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Direct Democracy in New Zealand

Direct Democracy in New Zealand

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Published by Steve Baron

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Published by: Steve Baron on Nov 06, 2011
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Direct democracy in New Zealand 
by Steve Baron
(887 words)
[
Steve Baron holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science & Economics. He is a published author, a regular columnist in various publications throughout NZ, the Founder of Better  Democracy NZ, a former businessman and Waipa Mayoral candidate.
]
Direct democracy in New Zealand continues to be a work in progress. In 1893 NewZealand debated having a constitutional framework similar to Switzerland. Although never enacted, a Referendum Bill was introduced to parliament. However, the Bill only providedfor non-binding, government-controlled referendums—in other words, plebiscites. This Billwas also re-introduced again in 1918 but failed. A statutory provision for constitutionalreferendums is also provided for under the
Electoral Act 1993
, section 268. This statutoryprovision is singularly entrenched which means that it can only be amended or repealed if passed by a 75% majority of all MPs, or by a majority in a referendum. Then, in 1984,Social Credit MP Garry Knapp introduced the Popular Initiatives Bill which would haveenabled 100,000 voters to trigger a non-binding referendum. The Bill was deferredpending a Royal Commission on the Electoral System.The Citizens' Initiated Referenda Act 1993 came about mostly due to broken electionpromises by the 1984 Labour government. These radical policies for the times causedimmense frustration and anger amongst New Zealanders. People at that time felt they hadbeen deceived. According to a number of academic surveys, MPs were less respectedthan ever before. As a nation we had lost confidence in our political representatives. Thisled to calls for a Royal Commission and during the 1981 and 1984 campaigns, the Labour 
 
Party promised to set one up to look into the electoral system. The Royal Commission onthe Electoral System was established in early 1985. It made a number of radicalsuggestions, MMP being one of them, but did not support direct democracy and calledreferendums “blunt and crude devises”. Labour failed to implement the Royal Commissionrecommendations and although the National Party did not support them either, it took theopportunity during the 1990 elections to embarrass Labour by promising a referendum onthe electoral system. When elected to government National also quickly broke electionpromises and trust in politicians plunged to an all time low.This led to an outcry for citizens to have more control over their elected representatives inthe form of Citizens' Initiated Referendums (CIR). The first calls for CIR in New Zealandwere from dubitable origins by a group called the Coalition of Concerned Citizens in 1985.It was formed to fight gay rights legislation as this group had failed to stop the passage of Labour MP Fran Wilde's Bill to decriminalize homosexuality and ban discrimination on thegrounds of sexual orientation. After CIR was rejected by the Royal Commission on theElectoral System, a lobby group within the National Party called National Reform, putpressure 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 1990 manifesto tointroduce CIR. National won this election and introduced the Citizens Initiated ReferendaBill to parliament in 1992 which was subsequently passed into law on 14 September 1993.The disappointment to many who were involved with the National Party at the time, wasthat these CIR were to be indicative. In other words, not binding on the government. Thisis a rather strange occurrence because in most countries CIR are binding on thegovernment.To date there have only ever been
four 
successful citizens' initiatives in New Zealand: theNew Zealand Professional Fire-Fighters Union initiative in 1995, Margaret Robertson's1997 initiative to reduce the number of MPs to 99, the Norm Withers initiative for tougher prison sentencing also in 1997, and the 2009 anti-smacking initiative promoted by SherrylSaville and Larry Baldock, a former United Future MP. New Zealand has also heldgovernment-initiated referendums (plebiscites) on off-course betting, compulsory militarytraining, compulsory retirement savings, the term of parliament twice, and the votingsystem, but these are of course non-binding also. The reason there have only been four successful citizens' initiatives is because the signatures of 10% of those registered on the

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