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The effects of referendums on voter turnout and political participation in New Zealand
Steve Baron Victoria University of Wellington, 2012 As part fulfilment for an Honours degree in Political Science. Updated 1st August 2012. (7,279 words) email@example.com Phone 0211651882 1
New Zealand has had a long history with direct democracy. The first national referendum 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, the National led government introduced the Citizens' Initiated Referenda Act 1993. By the introduction of the Local Electoral Act 2001 local authorities were given the right to 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 to explicate these effects, the study focuses on one particular New Zealand local authority, the Wanganui District Council. Previous political participation studies of referendum effects have often conflicted; this study adds to the conflict by contradicting the most recent research by Tolbert & Smith (2005). The empirical data from this research demonstrates a decrease in political participation at the local authority level; yet interestingly, at the national level, in this particular electorate, participation rates have remained consistent with the national general election averages. The study suggests that this decreasing political participation at the local level may be due to voter satisfaction and overall satisfaction with the performance of the local authority political system, rather than apathy, voter fatigue or disillusionment as is often assumed. The study also tries to offer a different perspective on political participation that could add new elements to the usually accepted paradigm in regard to the importance of political participation in a liberal democracy.
Key Words: New Zealand, direct democracy, referendum, participation, voter turnout
Introduction Achieving the highest level of political participation is often considered paramount for a strong 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 implement their public policy agendas. However, the issue of mandates are highly debatable if we consider that most governments nowadays are elected on less than a 50% majority. There are many aspects that affect voter turnout: socio-economic factors (education, income, class, ethnicity, race, and gender), institutional factors (compulsory voting, registration processes), salience and proportionality. While numerous studies have been undertaken to examine what determinants affect voter turnout in general elections (Putnam, 2000; Dhillon & Peralta, 2002; Franklin, 2004; Blais, 2006), others have examined the affects referendums 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 (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2002). In New Zealand, voter turnout levels continue to fall in local authority and national elections (McVey & Vowles, 2005; New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs, 2010), with statistics showing 26% of registered voters did not vote in the 2011 general elections. This was the highest non-voter rate since 1887 (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 is even 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 to observe citizens voicing a lack of trust, cynicism and disillusionment in government at all levels. Given these falling levels of political participation, it is no surprise that an entire field of academic study has grown up around political participation with a focus on trying to understand the reasons for this phenomenon. At the same time, political participation theorists and political analysts also suggest new ways to help improve voter participation as a way to save democracy from its enemies. 3
While there have been numerous studies on political participation in general elections in New Zealand, as far as can be established, none have examined the effects of referendums on voter turnout and political participation. In 2005, after the election of a new Mayor in 2004, the Wanganui District Council began a series of plebiscites aimed at giving voters more say on issues that directly affected their lives. During his swearing-in ceremony, the new Mayor, Michael Laws stated:
Can I say that my first priority - as Mayor - is to bring the Council closer to the community. That means we must and will pioneer new ways to involve Wanganui people in civic decision-making, so that the people feel that Council belongs to them. And not cliques, bureaucrats or old boys' clubs (Wanganui District Council, n.d.1).
This case-study will focus on and examine the determinants of the 'Wanganui Referendums' and analyse what effect these plebiscites have had on political participation at the local authority level. If none, it will attempt to determine if they have added to the public good. Although focusing on a local authority level, this case-study also offers nationwide opportunities for citizens and political actors in other local authorities, to gauge the benefits of introducing direct democracy in their electoral constituencies.
To begin with, an important point of clarification must first be made. The study will then include a brief history of direct democracy, the background of the Wanganui District Council electorate, a discussion on the various plebiscites placed before voters and a review of the literature on referendums and political participation. The study hypothesis will be drawn from various theories and then applied to the results of the empirical data before coming to a final conclusion.
Point of clarification Before briefly delving into the history of direct democracy, it is important to clarify an important point to avoid confusion and to be more technically correct in the terminology that is used in this study. There are a number of parts to direct democracy: elections, citizens’ initiatives, referendums, recalls and plebiscites. A lot of misunderstanding and confusion could be avoided if this terminology was clearly distinguished from other terminology, along with their procedures. There is a crucial difference between referendums and plebiscites. While the Wanganui District Council referred to their 4
experiment with direct democracy as 'referendums', in fact, what the Council have initiated are 'plebiscites'. Plebiscites are different to referendums in the respect that they are controlled by authorities. A plebiscite is a public consultation controlled from above by those in power (the President, Prime Minister, Parliament, the District Council) which decide when and on what subject the people will be asked to vote or give their opinion; they are often a way for those in power to manipulate citizens and have power over them (Kaufmann, Büchi & Braun, 2008, p.37).
