Steve Baron: Another referendum, another ignored result

Whanganui MP Chester Borrows to suggest people are not voting because 'we are all a pretty apathetic bunch'.
Whanganui MP Chester Borrows to suggest people are not voting because 'we are all a pretty apathetic bunch'.

Ain't democracy wonderful; we've just decided who will run our local council and now we get to decide if the Government should sell up to 49 per cent of Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power, Genesis Power, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand, in a referendum?

Well, no actually ... those politicians we elected in 2011 were evidently sprinkled with magical dust which makes them far more intelligent than the rest of us. They have the power to ignore any citizens' initiated referendum they choose - something they have so far done on every such referendum that has been held. Elitism has triumphed over collective wisdom - the Prime Minister and a dozen or so Cabinet ministers know better than three million New Zealand voters.

I for one do not subscribe to that theory. Over the years I have seen far too many bad decisions by government. Anyone remember Think Big?

It came as no surprise to me that enough signatures would be collected to trigger this referendum - a huge effort from those involved, given the thresholds required.

Personally I don't think the Government has any business running these businesses but that is only my opinion, which isn't important. What is important is what the majority of New Zealanders want. Knowing the Government can and will ignore the result will probably have a huge effect on this referendum, especially since Meridian has now been sold. The turnout will probably be very low.

Another disturbing aspect of citizens' initiated referendums is that the Government, through the Electoral Commission, has made no attempt to educate or inform voters of the pros and cons of this referendum issue. Under present law, the Electoral Commission is only permitted to send voters a voting paper and information on the voting process - not on the issue of the referendum. If we are to take our democratic system seriously and ensure voters are fully informed, it would seem to me to be vital that the Electoral Commission be empowered to produce official referendum material which explains both sides of the issue in a balanced, informative way.

I would point out that in Switzerland all voters are provided with an official referendum pamphlet posted at least three months before the referendum. Studies have shown that voters rely heavily on such information, along with cues from people and organisations they trust. Such a pamphlet would enable voters to become more informed which then allows them to debate the issue among friends, family and workmates.

It is easy for political pundits and politicians like Whanganui MP Chester Borrows to suggest people are not voting because "we are all a pretty apathetic bunch", but a rational voter is quite justified in coming to the conclusion that voting is a waste of time. Maybe we expect more from our political system than casting one vote every three years and when we are not given the opportunity to mould our own destiny in specific referendums, we give up in disgust? Democracy is not just about "elect me, I know what's best for you", it's about having a say on the real issues that often affect us directly. The same can be said when it comes to conscience votes in Parliament - who cares what John Key or Chester Borrows thinks? What is important is what the majority of their constituents think.

The Government is not taking our democracy seriously. So, all you politicians down in Wellington, don't belittle us by denying us our democratic rights and do not assume we are apathetic and ill-informed. Dwell on the words of President Thomas Jefferson: "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education."

Steve Baron is a political scientist, founder of Better Democracy NZ and co-editor of the book.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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