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Posts tagged ‘citizens’ initiated referenda’

“Resounding”, “emphatic”, “decisive”, “overwhelming”

Bluntly, the result of the asset sales referendum could have been better for its proponents.

These are the adjectives that have been used to describe the result of the asset sales referendum: “resounding”, “emphatic”, “decisive” (twice), “overwhelming” (twice), “great”. Sixty-seven percent is of course a reasonable margin. But in the context of citizens’ initiated referenda (CIRs), it’s not that impressive.

Stack it against CIRs of the past: New Zealand has had four since they were introduced in 1993. In each of those, the proponents claimed victories of 87.8%, 81.5%, 91.8% and 87.9%, respectively (ref). The asset sales referendum missed the lowest victory yet by more than 14 points. That’s more than the entire range of results before it.

The CIR votes all look like decent margins—why? It’s not surprising. It takes a mammoth effort to start one—petitioners must collect the signatures of 10% of all eligible voters in one year, more than 300,000. People don’t sign a petition just because they think the public should “have a say”. They sign it when they oppose the status quo and want that to be known. So unless you have a critical mass that both wants change and cares enough to petition, you won’t hit the threshold.

Finding one in every ten voters up and down the country is hard; many have tried and failed. Now imagine finding one in every nine, or one in every five, if you factor in turnout to the smacking referendum. Presumably actually reaching everyone to sign the petition is not that feasible. So by the time you’ve hit the 10% threshold, you should have a really good victory in store.

Of course, should is the keyword in that sentence. My criticisms of statistical fallacies make it churlish for me to pretend what I’m saying is known to be empirically true. There are probably reasonable narratives the other way; without comprehensive (and mandatory) surveys, all of it is guesswork. It’s tempting, even for me, to try to draw inferences about what the result means. My suspicion is the (relatively) low outcome just indicates that the issue is more polarized (or organized) that most, since probably a greater number of opponents actually signed the petition.

But consider the big picture. There are, at a basic level, three outputs: turnout, informal votes and the actual result. (Okay, maybe the electorate data is useful too.) There are lots more variables that go into voting. Desire to vote, hassle, stance, strength of stance, interaction with “meta-opinions” like the right to govern, opinion on the fact that the referendum is being held, and the impact of each of those on action taken. We can make inferences, but they inevitably require guesses (even if sensible ones) about how those things fit together.

This is not to say that the left should not dance in victory; 67% is not bad at all. And it is true that a majority of New Zealanders oppose asset sales—we knew that long before the referendum. But in the context of New Zealand CIRs, it’s hard to see why they seem over the moon. Compared to other petitioners in recent history, they’ve underperformed. Still a good result, but not as “emphatic”, “overwhelming” or “decisive” as they claim it to be.

Follow the majority, except when they disagree with me

It’s really easy to make up principles of democracy to suit your opposition. It’s far harder to keep them consistent.

The opposition hasn’t relented on their claim that the government lacks a “mandate” on asset sales. The majority of New Zealanders oppose it—even the government acknowledges so—so the government shouldn’t do it. In populist politics, this claim is appealing. As a principled claim, it deserves more examination.

The Greens have shown as much already when pressed on how this applied to their support of the anti-smacking bill. As I said at the time, I think the smacking referendum question had logical issues. But empirically, it was still clear that the vast majority of Kiwis wanted the law repealed. The Greens say that it was correct to ignore this because the bill had an overwhelming majority in Parliament. This is rather farcical: essentially, direct democracy is called on only when representatives are evenly divided. I’m not a fan of direct democracy, but insofar as one likes it, that principle is very belittling of it.

Of course, there are also plenty more circumstances where Parliament’s been evenly divided, that haven’t been subject to “mandate” criticisms. So more generally, under what circumstances should the government abandon its own election policy in favour of topic-specific polls? The left has been shy on exactly what their criteria are, so it’s hard to tell. So I admit this is reading between the lines. But here’s my best effort at inference so far:

  • It’s fine when much more than 50 per cent (say, maybe 70 per cent) of Parliament supports it.
  • It’s fine when the amount of public opposition isn’t much more than 50 per cent (say, less than 60 per cent).
  • It’s fine when it doesn’t concern a long-term economic decision.
  • It’s fine when it’s not something “built up by generations of New Zealanders“, or I suppose something with a similarly long history.
  • It’s fine when the public isn’t very vocal about opposition. By “the public”, of course, I just mean political parties with lots of media time.

The weird thing about these principles is that they carve out criteria for a lack of a mandate. Conversely, to have a mandate, only one of the criteria has to hold. Logically, it is necessary to do this to avoid the inconsistencies inherent in the Greens’ and Labour’s record.