Plebiscites are often used to give some form of legitimacy for decisions that those in power have already taken. In Switzerland for example, it is quite different than in Hitler’s Nazi Germany (1933–1945) where there were three manipulated plebiscites. In the case of Switzerland, direct democracy means that a referendum process takes place either because a group of voters demands it, or because it is stipulated in the Constitution. The government cannot call a referendum. Direct democracy cannot be controlled by governments, so there are no plebiscites in Switzerland (Kaufmann, Büchi & Braun, 2008). However, in elucidating the above situation, it is obvious that there was a genuine attempt by the Wanganui District Council to involve citizens in the decision-making process and the Council agreed to make every effort to implement the will of the people, as it mostly did. Wanganui citizens were also offered the chance to initiate a district-wide referendum on any issue they so choose, upon the signature collection of 10% of those enrolled on the Wanganui District Council electoral roll (Wanganui District Council, n.d.1). To date this option has not been initiated.
Brief history of direct democracy Direct democracy and its use are not new or unique. Its history dates back to the Greek city state of Athens around 500 BC where male landowning citizens assembled at the Pnyx (Forsén & Stanton, 1996) and made community decisions. Another early example was what happened in a territory in the present-day Swiss canton of Graubünden which had seceded from the Holy Roman Empire in 1499 and instigated its own form of direct democracy (Osborne, 2012, pp.68-74). Direct democracy is a concept that a growing number of citizens and states around the world are exploring and embracing. In Western Europe, ten countries allow initiatives (as do six of the post-Soviet states) with 29 referendums having been held on the topic of integration into the European Union alone; between 1990 and 2003 referendums took place in 91 sovereign states of the world, including 30 in Europe regarding the Constitution of the European Union (Hug & Sciarini 5
2000, Hug 2002). There are 190 million people in Switzerland, Italy, Liechtenstein and 24 States in the USA who now embrace direct democracy and 70% of the USA population now live in a state that gives them the right to vote on initiatives and referendums (Butler & Ranney, 1994; Matsusaka, 2004; Walker, 1987).
New Zealand also has a history of direct democracy. In 1893, New Zealand debated the opportunity of having a constitutional framework similar to Switzerland. Although never enacted, a Referendum Bill was introduced to Parliament. However, the Bill only provided for non-binding, government-controlled referendums—or in other words, plebiscites. This Bill was re-introduced again in 1918 but without success (Mark W. Gobbi, as cited in Goschik, 2003 p.703). From 1911 to 1987, New Zealand citizens voted every three years on questions about the number of licensed premises that may operate locally (Hughes, 1994, p.156). In 1984, Social Credit MP, Garry Knapp, introduced the Popular Initiatives Bill which would have enabled 100,000 voters to trigger a non-binding referendum. The Bill was deferred pending a Royal Commission on the Electoral System, which was established by the Labour Government in 1985 (Karp & Aimer, 2002, pp.146-159). The New Zealand Royal Commission on the Electoral System (1986, p.175) did not support referendums, calling them "blunt and crude devices". In 1990 the National Party promised to introduce the citizens' initiative. In February 1994 the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993 came into force, but however, referendums initiated by citizens are non-binding on government.
To date, there have only ever been four successful citizens' initiatives in New Zealand: the New Zealand Professional Fire-Fighters Union initiative in 1995 which was an attempt to maintain the existing number of professional fire-fighters when the government was planning to reduce numbers; Margaret Robertson's 1997 initiative to reduce the number of MPs from 120 back to 99 after the introduction of MMP which had increased the size of Parliament; the Norm Withers initiative calling for minimum prison sentencing, hard labour, placing greater emphasis on the needs of victims, providing restitution and compensation for victims, also in 1997; and the 2009 initiative promoted by Sherryl Saville and Larry Baldock, a former United Future MP, aimed at regaining the right of parents to smack their children after the government had passed anti-smacking laws (Elections New Zealand, n.d.1). The Local Electoral Act 2001 also allows for a local authority to direct the electoral officer to conduct referendums. These referendums are non-binding on the local authority unless provided for under other legislation. Although the Wanganui plebiscites were non6
binding, a situation which can have a strong bearing on participation rates leading to less than optimal participation (Soberg & Tangeras, 2007) — the Wanganui District Council did state it was their intention to abide by the outcome of each plebiscite. Plebiscites held in other New Zealand local authority areas have included issues such as: fluoridation, licensing trusts, voting systems, the establishment of Maori electoral wards, the purchase of a movie theatre, the building of a sports park, to stop a road closure and the merging of two South Island Councils.
