Make direct democracy smart democracy
Professor David Altman wrote the book on it. Academics know it as direct democracy; Australians, bless ’em, mostly as plebiscites; New Zealanders as referendumsor New Zealanders, when confronted by a microphone: referenda.
Semantics aside, most democracies allow for direct democracy, to a greater or lesser extent, and one, Switzerland, makes an art form of it. And while the United States as a whole doesn’t, some of its states do, famously California.
New Zealand’s 1985–1986 Royal Commission on the Electoral System recommended that a referendum be held before its recommendation for proportional representation be implemented, but recommended against referendums in general, which it bluntly asserted:
…are blunt and crude devices which need to be used with care and circumspection. Their frequent use would amount to a substantial change in our constitutional and political system. They would blur the lines of accountability and responsibility of Governments and political parties, and blunt their effectiveness. In our view, those elected to govern should be able to do so without formal reference to the people as a whole…
But here the commissioners ignore how inherently unrepresentative representative democracy is, in practice. Professor Altman points to the wealth required to publicise candidates and purchase campaign advertisements and materials:
Meantime, when their politicians finally got out of the way, New Zealanders approved the introduction of proportional representation, in a two-stage referendum in 1992 and 1993, and reaffirmed that decision 18 years later. In so doing they rejected the best efforts of business interests and politicians to turn the clock back to first-past-the-post, and saw off the second round of what otherwise would also have been a two-stage referendum. Including the 1992 referendum, through to last year’s flag referendum, Aotearoa has seen two more referendums than general elections10 to 8. But despite deep dissatisfaction with their previous, faithless prime minister’s $26 million flag referendums, and widespread frustration with the five non-binding-citizen-initiated referendums, which were all ignored by their government, it is unlikely that New Zealanders could ever be deprived of direct democracy:
One crucial aspect that sometimes is overlooked is that direct democracy is here to stay; and this is not wishful thinking: no matter what our assessment of direct democracy is, where it exists, almost certainly it can only be reformed by direct democratic means and consequently—although it possibly could be stopped or discontinued—direct democracy can rarely be eliminated (Auer 2007).
Indeed, 66% of respondents to a 2014 Herald DigiPoll survey agreed that citizen-initiated referendums should be binding. The 22% of respondents against, aside from being in the good company of the royal commissioners, do well to have reservations about binding citizen-initiated referendums. In 1978, Californians hamstrung themselves with Proposition 13—the People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation. Just 45.5% of registered voters succeeded in making it unconstitutional for property tax to exceed 1% of the property value, except when approved by a two-thirds majority of legislators. The initiative could fairly be described as crude and blunt, and amongst its many good-for-some-and-bad-for-others consequences, has generally made new development increasingly expensive and exacerbated California’s infamous suburban sprawl.
The tragedy in many instances of direct democracy stems from the black-and-white alternatives typically presented to voters. Add to that, shamelessly leading questions, of which New Zealand’s anti-anti-smacking referendum could go down in history as the ultimate epitome:
Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?
That the Clerk of the House of Representatives approved the wording of the citizen-initiated referendum probably says more about the ill-conceived and ill-drafted act of parliament he was obliged to work within, than his ability to spot a have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife-yet question a mile away. Unsurprisingly, the voter turnout was very low. The Mahurangi Magazine suggested voting Yes and No. Although it was passed, fewer than half of those registered voted in favour, and the government, rightly, left the law unchanged, meaning that the defence of ‘reasonable force’ previously so grossly misused by the courts to allow parents to escape prosecution for heinous assaults on their children, was not reinstated.
The Swiss, as might be imagined, given they have been practising direct democracy since the Middle Ages, are much more sophisticated. In the case of the anti-anti-smacking initiative, the government would have been expected to respond with a counterproposal, which, typically, being a more reasonable option, would stand an even chance of becoming law. The Swiss, it seems, feel the same need to let off steam in half-baked initiatives as Californians and New Zealanders, with only about 11% of its 113 citizen-initiated referendums between 1980 and 2014 being approved. The most recent Swiss example, in November last year, calling for a nuclear energy phase-out, was supported by only 20.6% of eligible voters. No doubt the prospect of polluting its 97% fossil-fuel-free electricity had little appeal, nor did the alternative of plunging more of its citizens into energy poverty, as Germany has done.
But as sophisticated as Switzerland’s use of referendums is, it is not perfect, relying as it does on the government to propose countermeasures, to what might be entirely valid propositions, but propositions perhaps too blunt for their own good, such as that to reduce the country’s global ecological footprint to ‘one Earth’ by 2050, which was only supported by 15.7% of eligible voters—about one in three of those who did vote.
Professor Altman proposes an elegant mechanism to enable direct democracy and representative democracy to better complement each other. It involves the judicious use of that third form of democracy—deliberative democracy—that, despite its potential, is seldom both democratic and effective. Deliberative democracy is whereby citizens get to do democracy, more or less, face to face, in order to, ideally, reach a consensus. The insuperable issue with deliberative democracy is mandate. The few citizens who are directly involved might feel that the consensus they have reached is democratic, but because they are not elected representatives, their deliberations can never be claimed to have more than moral authority. Meantime, while the politicians in an ideal world would always come up with a reasoned alternative, the Swiss experience is that self-interest has them staying at arm’s length from most initiatives, for fear of losing more support that they stand to gain, through their involvement.
