June 10, 2009
Republished from the Otago Daily Times 10 Jun 2009
By Simon Cunliffe
SO Rodney Hide wants us to decide everything by referendums? Or at least make our local spending decisions this way.
I might be inclined to go some of the distance with him – if referendums are going to work at all, then it is probably on black or white local issues – if it weren’t for the fact that the suggestion comes packaged in an agenda straight out of the Act New Zealand manifesto: privatisation is good, local government bad, so let’s reduce the latter to its bare minimum – roads and sewage, primarily – and sell off, or contract out, the rest of it.
The corollary is that common enterprise, shared ideals and the very notion of community get lost.
What could be more democratic? Let the people decide, direct action, participatory democracy and all that stuff. Curious how Mr Hide and the Government weren’t even able to countenance a select committee process for the changes to the Auckland Super City arrangements, let alone a referendum. Let’s call it democracy when it suits.
I’m not a huge fan of citizens’ initiated referendums on national issues, because to date the experience is that the questions at the centre of them – addressing complex social issues – are either so broad or so narrow as to be essentially meaningless, or hopelessly loaded, or both.
Norm Withers, deputy mayor of Christchurch, got a gong in the Queen’s Birthday honours the other day. Good on him. A deserving candidate for an MNZM for his long services to sport and to the community. Mr Withers hit the headlines in 1997 when his mother, Nan Withers, was brutally assaulted during a robbery of his menswear store.
He mounted a citizens-initiated referendum, and anyone who recalled the pictures of his badly beaten mother would have signed it without a second thought. In fact, such was the manner in which it was phrased that most people would have signed it regardless. At the 1999 election, 92% gave it the big tick.
The question read: “Should there be a reform of the justice system placing greater emphasis on the needs of victims, providing restitution and compensation for them and imposing minimum sentences and hard labour for all serious violent offences?”
You had to say “yes” or “no”. But to what, exactly? Yes, reform always sounds like a good idea (except when you have to pay millions for some ill-defined proposition of what kind and how much); yes, victims should get more consideration and, yes, probably some restitution and compensation (but, hang on, don’t the courts already have the power to order that, and is it going to raise my taxes?); and imposing minimum sentences, yep, that sounds sensible too (if they don’t already do that); and hard labour for all serious violent offences (however they might be precisely defined) sounds like those jolly good old-fashioned black and white movies where convicts broke up rocks from dawn till dusk on the chain gang. Excellent.
I’m not knocking Norm, nor his supporters, for the sincerity of their efforts, but a lump of jelly has more definition than the question that went out to the electorate on that occasion.
The question for the impending August referendum on the amended S59 of the Crimes Act, removing the defence of reasonable force in cases where parents have assaulted their children, is seriously flawed for a different reason.
The question is: “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?”
Call me stupid, but surely this phraseology is a teensy bit loaded. That is to say, the whole debate is around what constitutes appropriate parental correction. By inserting the word “good” in the question, the referendum both asks the question and answers it – at least for those who haven’t already made up their minds.
It presupposes a smack is good and in so doing makes a mockery of the whole idea of impartial referendums and direct democracy. What is more, it is going to cost the country $10 million, the result will be non-binding, and it pre-empts a two-year Ministry of Social Development review of how the law is working by just a month or two.
In 2007, Parliament, having considered the amendment in great depth – and adapted it to deal with claims the new law would criminalise ordinary parents – passed it by a majority of 113 to 8.
Rodney’s mob, pin-up party for referendums – and, it could be argued, for the rights of parents to assault their children with impunity – in its wisdom voted against it.
- Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor of the Otago Daily Times