Sunday, November 30, 2003

Direct Democracy II: Stealing my thunder

NZPols has an excellent post on this topic, which has stolen a lot of my thunder. Damn other bloggers!

Along the way she admits to "a rather unpopular lack of faith in the ability of people in general to make good decisions". To a certain extent, I share her lack of faith - but then again, I don't think the purpose of democratic government is to make good decisions, but rather our decisions. And I prefer this to any number of Platonic philosopher kings.

A lot of the specific concerns about affordability and trampling minority rights can be dealt with by proper checks and balances. One method would be formal judicial review to ensure consistency with the Human Rights Act and Treaty of Waitangi, though I'm not sure that it should go so far as a veto (I'm not sure that I would want to give quite so much power to judges); NZPols' method of a formal report an explanation by the government is probably adequete. But the easiest way is simply for Parliament to be able to overturn a referendum on a simple majority; this would enable the government to say "no, we can't afford that", or "no, that's not consistent with our international obligations", or simply "no, it would cripple our policy direction". Like NZPols, I think the PR cost of going on record to vote down a referendum would be a significant deterrant to doing it casually.

So, my preferred version of positive referenda would look something like this:

  • Voting on specific legislation, rather than vague one-liners.
  • Formal judicial review to ensure consistency with the Human Rights Act and Treaty of Waitangi.
  • A minimum turnout for a referenda to be passed (50% of enrolled voters is probably about right).
  • If passed, a referenda would become law after one month, unless Parliament explicitly voted it down (or, I suppose, unless the Governor-General withheld their assent - but how many times does that happen?)

How "binding" this system would be is really up to the public; we can make it strongly binding if we vigorously punish governments who ignore our wishes, or we can cut them some slack. In other words, we can decide how much direct democracy we actually want, and shift that consensus depending on the politicians we elect.

And needless to say, we should have a referendum about it first.