Intuitively, it’s stupid. Each of those planks implies a different principle. It’s impossible, in this framework, to devise a single consistent conception of what “mandate” means. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the left has been making up as narrow a set of exceptions as they need to, so they can harp on about democracy for this one issue.

Let me suggest a simpler principle: The government should follow the majority view when and only when it happens to agree with my view. This is convenient: you are free to oppose whatever you are opposed to. It’s also empirically true. Being in the minority has never stopped anyone from arguing that a policy shouldn’t be enacted. It certainly hasn’t stopped the Greens, who are in the minority for most of their core policies.

Of course, the problem with it is that it doesn’t sound very nice. But when would this principle ever give a different outcome?

If the fact that a view is held by a majority can’t change your view on that policy, then it’s not a very useful discriminant and it shouldn’t be used as if it is.

I can’t decide how to vote in this referendum

I don’t know… I just really don’t know.

I was never convinced by the case National made in 2011 for selling 49% stakes in certain state assets. I didn’t really understand what they were trying to achieve. First, they would use the proceeds to pay off public debt. Then, they would use the proceeds to build schools and hospitals. I realise you can do both, but the more you do of one, the less you can of the other. Clearly debt wasn’t that pressing an issue. Then, they would give “mums and dads” a chance to invest in some of New Zealand’s best performing assets. So they obviously thought they were high-value, presumably because they brought good dividends. But they also thought a good way to balance books was to sell them. Which explanation flies?

At the same time, Labour’s opposition tactic baffled me. Something emotional about “owning our future”, whatever that means. Something nationalistic about being “tenants in our own country”, as if I felt ownership because my government owned it. Something about profits going elsewhere, when presumably the sale price reflects anticipated profits. It amazed me how a technical economic topic could become as emotion-driven as marriage equality. As unconvinced as I was about National’s case, I couldn’t see why it’d be a disaster, either.

Here’s what I never got. If you think the government will “win”, as in, get a good price for the shares, then you must also think that these New Zealand “mums and dads” will be paying a premium for them. Conversely, if you think that that it’s a real opportunity for investors, then you must also think that the government will get lacklustre proceeds from the sale. So either the government cheats itself, or it cheats its constituents.

Okay, not quite. Firstly, you might think that neither party will win or lose, and it all won’t be much different. But then, why the hype, the angst, the excitement? Secondly, you might think it is a win-win, like most economic transactions. But stocks don’t work like consumable goods: their value (in general) is in their capacity to make you money. Thirdly, you might take the ideological line, about states being bad conductors of business. But no-one made this argument. They couldn’t, because National was going to retain a controlling stake.

This tension might seem convenient to opponents, but a similar one strings them. If the assets are high-value, as Labour and the Greens campaigned in 2011, then selling them means giving up good dividend streams—but also getting a good price from buyers. If the assets are low-value, as Labour and the Greens think now, then selling them means getting disappointing sale proceeds—but also ridding its books of poor investments. Either way, the price will (presumably) reflect the value of the asset.

So when asset sales became the defining issue of the election, I never got it.

Mandates
After the election, the re-elected National government proceeded to do exactly as it said. And Labour and the Greens continually claimed that National didn’t have a “mandate” to run the sales. Why? Because polls showed that 70% of New Zealanders opposed them.

There is a huge meta-question behind that chain of logic. If the majority of a constituency opposes a policy, is the government obliged to follow them? How do you ascertain that for every single policy? Everyone made this issue the defining question of the election, and one side lost. Why does or doesn’t that constitute a mandate? What does that mean for the concept of representative democracy? When do we abandon it in favour of direct democracy?

Frustratingly, those questions got almost no attention. I don’t intend for this post to be an analysis of constitutional principles (hint: this means you should not comment giving or asking for an analysis of constitutional principles), but to provide some context, briefly: I think we elect governments to do a job, and then let them do their job. There are lots of nuances to this, and I think it’s important to hear opposition, but I don’t think polls should alone be enough to dictate government policy.

So when National proceeded, I wasn’t fussed. I don’t think it’s an affront to democracy, and I can’t see why it’ll be hugely either damaging or beneficial.

Abstain?
I actually abstained in the last citizens’ initiated referendum, because I thought the question was dumb. My threshold for boycotting a vote is very high: along the lines of, there is no correct way to answer the question. Otherwise, in general, I think people should vote in referenda. Tactically, there’s no way to distinguish between a boycott vote and an apathetic one. In principle, even if opposed to citizens’ initiated referenda, I think we should change the system, not try to undermine it.

