Only two changes to New Zealand law, proposed by referendum, have actually been
implemented since 1990. In the 12 referenda voted on over that period, none have been both supported by the government of the day and implemented.
The end of life choice and cannabis legalisation votes may see this poor record change, but the prospect for future citizen votes like these seems low.
The two winning votes were those held on MMP in the early 1990s. The then National
Government held these, based on an election commitment to do so, but most in the Government then did not support the change.
The biggest struggle that advocates for these 12 ballots have faced has been getting governments to enact the result. Kiwis supported eight of the 12 proposals, usually overwhelmingly, but five were not implemented by the respective governments.
Most of these were citizens' initiated referenda (CIR) legislated by the National government in 1994, where citizens could propose and win support for a referendum on an issue.
In 1995, Jim Bolger's Government did not support plans to reduce firefighter numbers despite the 88 per cent who voted in favour. Helen Clark's 2005 Government rejected the vote of the 81 per cent who voted to reduce the size of Parliament from 120 to 99 MPs and also that of the 92 per cent who supported a vote on justice issues to, amongst other things, impose minimum sentences and hard labour.
In 2009, John Key's Government did not support the 87 per cent who said a smack should not be a criminal offence or the 67 per cent who opposed his Government's partial privatisation approach.
Other government-sponsored referendums failed because of a lack of support. The plan to extend the term of Parliament to four years was defeated in 1990; as was the 1997 compulsory superannuation plan; the attempt to dispatch MMP in 2011; and the effort to change the flag in 2016.
The CIR votes suffered from not picking issues persuasive to the government of the day.
The government-led votes failed mainly due to the government involvement.
End of Life Choice and cannabis legalisation do not suffer either of these challenges.
Jacinda Ardern likely supports the cannabis legislation. In 2009, she was one of only 34 MPs to support then Green Party Leader Metiria Turei's cannabis reform private members' bill. But this time, perhaps reflecting the flag referendum conundrum John Key experienced, she refuses to be drawn on it.
Recent polling shows falling support for cannabis legislation but, if it passes, a Labour-led government would progress the proposed legislation. National has committed to taking it to select committee.
The Prime Minister quietly supports end of life, however she is happy to leave David Seymour to take the political leadership. Judith Collins supports this issue too and, if this vote succeeds as polls currently indicate it will, it will become New Zealand's first referendum in 30 years to be supported by the government that proposed it and also actually implemented.
Pre-Covid 19, referenda were on the rise around the world. The Guardian recorded numbers tripling from 1970 to the 2000s. A UK study said increased uncertainty and political leaders' uncertainty over what voters wanted were driving this.
Despite the even less certain times we live in, the results of New Zealand's referenda decisions seem unlikely to foreshadow a new dawn of referenda-led decision making here.
Governments (be they central, regional or city) dislike giving away the power, using them only if forced to, or if they think the result will support their proposal.
The experience with New Zealand governments ignoring citizens-initiated referenda results and the huge effort and expense needed to get the requisite 335,000 signatures to get on the ballot has not seen one for 10 years.
Whatever your opinion of end of life choice or legalising cannabis, enjoy the experience. We may not see their like again anytime soon.
• Mark Thomas leads a smart cities' business.