Comment

Underestimate a referendum at your peril

If the Government goes ahead with three referenda alongside the next general election it should know the risk of that decision backfiring on them is monumentally high, writes Peter Dunne.

There is an adage in politics and the law to never ask a question unless you already know the answer. It is drilled into new politicians and lawyers right at the start of their careers to prevent embarrassment later when an answer presents an unexpected and awkward response.

No doubt, members of the British Conservative Party will have been reflecting ruefully on that maxim as their government and country reel from shambles to ever increasing shambles on the Brexit issue. Especially since it was never supposed to turn out the way it has.

When then-Prime Minister David Cameron promised the non-binding referendum in 2015 he was so confident that the result would be a resounding vote in favour of remaining in the European Union that he went even further and pledged that the government would treat the result as binding, even though it did not need to.

Cameron’s aim was to put the Euro-Sceptic wing of the Conservative Party firmly and permanently in its place, once and for all, just like Harold Wilson had done in 1975 to the anti-Common Market group in the then ruling Labour Party.

Wilson’s similarly non-binding referendum produced a 67 percent vote in favour of staying in Europe, and put his internal critics firmly in their place for the next decade or so (although under the extremely Left-wing Michael Foot Labour did promise at the 1983 election to take Britain out of the European Union, but was buried in the post-Falklands Thatcher landslide).

Cameron’s move backfired spectacularly, costing not only him the Prime Ministership, but also his successor as well, and possibly her successor too. Beyond that, it has destroyed Britain’s reputation in Europe, leaving relations with the European powerhouses Germany and France badly bruised after years of careful nurturing following the ravages of World War II, and there is the real prospect of peace in Ireland unravelling over the question of restoring an Irish border.

As well, Britain now faces the humiliating prospect of having to go cap in hand to Commonwealth allies Canada, Australia and New Zealand in particular to try to restore the trade relationships it had been so quick to abandon in the 1960s and 1970s in its headstrong rush to join Europe.

Had the 2016 Brexit referendum not been held, more than likely the Cameron Government would now be in the final year of its second term (there would have been no 2017 election), and Prime Minister Cameron would have been ahead looking to becoming Europe’s senior statesman, once Chancellor Angela Merkel stands down later in the year.

In a world where international relations have been increasingly unstable because of the quixotic behaviour of President Trump, Prime Minister Cameron could have stood out as Europe’s pragmatic, stable, moderate counter-balance. But now, instead, he will just be remembered as the one who caused the Brexit chaos.

While the consequences have been nowhere near as dramatic here, New Zealand political leaders over the years have not been immune from failing to think through the likely outcomes of various referenda.

... it would be almost impossible to think of a more controversial mix than cannabis, abortion and the end-of-life, to be putting together for referenda at the best of times, let alone in the extremely volatile atmosphere of what promises to be a grim and hard-fought election campaign.

In 1993, both then Prime Minister Jim Bolger and his Labour predecessor Mike Moore thought the public would listen to their dire warnings and vote against a move to MMP in that year’s run-off referendum, despite having chosen MMP in the earlier referendum a year beforehand.

Moreover, all the signs were that the 1993 referendum was as much about teaching the politicians a lesson once and for all, after what was felt to have been a decade of betrayal by both Labour and National governments of the period, as it was a move to proportional representation.

The more they warned against change, the more the public got used to the idea.

In 1997, both Prime Minister Bolger and his Deputy, Winston Peters, campaigned strongly for compulsory superannuation, only to have their proposal rejected by almost 92 percent of voters in that year’s referendum. Again, people were making it clear they did not like being told what to do.

John Key’s plans to change the design of the New Zealand in 2016 failed more because of what people saw as a personal vanity project than a desire to retain the existing flag design.

All of these are factors the current government needs to take into account as it contemplates holding three substantial referenda alongside next year’s general election.

Holding three referenda alongside the election is ambitious enough, with substantial potential for confusion, but it would be almost impossible to think of a more controversial mix than cannabis, abortion and the end-of-life, to be putting together for referenda at the best of times, let alone in the extremely volatile atmosphere of what promises to be a grim and hard-fought election campaign. The risk of quite unforeseen and contradictory outcomes has to be monumentally high.

It is a reasonable assumption that the Government – in keeping with the progressive reputation it likes to burnish for itself – will, like David Cameron on Brexit, be hoping for “yes” votes on all three matters.

Our Government needs to ensure that all the relevant information is gathered and made available to the public before each of next year’s referenda, so that people can make their decisions fully aware of all the positive and negative consequences

But there is no guarantee voters will oblige them. Indeed, if our recent history is any guide, natural perversity makes it distinctly possible that voters will act to deny the Government its wishes, or deliver far from convincing results, either way. And then, as David Cameron found out, picking up the pieces afterwards, can be utterly disastrous.

Therefore, it would be both useful for the debate and a test on how prepared the Government really is, for Ministers to be spelling out very soon what the practical consequences of voting “yes” or “no” will be for each of the referenda issues.

If there are to be changes as a result, voters will need to know in advance how and when those changes will occur so that they are prepared for them. 

Much of the confusion and chaos about Brexit emerged after the initial shock of the referendum result, once people absorbed what it meant, and as the various social, economic and political consequences for Britain have become apparent. Our Government needs to ensure that all the relevant information is gathered and made available to the public before each of next year’s referenda, so that people can make their decisions fully aware of all the positive and negative consequences of voting for or against a particular proposition.

The prime responsibility of a government in these circumstances is making sure the public has all the facts, and that it knows what its response will be, whatever the public’s choices, are. By initiating the referenda process, it has empowered the public to decide the outcomes, not merely endorse some pre-determined government positions.

So, having surrendered its mandate to the people in this way, a government has to be prepared to show itself in advance ready and able to live with the consequences of what it has set off.             

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