So I’d like to vote. If someone can suggest to me why I should vote one way or the other, I’m happy to hear it. But please don’t revert to ideological references to the past, emotive nationalist ownership arguments, arguments that contradict the 51% stake thing, or other ridiculousness. And please try to be consistent. If you think a low price makes it a failure, I expect you to think that a high price makes it a success. Otherwise, find an argument that isn’t premised on the amount of proceeds or dividends.

Smacking, referenda, flaws, wordings and (gulp) abstentions…

The upcoming referendum on smacking is fatally flawed, but I disagree with critics who argue that the question is ambiguous.

The way I see it, it couldn’t be clearer. “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?” It’s so unambiguous that it’s a leading question. It’s not beating up we’re talking about, but smacking. Not just any smacking, but smacking as part of good parental correction. And this wouldn’t result in some misdemeanour and fines, but in a criminal offence—the most serious category in our justice system. No-one in their right minds could possibly answer “yes”.

It doesn’t actually matter how you interpret “good”, because the fundamental question remains the same. If you ask me, the clarifier “good parental correction” limits it to smacks that are relatively light and physically inconsequential—a narrow range indeed. But regardless of whether you broaden or narrow what counts as “good”, whatever you consider to be good you won’t consider to be criminal. The only exception is if you don’t believe there’s any such thing as a “smack as part of good parental correction”, in which case it’s a bit of a null question, not a “yes”, because it can’t be an offence if it doesn’t exist, can it?

The referendum bears no relation to the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act at all. That law’s fourth subsection clearly allows an exception for inconsequential occurrences. That’s why Parliament passed it by 113 votes to 8. It prevents the misuse of the old Section 59 as a defence for people who beat up their children, while ensuring good parents aren’t criminalised for just a smack here and there. Supporters of the new law could just as easily answer to the referendum, “no”.

Taking the question word for word, then, the referendum is meaningless. Understandably, it motivated Green MP Sue Bradford to propose a bill to disallow questions that are ambiguous, complex, leading or misleading. It can sound like a nice quick-fix, but I doubt it would help. The applicability of those four words—even as they are defined in the bill—is by its very nature subjective. One side or the other is bound to disagree with every decision the Clerk makes—which does nothing for the credibility of a process that is supposed to enhance democracy. In any case, the Clerk of the House of Representatives is already supposed to vet questions so that they have a clear purpose and effect, and so that there are only two possibilities (ref). Evidently, it hasn’t worked.

But should it even matter? The biggest losers from having such a silly question are going to be the referendum’s proponents. The referendum will undoubtedly give the result they want. It’ll be a big “no”, and then lawmakers will do exactly what their mandate from the referendum is: absolutely nothing. The proponents will wonder why, and will probably start screaming and hollering about a government that “ignores the wishes of its citizens” or words to that effect—but it’s their own fault, by proposing a question that bore no relation to the law change they want.

How to vote, then, in a referendum as flawed as this? Supporters of the new law have argued that we should vote “yes’ to send a message that the law is working. I support the new law and I think it’s working, but I’m not sure that I’m prepared to lie in my response to some other question, just to make some political statement. Simply, I don’t believe that a smack as part of good parental correction should be a criminal offence. To vote “yes” would be to imply that the law needs to be changed. But I would oppose any such law change, so how could I vote “yes”?

The obvious answer, of course, is “no”, but therein lies the other dilemma. To vote “no” would be an implicit endorsement of the views of “no” vote campaigners, that the new law should be repealed. Sure, we might agree on the answer to the referendum itself, but I don’t want to add weight to their campaign. I don’t want to look like my views are aligned with theirs, or, worse, like I’m as uninformed about the law as them. So I can’t vote “no”, either.

I’m not a big fan of mass abstentions. The Youth MPs representing Green MPs at the 2007 Youth Parliament tried to stage one on the mock bill we were debating, and I didn’t think anything could’ve been more retarded. What they succeeded in doing astounded me: they united both sides of the (non-partisan) House against them. If it wasn’t unified disgust aimed at them, it was probably the next best thing. I reasoned at the time that mass-abstaining defeated the purpose of the exercise—people in any vote should just answer the question for what it is. If you support it, support it, and if you don’t, don’t. Abstaining is for those too indecisive or too weak to pick a side.

But I’m left with no other choice. There’s no way around it—the referendum is pointless. It was never going to be able to canvass the views of voters. It was never going to change the law. Those who support the new law while opposing the criminalisation of smacking must know this. A low turnout’s normally a bad thing, but here, it would show that the nation’s citizens aren’t willing to let our intelligence be insulted.

I never thought I’d ever do this.

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