Wanganui background It is important to understand the social and political background of Wanganui and how direct democracy came to be introduced into the electoral process. This is because direct democracy has never been a serious component of local authority politics in New Zealand and this particular experience may potentially be a test-bed for other local authorities interested in giving voters more say in local authority issues that directly affect their lives.
Initially named Petre, Wanganui is a coastal city near the mouth of the Whanganui River and on the West Coast of the central North Island of New Zealand. It was established in 1840 and declared a city in 1924 (Cullen, 1979. p.494). It currently ranks 29 th in size out of 73 districts in New Zealand and with a population of approximately 43,000, is described as ‘large’ (having a population of 20,000 or more) (Statistics New Zealand, n.d.). The Statistics New Zealand December 2011 Household Labour Force Survey figures show an employment rate of 63% as compared to a national average of 64%. The average weekly income from all sources among people over 15 in 2010 was $774 per week and this compared to $687 a week for the whole of New Zealand (Statistics New Zealand, n.d.). On the 9th October 2004, the controversial radio host, political commentator and former Member of Parliament, Michael Laws, along with four other Mayoral candidates, challenged Chas Poynter, incumbent Mayor of 18 years, and won the Mayoralty. Laws’ biography includes six years as a National Party MP, followed by the position of senior aid and advisor to the New Zealand First Party (who held the balance of power in the 1996 election of a new government) where he was the primary exponent in the creation of that party's direct democracy policy (Laws, 1998), an important aspect to consider once he became Mayor.
Mayor Laws and his 'Vision Wanganui' team had earlier campaigned on a platform to utilise referenda as a way of giving Wanganui citizens a say in all "matters of significance" (Wanganui District Council, n.d.1). The first introduction Wanganui residents had to this new agendum was in December 2004. After rising concerns about dwindling Police numbers in the area, the Wanganui District Council instigated a petition which hoped to collect 15,000-20,000 signatures (Lacy, 2004). The petition ultimately achieved 11,000 signatures and was presented to the local Member of Parliament (Wanganui District Council, July 19, 2005). By then, calls were being made for the first plebiscite. In a Council meeting on the 10th February 2005, Wanganui District Councillor, Graeme Taylor, placed a proposal on the table which read as such: “THAT a referendum seeking community feedback on discretionary projects be held for input to the 2005/2006 Annual Plan” (Wanganui District Council, n.d.1) [emphasis in original]. The motion was passed. Councillors Bullock, Dahya, McGregor, Stevens and Westwood notably voting against it (Wanganui District Council, n.d.1), which obviously showed some opposition toward direct democracy.
Wanganui Referendum: The issues & results 2005 - 2010 'Wanganui Referendum 05': This plebiscite was held in May 2005. Each person listed on the Wanganui electoral roll was given the opportunity to prioritise three choices out of 14 optional capital projects for Council funding (Wanganui District Council, n.d.2). These capital projects included: airport terminal upgrade, Castlecliff Beach development, central city waterfront development, Cooks Gardens sports turf, Fitzherbert Ave extension to Mosston Road, footpath maintenance and renewals, inorganic solid waste collection, kerbside recycling, Kowhai Park redevelopment planning, public artworks/sculpture, riverbank walkway extension to Castlecliff, Sarjeant Art Gallery extension (Warren & Mahoney Design) and an extension to the Splash Centre.
The results showed that 16,864 votes were cast which represented 54% of those eligible to vote—an impressive turnout considering the average turnout in New Zealand local authority elections is only 50% (New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs, 2010). The three most popular choices were the Splash Centre extension, followed by the City waterfront development and third the Footpath upgrade. Consequently, Mayor Laws claimed the result as: "a stunning success and a clear indication that Wanganui people want to have a say in how their ratepayer dollars are spent" (Wanganui District Council, 8
June 25, 2005).
'Wanganui Referendum 06': This plebiscite was held in February 2006. Citizens decided on four issues: the spelling of Wanganui, water softening, water fluoridation, the size of Council and the abolition of urban and rural wards. Results showed that 17,037 votes were cast, which represented 55% of those eligible to vote. 82% voted against Wanganui being spelled with an 'h'. 75% voted for the Council to investigate water softening. 74% voted against the water supply being fluoridated. 60% voted for the number of Wanganui District councillors to be reduced and 53% voted for the rural and urban wards to be abolished in favour of one district wide ward (Wanganui District Council, n.d.3).