Altman’s alternative is for ‘citizens’ commissions’, as opposed to say royal commissions or commissions of inquiry, to be formed to explore proposed referendum questions with view to producing alternative proposals. The government, or parliament, when it was brave enough, could also produce its own. In several recent referendum shockers, including the rejection of the Colombian peace deal, Professor Altman believes that a citizen commission would likely have produced an alternative that would have been approved by the majority. Indeed, a solid majority of Colombians, up to 65%, were in favour of the peace deal signed by the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Low turnout, largely the result of an imagined forgone conclusion, permitted a bare 19% of eligible voters to scuttle the deal to end a civil war that has killed, on average, more than a dozen a day, every day for 52 years.
Serving on a citizen commission, would be analogous to jury duty. If selected, the individual would be excused work, paid and never be prevailed upon to perform citizen-commission duty again. The commission, Altman suggests, would be formed of three, parallel seven-member working groups—from stratified random samples to ensure representation of women, indigenous people, and ethnic minorities. The commissioners would be assisted by staff including trained moderators and experts. An additional enhancement, for Aotearoa, would be a replacement for the Parliamentary Counsel Office, with a world-leading policy development and legislative drafting office. As well as providing services to the citizen commissions and to Parliament, it could contract its services to special interest groups keen to put their best foot forward. In seeking to be world-class, the office would also seek to sell its services to other sovereignties. The added advantage is that any wheels the office reinvented were not built in ignorance of sound policy and legislation developed and drafted elsewhere. If New Zealand’s current citizen-initiated referendum act is anything to go by, its drafters elevated to an art form the national reluctance to benefit from lessons learned elsewhere. Examples include, infamously, officials attempting to re-invent Meek’s method of counting single transferable votes, and, more recently, Auckland’s 2010 governance legislation.
When it came to the subsequent referendum, voters would rank the original proposition with that of the commission, and any of the government, ensuring that the successful alternative had majority support, and wasn’t simply first past the post, as in the tragic Colombian example.
Before it could trigger a citizen commission, a citizen-initiated referendum would need to reach a country’s threshold for acceptance. In Aotearoa, the signatures of 10% of eligible voters—more than 300 0003 140 417 people were registered to vote in the 2014 general election—are required. Small wonder that, since the citizen-initiated referendum act was passed 23 years ago, 41 of the 46 proposals lodged with the Clerk of the House failed to be voted on. This would suggest that the 10% threshold is far too onerous. The Swiss, by contrast, are only required to collect 100 000 signatures, which, with their greater population, is a much less onerous 1.9% of registered voters, suggesting that New Zealand’s threshold should be at least halved, and could probably safely be quartered.
Since the 1992 referendum on its electoral system, and not including the 16 by-elections that Aotearoa will have had by the time David Shearer is replaced next month, New Zealanders will have voted in elections or referendums, or both, an average of once every 13.3 months. Combining a smart direct democracy with annual, concurrent general and local body elections would both be cost-effective and eliminate the need for million-dollar by-electionsto the dubious extent that they are required at all in a system where the next-ranked on the effected party’s list can readily be brought in to boot.
With the warning signs flashing red that democracy is under threat even before anthropogenic global warming seriously begins to bite, the reasons it is failing must be addressed with urgency. Conflicts, armed and otherwise, are much easier to start than to end, to which Colombia all too amply attests. Aotearoa, as the world’s first full democracy, is the natural leader capable of demonstrating how direct democracy can complement representative democracy. New Zealanders should be far from content with the seventh-place direct-democracy-practice-potential ranking given them by Professor Altman. Aotearoa should, and could easily, be first.
The choice for New Zealanders is to subserviently accept the supremacy of self-interest and wealth, particularly intergenerational wealth such as that enjoyed by president-elect Donald Trump, or reclaim their democratic destiny.
Live free, fully democratically, or die.
Direct Democracy Worldwide
Professor David Altman’s study of direct democracy, Direct Democracy Worldwide, challenges the entirely indefensible tendency for academics and political élites to rubbish anything to do with referendums—direct democracy, after all, has a better pedigree than does representative democracy. Besides, as Professor Altman points out early on, using commendably accessible language:
Current democracies are indisputably far from the ideal representative democracy that theory promises us. It could be claimed that democracy today more closely resembles an oligarchy with the façade of democracy rather than the ideal, prototypical, representative democracy about which we teach our students every year.
Speaking of language, being of Uruguayan birth, Professor David Altman’s mother tongue is Spanish, which is slightly apparent in his working papers, but not discernible in his book. The book, meantime, would be more accessible if carried by Auckland Libraries. Time will tell if the ebook purchase suggested by the Mahurangi Magazine—which is still smarting from its NZ$54.21 Kindle expenditure—is successful.