Politics

Why Winston Peters is wrong on referendums

Winston Peters has a long history of pushing for public referendums on contentious issues - but Sam Sachdeva argues the NZ First leader should be more willing to make tough calls himself.

In one sense, delving too deeply into New Zealand First’s mixed messaging over a public referendum on abortion reform is an exercise in futility.

Despite Winston Peters embarrassing Andrew Little for a second time, the Justice Minister would seem to still have the numbers to get his bill through a first reading at the least, while outside of Peters’ party there seems to be no real love for putting the final decision to a public vote.

The New Zealand First leader has not always followed through on his calls for direct democracy either: despite suggesting during the 2017 campaign that referendums on abolishing the Māori seats and reducing the size of Parliament would be a prerequisite for any budding coalition partner, such commitments were mysteriously absent from his party’s final agreement with Labour.

Beyond the pure politics, though, there are reasons to be concerned about Peters’ consistent preference to shy away from tough conscience calls and instead place the burden on the public.

Referendum advocates often promote the idea that direct democracy improves the political engagement and knowledge of citizens, as well as reducing their sense of disconnection from the parliamentary process.

But the limited research which exists on the topic is mixed at best: one US study found cause for scepticism about the benefits claimed to flow from referendums, while an earlier Canadian analysis suggested they do little (although not nothing) to combat concerns about a lack of voter power.

As Edmund Burke said: “Your representative owes you not his industry only but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

When pressed on his love of referendums, Peters cries that New Zealand First seriously believes in democracy.

But relying on the public to weigh in on every politically contentious issue arguably undermines the model of representative democracy that is at the heart of our political system.

When we elect MPs, we entrust them with the responsibility to make difficult decisions for us, undertaking research that we are too busy to do ourselves and taking account of not only their constituents’ desires, but the best interests of the nation as a whole.

As Edmund Burke said: “Your representative owes you not his industry only but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Perhaps predictably, given his previous attempts via referendum to reduce Parliament to 99 MPs, Peters does not take such a rosy view.

“We do believe [that], maybe not you in the press gallery, but the remaining adults in this country are far more qualified than temporary empowered politicians - in fact, if you look around this Parliament it’s living proof that New Zealanders can take a joke.”

Winston Peters uses Brexit to make his case for referendums - but it is hardly a shining example of a well-conducted vote. Photo: Eilish Grieveson.

But it’s arguably the biggest laughing stock of world politics, the Brexit vote, that the New Zealand First leader references in support of his argument.

“You may not like a wider democracy or a broader democracy but I do: you’re speaking like the people for example in the UK, with a Brexit vote won by millions and then decided the people’s voice wasn’t worth anything, and as a consequence they’ve had three years of nothing.”

Peters is objectively wrong on the margin of victory - Leave triumphed over Remain by only 1.3 million votes - but many would take issue with his suggestion that British politicians’ implementation of the result, and not the referendum itself, is to blame for the UK’s current predicament.

The Brexit campaign was dogged by claims of misinformation and lies levelled against both sides, with the most egregious coming from Team Leave, while 47 percent of British voters now believe the wrong decision was made (against only 40 percent who back the vote).

One of the biggest problems with the Brexit referendum - the lack of clarity around what a vote to leave the EU would actually mean, and the ability for misleading claims to win the day - can be partly addressed by drafting legislation beforehand that voters can read before making their decision.

in pushing for referendums on euthanasia and abortion, Peters positions himself either claim the credit or dole out the blame depending on the vote result and fallout, and more easily peel off both red and blue voters come 2020.

But in reality, most voters are unlikely to trawl through subclauses and will instead be guided in large part by lobby groups and politicians - the very people allegedly unfit to make the final call themselves.

That is not to say that referendums are entirely without merit.

On constitutional and electoral matters where there is a degree of self-interest, such as the 1993 change to MMP, it is fair for the public rather than politicians to decide the matter, while citizen-initiated referendums provide a means for voters to send a clear message to their representatives.

But in pushing for referendums on euthanasia and abortion, Peters positions himself either claim the credit or dole out the blame depending on the vote result and fallout, and more easily peel off both red and blue voters come 2020.

Politically, it is shrewd. But should he be rewarded for it? That’s for the voters to decide.

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