'Wanganui Referendum 07': This plebiscite was held in April 2007. Citizens decided on four issues: water softening (again), gang insignia, kerbside recycling and whether a separate Wanganui Anniversary Day should be established. Results showed that 15,030 votes were cast, which represented 48% of those eligible to vote. 71% voted to proceed with water softening as proposed by Council. 65% voted to ban gang patches in public places. 66% voted to establish a kerbside recycling service. 54% voted against having a separate Wanganui Anniversary Day and therefore continue using the Wellington anniversary day (Wanganui District Council, n.d.4).
'Wanganui Referendum 08': This plebiscite was held in December 2008. Citizens were asked to prioritise four issues: Events Centre/Velodrome, Kowhai Park Development, whether to build a new library or upgrade the old one and the widening of Mosston Road including the Fitzherbert Avenue extension. This plebiscite registered the lowest turnout of plebiscites to date with only 14,436 votes being cast, which represented 46% of those eligible to vote. 38% chose the velodrome/events centre project as their first choice, with the Mosston Road Upgrade / Fitzherbert Avenue Extension receiving 27%. However, taking first, second and third choices into calculations, the library development won with 67% of the vote—a rather confusing and inconclusive result (Wanganui District Council, n.d.5). This result had Mayor Michael Laws calling for a new vote saying no mandate was given (Wanganui Chronicle, January 27, 2011).
'Wanganui Referendum 09': This plebiscite was held in April 2009. Citizens decided on six issues: relocating the Visitor Information Centre, a levy to promote Wanganui nationally, sale of Energy Direct, ownership of pensioner housing, the option to choose three levels of 9
rates increases and again, the spelling of Wanganui for the second time. Mayor Laws commented that this was: “Solely to prove the results of the first referendum - to prove a point to those who might argue that the first result was somehow inadequate or rogue” (M. Laws, personal communication, March 31, 2012). Results showed that 18,306 votes were cast, which represented 61% of those eligible to vote and the highest turnout ever recorded during the period examined. 59% voted for the Visitor Information Centre to be relocated to Moutoa Quay/Riverfront. 70% voted against a small levy being imposed on all businesses and households to promote Wanganui nationally. 68% voted against the council selling Energy Direct (the retail trading arm of Wanganui Gas). 71% voted against the Council transferring ownership of part or its entire pensioner housing complexes. 48% chose a 3% average rate increase for 2009/10 rating period (22% chose a 5% increase and 22% would have been happy for elected Councillors to decide) and 77% chose to spell Wanganui without an 'h' (Wanganui District Council, n.d.6).
'Wanganui Referendum 10': This was the final plebiscite and held in October 2010 (none were held in 2011 or 2012). Citizens decided on two issues: having a unitary authority for Wanganui and to decide how many gaming 'pokie' machines there should be in Wanganui. Results showed that 14,386 votes were cast, which represented 46% of those eligible to vote. 67% voted for the Council to investigate establishing a unitary authority that covers the Wanganui district and assumes the functions of the Horizons Regional Council. 80% voted for the Council to retain its policy of gradually reducing the number of gaming machines (Wanganui District Council, n.d.7).
Some of the basic facts Between 2005 and 2010, in the Wanganui District Council electorate, there have been a total of six plebiscites addressing 21 questions—possibly more than all other local authorities combined. Not all of these plebiscites have been simple yes/no questions. For example, the first and fourth plebiscites asked voters to prioritise a list of projects. Other questions had multiple choices that voters had to select. In this respect, these were not 'traditional' referendums—perhaps they might even be considered more of a polling exercise. However, most questions did help decide issues important to Wanganui voters. The average turnout rate over the six plebiscites was 52%*.
* This figure was calculated from official figures showing the turnout percentages for each plebiscite and by dividing that number by six, the total number of plebiscites held.
Literature review The literature on the effects of referendums on voter turnout has been conflicting. David Everson (1981) was one of the first researchers to examine the effects of US initiatives on voter turnout with a US State comparative analysis. At this time there had been public calls for a US national referendum system, aiming to increase voter turnout. Everson’s empirical study concluded that the effects of the initiatives on voter turnout were fairly negligible. Although he did note that where there is salience with a particular initiative, voter turnout does increase, but this is only temporary.
