. the idea that petitions, commissions and enquiries should be binding on the government, i.e. that the government should be held to account for not enacting the recommendations is dangerous.  These things are tools. A petition is a method of making your representatives aware that there is a significant constituency that is concerned about an issue. The representatives then have to choose where and how to weigh that in the decision making process, there are other factors involved, it should not be binding. A commission is a fact finding mission. Get a group of people to go away and investigate something, comeback with ideas which are then weighed as part of the decision making process. An enquiry is a fact finding mission after the fact. Send someone to go and get the facts, comeback and decide what to do. Long story short - the politicians are the ones who should be weighing up a variety of factors and making decisions, that's their job.

And finally, anyone who refers to the repeal of section 59 as the anti-smacking bill immediately get categorized as someone who is happy sailing along with whatever line the media is trying to frighten people with rather than someone who has actually thought about what they are doing. The repeal of section 59 removed from parents the defence of "discipline" when they have effectively abused their children. Calling it the anti-smacking bill was the media scare line to try and provoke outrage. Anyone using a badly worded referendum that essentially asked the government to do what it was already doing and then getting shirty about the government not changing anything obviously hasn't thought enough about what they are doing. 


  1. Hi Ben, like you I believe referendums are a blunt tool that can easily be misused. Perhaps there's a case for restricting them to important constitutional issues like the electoral system, the term of Parliament and the means of choosing the head of state. My view is that with a three year parliamentary term we have enough chances to check government power without insisting on binding referendums.

    My reluctance to endorse most CIR is largely due to the cost and the danger of misleading questions. The latter can be dealt with if the Clerk of the House is given more powers to vet misleading or unclear questions. The former might be addressed if referendums were collected during a term of Parliament and only held in conjunction with a general election.

    The relative weakness of our media institutions and their inability to sustain sober, informative journalism is also a concern when complex referendum issues are being debated, as you rightly point out was the case during the s.59 debate. The 'anti-smacking' line became the standard shorthand for the admittedly complex issue despite the term being wholly misleading. A cynic might say this terminology was deliberately used to help shape the public debate towards a particular end. Whether or not that's the case, it certainly helped sell newspapers and TV ad spots, but at the cost of a sensible discussion of the pros and cons of the legislation.

  2. I don't necessarily see the need to restrict them. It's more that people need to see them for what they are and not expect that they should be binding because of some not particularly well thought out concept of what democracy entails. Though, on darker days, I would concede that getting people to see referenda for what they are is probably close to impossible and thus restricting them would be a good idea.

    Giving the clerk of the house more power to vet/aid in the formation of questions would be a grand idea. We've had some appallingly worded ones over the past ten years or so.

    I try not to be pessimistic about people's ability to think and be informed about the political process in this country. The relative weakness, as you put it, makes that quite hard sometimes though. The cynic in me would probably say that the particular end towards which the debate was focused was probably the the sale of more papers and ad spots. I try not to be to cynical though.