Guest post by Axel Wilke
Let it be known that I’m not a fan of referenda. Or referendums; whichever version of the plural you prefer.
It’s a fickle way of making very important decisions. Brexit anyone? Notable referenda in New Zealand include the change to the electoral system. While there was a strong preference for change in the 1992 referendum, the binding referendum held in 1993 was a close call at 53.9% support. This was due to strong public lobbying by well-financed interest groups. Parliament has decided that next year, we will have a binding referendum on euthanasia as part of the general election.
And before anybody interjects, referenda can be a useful way of decision making, as evidenced in Switzerland. But they use referenda so frequently (550 times since 1848) that it influences the entire political system of that country. In my view, they are the exception.
My issue with referenda, especially binding ones, is that you place decision making power in the hands of people who often know little, if anything, what they are voting on. The more complex the issue, the bigger the concern. And with increasing complexity comes more scope for influential interest groups to sway the voters with emotive arguments.
A far more effective form of deliberative democracy is citizens’ assemblies. My guess is that most people wouldn’t even know what they are as they haven’t been used in this part of the world; they have been used in some European countries and in Canada.
It’s where a group of citizens representative of the makeup of society is randomly selected. The group deliberates a topic, guided by trained facilitators with experts providing subject matter input. It’s used for complex issues and citizens’ assemblies may deliberate for many months. Out of that comes a majority recommendation by a well-informed group. Even if the final decision rests with parliament, it’s a useful way of empowering elected members to go with a majority recommendation on hugely controversial issues. For example, this is how abortion became legal in Catholic-conservative Ireland earlier this year.
Citizens’ assemblies is something that we should explore in New Zealand for complex decisions.