On a completely different note; Tolbert, McNeal & Smith (2003), using more recent data (American National Election Studies data for 1996, 1998 and 2000) and more sophisticated multivariate analysis research methods, showed that exposure to ballot initiatives does increase the probability of voter turnout. Their study showed that campaign contributions to interest groups where stimulated and that political knowledge was enhanced—therefore adding to the social capital. Tolbert, McNeal & Smith suggested that each initiative on the ballot increased by 1%, the probability of a person voting. They concluded that the educative effects of the initiative process on civic engagement were possibly more important than the actual effects on public policy because citizens were more informed and thus strengthening American democracy.
In a later article, Tolbert & Smith (2005) examined the educative effects of ballot initiatives on voter turnout and showed that initiatives increased the turnout in midterm, as well as presidential elections, at a higher level than previously thought. These were interesting findings given how close some US Presidential elections have become and therefore added support for greater use of referendums.
However, the results presented by Soberg & Tangeras (2003) who analysed data from 230 Norwegian local referendums, showed that binding referendums, as compared to nonbinding referendums, generated a decisive decision which led to an increased turnout of 11.5 percentage points. This is an important aspect to consider as local authority and national referendums in New Zealand are not binding on local authorities or governments and could therefore lead to a less than optimal turnout. Adding to that, Hajnal & Lewis (2003) argued that as the use of direct democracy gives voters more control over local 11
decisions, this gives voters more encouragement to participate. Their conclusions were that cities with one or more voter initiatives on the ballot produced about a 4% increase in votes. How this relates to the Wanganui District Council elections is debatable given that postal voting is used and ballots are separate from Council elections (although they may be posted together). In a more recent study, Childers & Binder (2010) argue that direct democracy in and of itself does not lead to an increased turnout, but that mobilisation is the mechanism through which direct democracy increases turnout. Similar to Tolbert, McNeal & Smith (2003), Childers & Binder find that as the number of initiatives on election ballots rises, so does turnout, although with diminishing returns.
An argument that is often raised in regard to increased referendum usage is that of voter fatigue. Freitag & Stadelmann-Steffen (2010) challenges the theory that direct democracy leads to voter fatigue and a decline in voter turnout. While statistics in Switzerland show a decline in voter turnout which has been attributed to voter fatigue, Freitag & StadelmannSteffen suggest this situation is due to the saliency of national and local elections. For example, local authority elections in Switzerland have more saliency than parliamentary elections as most of the important decisions are made at the local level in Switzerland.
Theory Critical theory is a school of thought that critiques society and believes in radically participatory, non-hierarchical forms of political, economic, and social interaction; with the goal: “to produce social change that will empower, enlighten, and emancipate all people.” (Schnieder & Ingram, 1997, p.51). This theory will be drawn upon to evaluate the results of this study as there is common ground between critical theory and theories of participatory democracy (Schneider & Ingram, 1997), given that such a theory focuses on empowering people to take action that will produce social change.
Very few political participation studies do not consider Social Capital theory, even though it is a rather vague theory with no commonly agreed upon definition (Dolfsma & Dannreuther, 2003). Some, like Skocpol (1996) and Tarrow (1996), debating any potential positive effects. Social capital is a theory developed through the work of Robert Putnam (1993, 2000) suggesting that social activity and networks, with the interpersonal trust, tolerance and cooperation this creates, provide social foundations and a vibrant democracy. Given that referendums bring about public discussion, social activity and various networks for 12
and against the referendums, it would seem appropriate to consider this theory in this study’s hypothesis formulation and analysis.
Rational choice theory attempts to explain social and economic behaviour and argues that individuals act as if balancing costs against benefits to arrive at actions that maximize personal advantage (Friedman, 1953, pp.15, 22, 31). However, it is also argued that the chance of any single voter having an impact on an election outcome means it is unlikely a rational voter will vote at all (Downs, 1957). Therefore, rational choice theory must be taken into consideration for the purposes of this study given that Wanganui voters have to consider the trade-off between balancing the costs and benefits of voting in the plebiscites. It has also been highlighted by Soberg & Tangeras (2007) that in small electorates of up to 4,000 voters, behaviour conforms extremely well to the predictions of rational choice theory. Granted, the Wanganui local authority electorate is larger than this, at approximately 30,000 voters, but this is not a large electorate by any standards and the theory may very well hold true.
