Now here’s my take on Western democracy. Once every three, four or five years, according to where you live, you get to vote for the political party you’d like to run the country. Unless you’re a closed-minded bigot, it’s likely that you won’t approve of absolutely everything the party you voted for believes or intends to do, but you’ve got the good sense to understand that it’s a package you’re buying and not everything in it is going to please you. So you live with it and if, after those three, four or five years, you feel they’ve let you down, you vote for the other lot. Meanwhile, a significant proportion of the voting public is lumbered with a government they didn’t want at all. But they live with that too and start working to get their lot back in three, four or five years time. They don’t go around bitching that it wasn’t fair and if somebody doesn’t hold another election right away they’re going to hold their breath till they turn blue. That’s Western democracy – we elect politicians to govern us for a finite period and, unless they are corrupt, we accept that we’re going to have to wait till the end of that finite period before we can chuck them out. What the people marching through Auckland on Saturday want is to be able to hold a mini election on any issue where they feel the government has let them down. And they want the result of that mini election to be binding on Parliament. This is their definition of democracy: government by the people, in the most literal sense, but on an ad hoc basis. They’re impatient these people. They don’t want to wait for the process to run its course.
The trouble with this is that it would make it virtually impossible for governments to govern. In the interests of political stability we accept that once a government has been elected, we have to allow it to get on with the job for a reasonable period and if, at the end of that period, we aren’t happy, we can throw them out. It works. The checks and balances inherent in the system mean that, with the possible exception of the Lange/Douglas administration, we don’t have governments running amok or ignoring the will of the people. And if we aren’t happy, we can grizzle and complain and write letters to the paper and lobby and campaign to get the buggers out next time and organise petitions and referenda and protest marches down Queen Street. And the purpose of all of that is to let the government know that you aren’t happy and, if they want your vote next time, they’d better have a rethink. In that sense, I can see citizen-initiated referenda as legitimate and valuable. It’s when you start to insist that the results of those referenda must be binding on Parliament that you run into trouble. In a true democracy law-making is the prerogative solely of Parliament. What the people marching on Saturday want is to appropriate that right for themselves. The so-called ‘anti-smacking law’ is a case in point. Parliament voted, almost unanimously, to remove the ‘reasonable force’ defence in child abuse cases from the Crimes Act. Effectively it made hitting children a crime. If the results of the citizen-initiated referendum on the issue had been binding, the will of Parliament would have been frustrated. Parliament would have had to change the law on hitting children in a manner which it was opposed to. This is not democracy but the antithesis of democracy – anarchy.
Binding referenda must be either initiated by parliament or, if they are citizen initiated, endorsed by act of Parliament. The idea that any parliament would have agreed to accept either the Sensible Sentencing Trust’s 1999 referendum or the more recent referendum on the ‘anti-smacking’ law as binding is simply preposterous. Both referenda were dishonest and the wording of both made them meaningless. The designers of these two referenda were either stupid or deceitful. Not once but twice they devised highly emotive questions that effectively offered the respondent Hobson’s Choice. If you were in favour of more support for victims of violent crime you also had to be in favour of stiffer penalties and ‘hard labour’ for serious violent offenders. If you thought smacking was incompatible with ‘good parental correction’, you could not sensibly answer the question at all. Both were questions designed to bamboozle the public. And, by their wording and emotional context, they succeeded. To me Saturday was a day of shame for New Zealand. There we were telling the world that this was a country that favoured the inhumane treatment of violent offenders and, in a wonderful irony, violence against children. The driving forces behind both referenda are all men – Bob McCoskrie, Larry Balcock and Garth McVicar. I often wonder what their wives have to say about their punishment-based morality. Mr McCoskrie has expressed himself comfortable with the use of a wooden spoon to discipline a child; Mr Baldock boasted on television that he even smacks his grandchildren; Mr McVicar is in favour of chain gangs, tent prisons and even capital punishment if it could be shown to be a deterrent to homicide. He has, in my view, done more damage to New Zealand society than any other public figure I can think of. And, in the end, the march itself was dishonest, a punishers’ parade disguised as a pro-democracy protest. One can only hope that John Key has the spine not to be moved by this charade.