Three children pictured arguing about whether the plural of referendum should be referendums or referenda

It’s raining referendums, hallelujah

New Zealanders could be getting votes on cannabis reform, MMP and assisted dying – but politicians have a bunch of questions to answer first, writes Andrew Geddis

New Zealand’s recent experience with using referendums to make decisions has all been a bit odd, really. We had a rather pointless one in 2011 on whether to retain or junk MMP, mainly because John Key inherited Don Brash’s promise that we would and couldn’t back away from it. Then we had a couple of votes in 2015 and 2016 on the flag we should use, mainly because John Key thought it would make a nice legacy project. And in between, we had a (pointless and wasteful) Citizens’ Initiated Referendum on whether National’s part-selling off the state’s power companies was a good idea.

None of these matters, I think it fair to say, really moved the electorate greatly. Sure, people formed solid reckons and took to social media to express them heatedly, but it seems that they did so primarily as a proxy for other, partisan-driven political commitments. The actual substance of the vote in question was of secondary importance for many, perhaps even most, of us.

Andrew Little’s recent musing that we may have three (three!) referendum votes – on cannabis law reform, end of life choice and electoral reform – looks likely to change that history. At least the first two of these are things normal people will care deeply about, while the third will cause political nerds to go very “squeee!”

Why, though, will we be voting on these questions at all? After all, the first two matters are the sort of “conscience” issues that MPs have decided in the past without asking the public directly; think of banning smacking, or legalising same-sex marriage. And the third, despite putative claims of a need for cross-party near unanimity, could easily be justified by the government as simply implementing what the Electoral Commission recommended.

I suspect the answer to this “why?” question lies in the core definition of politics – it’s the art of the possible. Recall that getting anything into law requires 61 votes in the House, and without NZ First’s support there isn’t a government majority in place. So, why would NZ First be wanting to have referendums on these specific matters?

Things start with the cannabis law reform issue. The post-election Labour-Green supply and confidence agreement committed the two parties to “have a referendum on legalising the personal use of cannabis at, or by, the 2020 general election.” It’s quite possible, perhaps even likely, NZ First would rather this not take place. Unfortunately, it’s agreed with Labour to “act in good faith to allow any other agreements to be complied with”. So, as with the Greens and party hopping, this is a rat they are going to have to swallow.

All sensible people who have commented on the referendum then agree that the best model would be for parliament to first consider and pass legislation setting out exactly what “legalising the personal use of cannabis” will look like, with that law only coming into effect if the public approve it. Doing this allows everyone to know exactly what it is they are voting for (or against). But taking the issue through parliament in this way will take some time – and it probably can’t be done quickly enough to allow for a referendum prior to the 2020 election.

That then requires voting on cannabis law reform alongside voting for our next government. You can see why NZ First might be worried about having a bunch of younger, socially liberal, Spinoff reading voters flocking to the ballot box in order to Free the Weed (and, while they are at it, vote for the Greens or Labour). That is not, shall we say, their natural political constituency.

Consequently, it seems likely NZ First wants something to turn out their sort of voters, too. And end of life choice (or, euthanasia, if you are not woke) provides just such a topic. David Seymour may then be persuaded that amending his End of Life Choice Bill to incorporate NZ First’s demand for its approval by a referendum is preferable to having it voted down at second reading.

Why, then, put changing the threshold at which parties can get into parliament under MMP into the voting mix? Simon Bridges’ unsurprisingly cynical explanation – that “what you’re seeing here is the minor parties in this government, particularly NZ First, worried about how they poll” – falls apart if the vote actually is going to be held at the general election. In that case, any rule change wouldn’t take effect till after the 2020 voting is done and dusted, too late to help NZ First stay in power.

It may instead simply be that NZ First is being true to its expressed principles; that matters such as voting reform should be decided by the people and not MPs. Never completely discount the idea that politicians will actually be motivated to do what they have said was the right thing to do.

However, Bridges may be a little more on the money about something else. As he also told TVNZ: “Why not have the courage of your convictions, let’s throw this out there, why not [reduce the MMP threshold to] two or three per cent? Actually let’s be genuinely democratic.”

Bloody good point, actually. For back in 2012 when the Electoral Commission recommended lowering the party vote threshold from five to four per cent (while also getting rid of the Seymour Lifeboat rule), it did so in part because: “In our view, anything below a party vote threshold of three per cent would amount to too great a departure from the balanced approach recommended by the Royal Commission and affirmed by New Zealanders in referendums.”

Well, having a public vote on changing the threshold at which parties can enter parliament gives us a change to collectively revisit this matter anew. Why not, as a people, affirm that a threshold of 2.5% – the figure recommended by some exceptionally intelligent individuals – is a better fit for the sort of open and responsive political process we would like to see? Because I agree with Simon Bridges on this matter: let’s be genuinely democratic.


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