There have been numerous studies examining the reasons for turnout differences between local authority and national elections; with scholars suggesting turnout is lower at local authority levels (Lijphart, 1997; Franklin, 1999). This theory is referred to as second-order elections theory and was first conceptualised by Reif & Schmitt (1980) to analyse the 1979 European Parliament elections. These elections were considered 'second-order' elections as they were not thought to be as important to voters and political actors as much as firstorder elections. This was more so the case at that time, when the European Parliament did not have as much power as it might currently have. Henderson & McEwen (2010) who examined why some regions record higher rates of voter participation than others, have reservations about second-order election theory and cite Studlar (2001) and Horiuchi (2005) who highlight that provincial elections in Canada, Northern Ireland, rural Japan, Southern Italy and Switzerland often produce higher turnout levels than federal elections. Horiuchi refers to this as the 'turnout-twist'. Henderson & McEwen (2010, p.408) argue that higher turnout rates at the local authority level can be attributed to relative political authority in elections. In other words, in regions where there is a lot at stake and regions where the political authority has more power to make important decisions. Given that the Wanganui District Council elections are second-order elections, the theory may have value in creating and evaluating the hypothesis and results of this study. Based on these theories speculation might be that: 13
Hypothesis. Voter turnout and political participation will increase due to the empowering features of direct democracy and the consequent mobilisation this involves, as has been shown to be the case in Norway and USA (Tolbert, McNeal & Smith, 2003; Tolbert & Smith, 2005; Soberg & Tangeras, 2007).
Methodology & data sources This study will adopt the mixed methodology approach using informal discussions with voters and political actors, along with normative observations, quantitative and qualitative methods. The reason for this is that even the most complex scientific models cannot produce a comprehensive understanding of complex policy situations (Dryzek, 1990; King, Keohane & Verba, 1994) as have developed in the Wanganui plebiscites. The empirical part of this study uses official results of the Wanganui District Council elections from 1989 2010 to deduce the study hypotheses. This will be examined and matched against averaged nationwide local authority election results over the same period, with a special focus on the 'Wanganui Referendum' period of 2005 - 2010.
General election turnout rates for the Whanganui general election (comparable geographical area to the Wanganui District Council local authority area) will also be compared to the New Zealand general election turnout rates (excluding Maori voter turnout rates) to observe any variations and to gauge if, and how, this data was affected after the referendums were introduced. Such data was obtained from Linda Carkeek, Project Support Officer, New Zealand Electoral Commission (personal correspondence April 26, 2012). Data relating to the number of public submissions to the Wanganui District Council annual report from 2000 - 2010 are also examined to determine if participation in these submissions has changed as a result of the plebiscites. Local authority election data for the period was assembled from the New Zealand Department of Internal Affair (2010) while plebiscite results data was assembled directly from Noeline Moosman, Electoral Officer, Wanganui District Council (personal correspondence April 4, 2012). Data relating to annual submissions was assembled from Jessica Pratt, Governance Office Assistant, Wanganui District Council (personal correspondence April 10, 2012). This data is summarized in Table 1 below.
Source: NZ Department of Internal Affairs; Wanganui District Council.
Research findings The following analysis seeks to identify the effects on political participation after the introduction of the plebiscites in 2005. It is obvious at first glance (see Figure 1 below) that voter turnout in the Wanganui District Council local authority elections has decreased after the introduction of the plebiscites. Figures show voter turnout in the Council elections declining from 67% in 2004, to 61% in 2010. This represented a decline of approximately 10%. However, this figure was still 22% above the average New Zealand local authority turnout rate of 50%. It is also interesting to note here that the New Zealand local authority average turnout rates increased at a corresponding rate to a decrease in the Wanganui District Council turnout rates. Continuing with the examination of Figure 1, it can also be observed that the Whanganui electorate general election turnout rates have remained almost perfectly correlated to the New Zealand general election turnout rates from 1990 – 2008, also a curious observation given that it may be expected that these rates would have dropped as well.
