Tuesday, January 18, 2005

More on referenda

Public Address today has a guest column by Michael Wallmansberger of the Campaign for Civil Unions on why he opposed a referendum on the bill. Some of the reasons - such as not wanting to waste time "responding to... hatred and irrational bile" - are poor. But the fundamental one is one I can wholeheartedly endorse: we should not be having referenda on whether people are entitled to justice and equality under the law. Those who are currently denied such fundamental rights should not have to beg to be treated in the same way as everybody else.

More generally, the risk of majoritarian tyranny is the great problem for refereda, and why I oppose them without safeguards to protect minority rights - just as I oppose regular legislation without such safeguards. No law - whether passed by popular vote or elected representatives - should be allowed to deny people justice and equal treatment, target specific individuals for punishment, or turn them into second-class citizens. These things are simply beyond the authority (but sadly not the power) of government.

Despite this risk, I think the case for greater use of referenda is strong. Fundamentally, they are about people governing themselves and choosing the shape of their society - an ideal which lies at the heart of democracy. And greater participation is something we should encourage because, as George Monbiot points out in The Age of Consent, it creates a positive feedback cycle:

democracy has the potential to be politically engaging. The more politically active citizens become, the more they are able to affect the way the state is run. The more success they encounter in changing the state, the more likely they are to remain politically active.

The more we use tools like referenda, the more reponsive our state will be, and the easier it will be to hold power to account. And that I think is something worth promoting.


I agree with Michael Wallmansberger that "Politicians are a package deal".

Let's suppose we had referenda and that there was a majority for, e.g. a Universal Basic Income. Would it be a Good Thing if this was enacted through a referendum against a reluctant governments wishes? I think not - the government would be likely to try and frustrate the measure, or at best implement it badly.
I'd much rather persuade one or parties to take the idea onboard and implement it in a holistic fashion.

That's an "economic" measure - to take another example, what if a future government wanted to move to drug decriminalisation. They could belive that this would allow them to reduce police spending and drug related crime - as an elected government, surely they should be able to try and implement their program as a whole without parts of it being sliced off on "moral" grounds.

Posted by Rich : 1/18/2005 05:20:00 PM

Who said anythign about "slicing things off" on moral grounds? I favour referenda as an alternative general legislative tool, rather than as a special measure for things politicians want to stir up hate over. Like our current CIR Act, except passing actual laws rather than the current motherhood statements, and (as it bears repeating) with proper safeguards in place to protect human rights and ensure that the result is actuallyrepresentative of the public will.

One of those safeguards would almost certainly be a government veto on finacial bills, just as they have over bills passed by Parliament.

Governments could drag their feet over implementing laws passed in this way, but I'd expect that to be politically mediated at the ballot box.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 1/18/2005 05:48:00 PM

If things that are about justice and equality are beyond the authority of a secular government, then where does that authority lie?

A Christian response would be that those rights are "God given", but a materialist humanist approach has no such justification. It seems that justice and equality are totally the preserve of government in a humanist society, because the highest authority in that system is the rational human mind. If the authority does not rest with a democratically elected secular government, it can't rest anywhere.

Tess Rooney

Posted by muerk : 1/19/2005 12:02:00 AM

Ok - so as Michael Wallmansberger suggested, what's to stop governments being saddled with referenda mandating lower taxes *and* higher public spending, or limiting interest rates, or trying to fix the exchange rate. (The first has happened in California).

Posted by Rich : 1/19/2005 09:09:00 AM

Democracys are only as good as the information sources that people base their opinions on. And, in New Zealand's (and most country's) case such sources are pretty poor. In my mind, much more interesting than the idea of direct democracy is deliberative democracy or participatory democracy.

Posted by Terence : 9/23/2005 11:29:00 AM