System stacked against Baldock petition

By Gordon Campbell
Scoop Image – Lyndon Hood
Kiwi Party leader Larry Baldock made a good point on RNZ this morning about the unfair hurdles facing anyone who wants to bring a Citizens Initiated Referendum in this country. Yesterday, the organisers of the petition for a referendum against the child discipline law were adjudged to be at least 15,000 short of the required threshold of 285,027 signatures.

Among the list of Baldock’s complaints was that this threshold is set too high. He’s right. As Dr John Parkinson of Britain’s York University explains in his comparative study of ‘Direct Democracy’ measures, the New Zealand hurdle is very high by world standards – the valid signatures of some 10 per cent of registered voters need to be gathered within a calendar year, with two month extensions. Since 285,027 is the Clerk of Parliament’s threshold, this means Baldock’s petition needed to gather 781 signatures a day, every day, for a year. “Even well funded initiatives such as the NZ Flag campaign,” Parkinson observes, “managed barely a third of that in 2004/05.”

Compare the New Zealand situation with Switzerland, which gives campaigners 18 months to gather 100,000 signatures – or just 1.75% of registered voters, at a rate of only 182 a day. On the other hand, Baldock may care to rethink his enthusiasm for California’s citizens measures. The threshold for statute initiatives may be only 5% of voters registered for the previous gubernatorial elections, but these must be gathered in just 150 days, at a rate of 2,492 a day – and while the result is binding, such statutes can be ( and regularly are) struck down subsequently by the courts on constitutional grounds.

Even if Baldock gets an extra 15,000 valid signatures over the next two months, there is a further way the petitioners could possibly be frustrated. As Parkinson says, the vote on a CIR in New Zealand has to be held within a year of a successful petition being presented to Parliament – unless 75 % of MPs vote to defer it. In May last year, the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Bill passed by a vote of 113 to 7, a 93 percent margin in a House of 121 MPs. In other words, the petition measure could easily be deferred if Parliament had a mind to do so – say, at least until the review promised by the original legislation is carried out in 2009.

One reason the MPs could cite for deferring the petition would be cost. A valid petition has to be put to a public vote within a year – which leaves the option of it being run in conjunction with this year’s general election, or separately. The 1994 firefighters petition was not held in conjunction with another referendum on crime election, had an extremely low turnout and cost $10 million to run( source : Jenny Shipley quote, in the Dominion, 18 December 1998). IF Parliament wants to guarantee a low turnout (on this non-binding measure) and thus an added reason to ignore the result, it could choose to run the referendum outside the election process.

However, if it wants to get things over with and save money, it could run the poll at election time this year. In 1999, two separate CIRs were held in conjunction with the general election, at a combined cost of $355,000. (source : Dominion 26 November, 1999).

It seems unlikely that Parliament would want to risk the undemocratic appearance of voting to defer – no matter that it would plainly be reasonable to wait until the promised review has taken place. Ironically – given the origins of the legislation Baldock opposes – he might now require a friendly MP to sponsor a private members bill to lower the unfair threshold for CIRs. Because when you put the current requirement alongside the equally unfair 5 % party vote threshold for representation under MMP, the system is patently skewed. It goes to show that politicians should not be entrusted with setting the rules for how the checks – or the cheques – are written on how democracy should operate.