Turning now to the examination of public submissions to the Wanganui District Council annual plan, mixed results can be observed (see Figure 2 below). Just prior to the plebiscite period (2005 – 2010) observations show a substantial increase from 157 submissions in 2004 to 190 in 2005, then continuing to increase in 2006 to 205 submissions. This represented an impressive 31% increase. It must also be kept in mind that at the beginning of this period there was a vigorous political campaign to unseat the long term incumbent Mayor, Chas Poynter, leading up to the election of Michael Laws in October 2004. This created a lot of publicity, raising a number of issues given the poor economic conditions Wanganui had experienced for quite some time which may have encouraged the submission increase. Change was in the air for Wanganui and debates had begun. For instance, in December 2004 political participation was instantly encouraged by the new Mayor, Michael Laws, and his Council with the instigation of a petition which hoped to collect 15,000 - 20,000 signatures over concerns about dwindling Police numbers in the area (Lacy, 2004). In 2007 there was a massive 68% decrease in submissions. This figure increased slightly in 2008 before dropping back once again in 2009 and 2010. In 2011, one year after the last plebiscite, submissions had skyrocketed back up to 214 or a 268% increase. The average submissions prior to the plebiscite period was 145 submissions (not including 2011 submissions) and the average after the plebiscite period was 113 (not including 2011 submissions). This represented an average 16
decrease of 22% over the plebiscite period. If the 214 submissions in 2011 are taken into account the average submissions then become 135, and therefore only a 7% decline. It may be possible that the spike in submissions in 2006 was a flow on effect from the salient 2006 plebiscite which was extremely contentious in regard to the spelling of Wanganui.
Despite the introduction of direct democracy, the results of this study outlined above, show that voter turnout and participation in Wanganui have not increased, therefore dispelling this study’s hypothesis. However, what Mayor Michael Laws and his Council tried to achieve during the period is consanguineous to critical theory—it has been empowering to local residents. In New Zealand it is extremely rare, particularly at a local authority level, that citizens are empowered to decide individual policy options as were experienced in Wanganui. This aspect could be considered a positive aspect to the whole plebiscite process. Citizens were empowered to make important public policy decisions which have broken down the hierarchal structure that operates in all New Zealand local authorities.
It could also be argued that Wanganui citizens increased their social capital given the opportunity to participate, form groups for and against various issues during the plebiscite period and Wanganui continues to be a vibrant community even today. Much debate took place as was observed in several local newspapers with every plebiscite receiving abundant publicity. Being given the opportunity to participate in the decision making process has a feel-good characteristic that may possibly have added to the social capital of the community, although there is no way to quantify this to any great extent without an 17
in-depth survey which was beyond the scope and resources of this study. Being given the option to participate in important local decisions has certainly been a change for the better with obvious empowering features not previously experienced in this local authority.
Even though the local authority voter turnout dropped by 10% to the figure of 52%, it must be remembered that this lower level was still higher than the New Zealand local authority average of 50%. Voters obviously balanced the costs of voting against the benefits and felt the benefits were worth the effort to return their voting forms. These figures are of course lower than turnout rates for national elections. The average for Wanganui local authority voters is 66% (Elections New Zealand, n.d.2) compared to the New Zealand general election average of 74% for elections between 1989 and 2010 (New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs, 2010); therefore this appears to support Reif & Schmitt's (1980) secondorder theory and should be taken into consideration.
Voter fatigue may possibly be one argument for the decrease observed in this case and this argument is often mentioned as the reason to explain low participation in referendums (Jackman & Miller, 1995; Blais & Dobrzynska, 1998; Franklin, 1999, 2004). The Wanganui District Council plebiscites ran for six years from 2005 – 2010 and voters got to vote on 21 varying issues, therefore, it would not be unreasonable to assume voter fatigue was the problem. One comparative study of the relationship between direct and representative democracy in Swiss cantons confirmed this aspect and concluded:
the increased exercise of popular rights tends to hinder individual participation in cantonal parliamentary elections, all else being equal. Put simply, direct democracy seems to detract, rather than attract more voters (Hajnal & Lewis, 2003).
Yet if that were the case, it would be expected that voter turnout for Wanganui voters in the Whanganui general electorate, would also decrease—this did not happen as this study has revealed. Voter participation in Wanganui for the general elections was consistent with the average New Zealand general election turnout.
A bifurcate perspective Conventional wisdom tells us that voters often see representatives and political parties as 18
unresponsive. It is common to hear voters say it makes no difference who is elected to power as political parties are all pretty much the same and never listen to voters anyway. This could be considered the Tweedledum or Tweedledumber syndrome. Given that over 1 million New Zealand citizens failed to vote in the 2011 general elections, there may be some support for this theory. Low voter turnout rates in elections can however be seen in two ways; either as a reflection of a lack of trust, cynicism and disillusionment with the political system, or that voters are happy with the system and therefore do not feel the need to vote. Perhaps, given the findings of this research, it may be pertinent to consider a different perspective on political participation that could add new elements to the usually accepted paradigm; that maximum political participation is paramount in a liberal democracy. This of course would conflict with the assumptions of numerous scholars in this field such as; Barber, Coffe, Dahl, Kaufman, Lijphart, Pateman and Skocpol. While seeking solutions to decreasing voter turnout rates, it might be that such participationists are focusing on issues that would not make any difference under a truly democratic political system—not a system that sees voting once every three years as a democracy. In other words, is political participation in electing representatives or political parties important at all?
