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Posts tagged ‘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.

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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.

Referendum asks an irrelevant question

If you asked me, “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?”, I would say no, of course.

And of New Zealand’s 4,268,206 people, I figure approximately 4,268,205 people would say the same; the lone exception being a certain Sue Bradford, for whom “smacking” and “assault” are synonyms.  That’s 4,268,205, I say, not 4,268,093.  The other 112 politicians who voted for the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Bill last year are not exceptions.  I bet you anything they would say no too.

This was reiterated by every speaker, by every party that supported that bill in its third reading (except Ms Bradford).  Smacking would not be a crime.  Smacking should not be a crime.  The bill is not about smacking.  It is about the sheer abuse of children that goes on in some places, hidden behind the old Section 59.  This quote of National’s Chester Borrows is not an isolated example:

Those parents who are worried that this legislation will criminalise lightly smacking a child can rest assured that Parliament’s intention is that this should not be the case, and if at some future time they find themselves on such a charge, they should advise counsel to research Hansard and cite these comments in their defence.

Why on earth, then, do Family First and more than 300,000 voters want a referendum that asks about smacking?  A negative response to that question, which is an almost-certainty, would have no effect on the status quo.  It would merely reaffirm the stance of virtually every member of the Parliament that enacted the law.

Family First and its petition’s supporters have yet to realise this.  Perhaps they are in denial: who could have thought a bill that was originally so absurd could end up being an Act of Parliament that actually means something?  I wrote once in this blog in strong opposition to Ms Bradford’s bill, but much changed between then and its final reading.  The amendment I once opposed had four words, not four sections.

A read of Family First’s case studies might feel emotionally provoking at first, but upon closer study they have little substance.  Not one of the cases resulted even in prosecution, let alone conviction; the single case that even touched the courts was dismissed as soon as it got there.  The cases are largely isolated and the only evidence that they might not have happened under previous legislation is that they are largely the result of people’s misconceptions of the law, which were probably gained through media campaigns by Family First themselves, and which will probably be corrected as the new law settles in properly.

I wonder, if the question began, “Should beating violently with whips, belts or sticks…”, if the matter would be so controversial.  It is this question that the legislation, designed to let go of matters “so inconsequential that there is no public interest in proceeding with a prosecution” (read: smacking), was addressing.  That’s why, if you ask me now, “Should the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007 be part of New Zealand law?”, I would say yes, even when my answer to that pointless smacking question remains a clear no.