Members of Parliament are elected to make laws. As taxpayers, we pay salaries to enable them to do that. We assign our democratic power to MPs across the political spectrum to represent our interests as a sovereign nation. In return, we expect that they will consider the views of their constituents (us) when they cast their votes.
Surely, the whole point of elected representatives is that it's their job to make laws on our behalf. It's not our job to make decisions that they could (and should) make after three rounds of debate in Parliament. Yet, more and more frequently it seems that our elected officials are wary of showing the kind of leadership that we vote them in to display, instead preferring to defer their responsibility in favour of referenda. To me, throwing contentious issues to a public vote is arguably a cowardly exercise in buck-passing.
Referenda are costly and time-consuming. The ridiculous waste of time that was the flag referendum reportedly cost us $26 million and many months of stupefying national conversations about which national tea towel to vote for or against. Other referenda have asked the populace whether the number of firefighters should be reduced (unsurprisingly, the response to that was an overwhelming "no"), whether there should be a compulsory retirement savings scheme (again, "no"), and whether to retain the MMP system ("yes") among others.
This week, Winston – as he is wont to do – threw the cat among the pigeons (and his coalition partners under the bus) and suggested that abortion law reform should be put to a referendum. Completely blindsiding Tracey Martin, the New Zealand First minister who'd been tasked with (successfully) negotiating the proposed legislation with Andrew Little, Peters and the New Zealand First caucus suggested that instead of supporting the bill put forward by their coalition partners, they'd require a binding referendum on abortion.
It's an unsurprising and disappointing move that smacks of wanting plausible deniability with the New Zealand First conservative base. Legalising abortion is one of the more controversial political issues – although the majority of New Zealanders support safe and legal terminations – and passing the buck to voters allows politicians to throw up their hands and accept no responsibility, regardless of the outcome.
Why on earth would we want another referendum – adding to a referendum on cannabis law reform and a likely referendum on euthanasia – when we already employ politicians to make such decisions on our behalf? What will happen next – politicians will call for a referendum every time an issue comes up that might have the potential to threaten their re-election? We'd be having referenda every day. A Parliament that operated on that basis would be an enormous waste of time and money. The only potential benefit to holding more frequent referenda would be keeping the sagging New Zealand Post afloat.
Frivolous referenda aren't only wasteful, they also encourage and embolden extreme views, starkly dividing the population in the process. Overseas, one of the most notable and notorious referenda in recent memory was held in Australia in 2017 to determine whether or not the electorate supported legalising gay marriage. During the plebiscite campaign, ugly homophobic rhetoric dominated the media and public discourse for months. While love may have won in the end, the LGBTQ+ community had to endure months of nasty and invalidating conjecture to get to a conclusion that could easily have been reached inside Parliament buildings, had Australian politicians not been so gutless.
By contrast, New Zealand managed to legalise marriage equality without throwing a hospital pass to the public (and a wave of abuse to the rainbow community). Politicians debated the issue in the House, as they're paid to do, and they then voted. That's their job. That's the way that our democracy has been set up. We vote and elect people that the majority can agree with, then they vote on the issues of the day to create legislation that the majority can get on board with. Rightly or wrongly, that's the system we created, and that's how it's meant to operate.
Throwing contentious issues to the public should only happen in extreme circumstances, or in situations when politicians could be accused of voting according to their own conflicting interests, such as when determining the length a term of Government should consist of. There were two referenda on that issue, for the record, and on both occasions (in 1967 and 1990) the voting public agreed to retain the current three-year term.
Winston Peters lashes Labour over abortion law reform
Jacinda Ardern plays down Winston Peters' criticism on abortion law reform
Hosking: Winston again pulls the wool over naive Labour's eyes
Referenda are an essential democratic tool that should be used only sparingly. Calling for them willy nilly when the political kitchen gets too hot should be discouraged and penalised by the electorate. If MPs don't feel like they have a mandate to make difficult decisions on behalf of their constituents, why are they in the House in the first place?