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Strengthening Democracy – giving voters more power

Strengthening Democracy – giving voters more power

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Published by Steve Baron

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Published by: Steve Baron on Aug 01, 2011
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Strengthening Democracy – giving voters more power 
[Steve Baron has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science & Economics. He isa published author, a regular columnist in various publications throughout NZ andthe Founder of Better Democracy NZ.]
I have been campaigning for more direct democracy in our political system since 2003, but just recently I looked at some old newspaper clippings from 1985 and realised I was eventalking about referendums way back then. Having an interest or passion for politics israther peculiar in this day and age. It is not uncommon at the first signs of a politicaldiscussion, for the person standing in front of me to have an immediate attack of ocular revulsion (eye rolling). I often wonder why I've always had this interest.What has always concerned me is the real lack of checks and balances in our politicalsystem. It also concerns me greatly that we give the government, or at least the Cabinet,of the day, so much power. For example, we have no codified constitution to limitgovernment, the Upper House of parliament was removed in 1951, MPs have numerousfree votes in parliament even when their morals and principles are no better than yours or mine—and some might argue a lot worse, international laws are growing in stature andoften influence our governments who sign up to these laws which can take precedenceover domestic laws. Laws can also be passed under 'urgency' without public consultationand without following the democratic process. In my opinion these are major systemicissues. There has also been so many controversial laws based on one political party'sideological beliefs and secret agendas, passed in this country, that the majority of NewZealanders simply do not agree with, but are forced to.My first memories of politics were visiting my grand parents in the early 1970s and seeingGranddad hunched over the kitchen table listening to Sir Keith Holyoake lambasting theopposition on the 'wireless'. I also remember voting for the first time in 1978 and thought
the system was corrupt when the Labour Party got more votes than the national Party butdid not become the government because National held more electorate seats. Thishappened again in 1981. This was the way the political system of the time worked, but ithas since been changed—a change that surprised many at the time as it was consideredthat the New Zealand system was more Westminster than the English Westminster systemitself. Perhaps it is now time for even more change—time to improve our political systemeven further.One attempt at this was the Citizens' Initiated Referenda Act 1993 (CIR). This Act cameabout mostly due to the many broken election promises of the Labour government in 1984.These radical policies for those times caused immense frustration and anger amongstNew Zealanders and people at that time felt they had been deceived. So many electionpromises were broken and according to a number of academic surveys, MPs were lessrespected than ever before. As a nation we had lost confidence in our politicalrepresentatives. This led to an outcry for citizens to have more control over their electedrepresentatives in the form of CIR. A lobby group within the National Party called NationalReform, put pressure on the party, and leader Jim Bolger, to support the introduction of CIR at their 1989 party conference. National made an election promise in their 1990manifesto to introduce CIR. National won this election and introduced the Citizens InitiatedReferenda Bill to parliament in 1992 which was subsequently passed into law on 14September 1993. The disappointment to many who were involved with the National Partyat the time, was that these CIR were to be indicative. In other words, not binding on thegovernment. This is a rather strange occurrence because in most countries CIR arebinding on the government. The people felt cheated yet again.My campaign to make referendums binding started with a CIR in 2003. It was a long anddifficult process. To start with, it can take months to have a CIR approved by the Clerk of the House of Representatives before you can even begin collecting signatures. To trigger aCIR the petitioner then needs to collect the signatures of ten percent of those registered onthe electoral roll. This is a huge task even for a large organisation, let alone the smallgroup of devotees like we had. People certainly supported the petition and seven or eightout of ten people on the street were happy to sign it, but we simply didn't have enoughpeople power on the streets collecting the signatures. We ended up collecting 20,000signatures which were presented to parliament and passed onto a parliamentary

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