While voting to elect representatives and political parties might indeed be important if it were to come down to ensuring some form of democracy over that of a dictatorship or authoritarian regime; it is extremely unlikely, in a liberal democracy such as New Zealand, to imagine that citizens would ever be faced with such a choice. The only likelihood of New Zealand becoming a dictatorship or authoritarian regime would be through the process of a military coup, which if it were to happen, would probably happen regardless of the numbers that vote in elections. Voting may also be important for those who seek some form of power and or recognition; or perhaps even for those indoctrinated into party politics who would like to steer New Zealand in a certain direction.
However, take for example the counter-factual argument that New Zealand is a country in which citizens have the right to veto new legislation, changes to existing legislation or even the right to initiate new legislation, through the direct democracy tool of binding referendums. Under such a scenario, the need to participate in electing representatives and political parties becomes inconsequential because voters would know that they have the final say in public policy decisions—the People are sovereign and not the Parliament. 19
Therefore, it would be only natural to expect that voter participation levels at local authority, or general elections, would decrease. Switzerland is a typical example of this. They are the most prolific users of referendums in the world (Walker, 1987; Butler & Ranney, 1994; Matsusaka, 2004) and according to Birch (2010) they also have one of the lowest voter turnout rates in general elections. Yet it must also be kept in mind that the Swiss are also extremely satisfied with their system of direct democracy. The 2003 Swiss Eurobarometer survey showed that 64.8% of Swiss citizens thought that direct democracy was ‘very important’, 31% thought it was of ‘sufficient importance’, while only 3.9% thought it was ‘not really important’ and 0.3% thought it was ‘not important at all’ (Donovan & Karp, 2006). Switzerland is also ranked extremely high happiness rankings (Frey, 2011).
Lower turnout in the Wanganui District Council elections, coupled with consistently high participation at the national level, would also appear to support the theory that Wanganui citizens were happy with their local democratic system. Wanganui voters may therefore not have felt as compelled to vote as prolifically in local authority elections as they once previously did. This has also been supported by the numerous personal comments this author has received from Wanganui residents who, although having an intense dislike for controversial Mayor Laws, were appreciative of his introduction of direct democracy. A normative judgement would suggest that the defining point here is happiness and satisfaction with the political system, which is what, appears to be most important to voters—the ability to have control over issues that directly affect their lives, in other words, quality not quantity. To unequivocally confirm this conclusion would require an in-depth survey of Wanganui citizens which was beyond the scope and resources of this study. Such a study would be enlightening for those interested in democratic optimisation.
Conclusion This paper has highlighted an unexpected conundrum. While participation declined in the Wanganui District Council local authority elections, after the introduction of direct democracy, and in contrast to this study’s expectations, participation did not decline in the Whanganui general elections (same geographical area as the Wanganui District Council local authority elections). There is no doubt that direct democracy brings about public policy that matches the expectations of the median voter (Gerber, 1996; Matsusaka, 2000; Frey & Stutzer, 2001). Voter satisfaction with a political system is crucial, perhaps even 20
more important than participation itself. Frey (1997, p.1043) suggests that: “Civic virtue can be maintained and fostered by direct citizen participation via popular referenda and initiatives”. So therefore voters feel trusted, less cynical, more satisfied and possibly happier with the political system. Frey certainly found signs of greater civic virtues and even happiness in cantons that used direct democracy (Frey, 2000, as cited in Bowler & Donovan, 2002). This also appears to be the case with voters in Wanganui, given their ability to influence public policy through the use of local authority plebiscites.
The Wanganui direct democracy experiment has certainly proven to be a credible option for a modern, highly educated society and also, possibly given new thought to the perceived importance of voter turnout rates. Although the Wanganui plebiscites were not binding, almost all decisions were implemented by the Wanganui District Council as was their stated conviction. However, referendums at the local authority and national level in New Zealand are not binding on the local authority or the government. They have been mostly ignored and therefore remain a point of contention leading to a lack of trust, cynicism, and disillusionment in government, along with declining voter participation rates. This highlights one of the weaknesses of representative democracy. In conclusion, the words of Professor Vernon Bogdanor (1981, p.93) are perhaps most pertinent: “acceptance of the referendum is but the logical consequence of accepting the democratic form of government”.
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