Referendums are expensive and routinely ignored and it's time to dump them, writes Philip Temple.

A waste of time. A waste of money. The government takes no notice. What's the point of non-binding referendums? How come we have them anyway?

In April 1993, Murray McCully, then National's Minister of Customs, introduced a bill on citizens initiated referendums. This had been promised in National's 1990 election manifesto, and he said that such polls would "profoundly change the way in which we conduct our democracy in this country". The voice of the people would be heard directly on a whole range of issues and the government would take notice.

But why was the bill introduced then and not at some time during the previous 2 years?

In September 1992 an indicative referendum had been held on the voting system: 85 per cent had voted for change and 65 per cent had voted for MMP as an alternative. A runoff between MMP and First Past the Post in a binding referendum would now be held at the same time as the 1993 election. Politicians had been disturbed at the level of dissatisfaction with the government expressed in the September referendum, and the anti-MMP Campaign for Better Government had been formed, sponsored by National Party luminaries. Offering referendums as a supposedly direct form of democracy could be a useful distraction and campaign tool.


In 1986, the Royal Commission on the Electoral System had recommended MMP as the best voting system. But it had not recommended referendums. Quite the reverse. It reported that "initiatives and referendums are blunt and crude devices which need to be used with care and circumspection ... under our present political and constitutional system, the regular use of initiatives and referendums would detract from rather than enhance the ways our democracy generally works ... the commission accordingly does not recommend that general provision be made for an initiative to compel a referendum on any issue chosen by the petitioners." From the outset, National's promotion of referendums was a snare and a delusion.

When Doug Graham, then Minister of Justice, began the third reading of the referendum bill in September 1993, he announced, "As a nation we have reached a sufficient level of sophistication to warrant the introduction of direct democracy". But the referendums would be non-binding "to ensure that Parliament has the flexibility to safeguard our rights and freedoms against referendums that produced pernicious results". Nevertheless, he believed "that we will rarely witness the rejection of a referendum result".

Labour's David Caygill was not so sure, but thought referendums could test opinion on big issues and he hoped people would be "sensible" in bringing forward petitions.

The present referendum on asset sales is the fifth since 1993. Many more failed at the first hurdle of persuading 10 per cent of enrolled voters to sign a petition. The first, at the end of 1995, asked if the number of firefighters should be reduced below the number employed on January 1, 1995: 87.8 per cent of voters said No. The second in November 1999 asked if the number of MPs should be reduced from 120 to 99: 81.5 per cent said Yes. The third, held at the same time, asked if the justice system should place greater emphasis on the needs of victims and impose hard labour for all serious violent offences: 91.8 per cent agreed. The fourth, in August 2009, asked, "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand" and 87.4 per cent said it should not.

Which of these referendums had "sensible" questions is a matter of opinion, but the results were all the same: there was an overwhelming endorsement of the referendum question's intent, and Parliament ignored them all. In Doug Graham's words, they must have produced "pernicious results".

Graham promised there would be a review of the law after five years. This did not happen. After 20 years, it is time it did.

Given the evidence so far, the legislation should be repealed. Referendums have indeed been a waste of time and considerable money, as much as $35 million. Making them binding would not solve the problem, because we do not have the kind of constitutional framework, like Switzerland, for them to work in a fashion that would not continue to produce "pernicious results".

Philip Temple is a Dunedin author and electoral commentator.
Debate on this article is now closed.