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Michael Laws and His Direct Democracy Experiment in Wanganui

Michael Laws and His Direct Democracy Experiment in Wanganui

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Published by Steve Baron

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Published by: Steve Baron on Sep 16, 2012
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Michael Laws and his Direct DemocracyExperiment in Wanganui
The effects of referendums on voter turnout and political participation in New Zealand
Steve BaronVictoria University of Wellington, 2012 As part fulfilment for an Honours degree in Political Science. Updated 1
August 2012.(7,279 words)
stevebaron@hotmail.co.nzPhone 0211651882
New Zealand has had a long history with direct democracy. The first nationalreferendum was held in 1911 on the prohibition of the sale of liquor (Atkinson, 2003,p.125), from then until 1987, New Zealand citizens voted regularly on the number of licensed premises that could operate locally (Hughes, 1994, p.156 and in 1994, theNational led government introduced the
Citizens' Initiated Referenda Act 1993 
. Bythe introduction of the
Local Electoral Act 2001
local authorities were given the rightto hold referendums. The focus of this study is to examine the effects of referendums on voter turnout and political participation in New Zealand. In order toexplicate these effects, the study focuses on one particular New Zealand localauthority, the Wanganui District Council. Previous political participation studies of referendum effects have often conflicted; this study adds to the conflict bycontradicting the most recent research by Tolbert & Smith (2005). The empiricaldata from this research demonstrates a decrease in political participation at thelocal authority level; yet interestingly, at the national level, in this particular electorate, participation rates have remained consistent with the national generalelection averages. The study suggests that this decreasing political participation atthe local level may be due to voter satisfaction and overall satisfaction with theperformance of the local authority political system, rather than apathy, voter fatigueor disillusionment as is often assumed. The study also tries to offer a differentperspective on political participation that could add new elements to the usuallyaccepted paradigm in regard to the importance of political participation in a liberaldemocracy.
Key Words:
New Zealand, direct democracy, referendum, participation, voter turnout
 Achieving the highest level of political participation is often considered paramount for astrong democracy (Kaufman, 1960; Lijphart, 1968; Barber, 1984; Dahl, 1989; Coffè, 2012).
Pateman (1970, p.25) argues that: “the more the individual citizen participates, the better he is able to do so.” The concern appears to be that if participation rates are not high, then
the legitimacy of democracy is threatened and political actors lack a mandate to implementtheir public policy agendas. However, the issue of mandates are highly debatable if weconsider that most governments nowadays are elected on less than a 50% majority. Thereare many aspects that affect voter turnout: socio-economic factors (education, income,class, ethnicity, race, and gender), institutional factors (compulsory voting, registrationprocesses), salience and proportionality. While numerous studies have been undertaken toexamine what determinants affect voter turnout in general elections (Putnam, 2000;Dhillon & Peralta, 2002; Franklin, 2004; Blais, 2006), others have examined the affectsreferendums have on voter turnout in general elections (Everson, 1981; Cronin, 1989;Tolbert, Grummel & Smith, 2001; Tolbert & Smith, 2005; Soberg & Tangeras, 2007; Cebula& Coombs, 2011). Fukuyama (1996) even went as far to blame the welfare-state for 
decreasing voter turnout as the government became more entwined in citizens’ lives.
There has been a notable global decline in voter turnout since the mid-1980s (InternationalInstitute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2002). In New Zealand, voter turnoutlevels continue to fall in local authority and national elections (McVey & Vowles, 2005; NewZealand Department of Internal Affairs, 2010), with statistics showing 26% of registeredvoters did not vote in the 2011 general elections. This was the highest non-voter rate since1887 (Elections New Zealand, n.d.1). If you add to this situation the fact that only 94% of those eligible to register did so (New Zealand Parliament, December 2011), the decline iseven worse. At the local authority level the figures continue to be poorer again with 51% of those registered to vote, failing to do so (New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs, 2010,p.22). One only has to read 'Letters to the Editor' or briefly listen into talk-back radio toobserve citizens voicing a lack of trust, cynicism and disillusionment in government at alllevels. Given these falling levels of political participation, it is no surprise that an entire fieldof academic study has grown up around political participation with a focus on trying tounderstand the reasons for this phenomenon. At the same time, political participationtheorists and political analysts also suggest new ways to help improve voter participationas a way to save democracy from its enemies.

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