In praise of…New Zealand’s referenda culture

This summer, the global news media was not at all rocked to its foundations by news of New Zealand’s forthcoming referendum on a national flag.  The centre-right National Party led by John Key is in the middle of a (possibly misjudged) bid for centre-ground opinion by pursuing a symbolic rebranding of the nation. In a country with a complex colonial legacy, this is arguably opening a can of worms – but maybe a necessary one.

I’m in no position to assess the relative merits of the many flag proposals, but I am intrigued by the process. A long-list will be whittled down to present four options to voters later this year. The ‘winner’ of this first stage will be put against the current flag in a final referendum in 2016.

Elements of this thinking were seen in New Zealand’s past electoral reform referenda. In 1992, a first referendum which asked two questions (do you want the system to be changed; which scheme would you prefer if it were changed) was followed by a 1993 referendum which opposed the most-preferred AMS system (called MMP in New Zealand) to the existing FPTP. AMS won, and in 2011, it was backed again by voters in another two-question referendum presenting several alternatives.

There are critics of this sort of thing – including the academic Matt Qvortrup, who warned against a two-question referendum during the Scottish independence debate,arguing it does not create a definitive resolution. But I’d say that multi-question processes, (if not always multi-question referenda), are needed here and now to correct Britain’s tragic lack of public recognition of the diversity of choice open to the nation on any question of national importance. NZ’s habit (and it is not a rule) of two-question referenda and two-referenda processes gives a chance to show trust, to engage voters with levels of detail that are too often simplified down just to yes-or-no. I am sick to the heart of a political process that refuses give up its addiction to an artificial duality.

The writer David Boyle, recently drew attention to the way in which the BBC are even now simplifying the debate over what happens next to the partially publicly-owned banking asset of RBS into two options: either Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘nationalise it – for ever!’ and George Osborne’s ‘Sell now! Sell cheap! Sell quick!’ Other economic options, including regionalisation or mutualisation, are lost, censored out. What can we do to break such a fear of democratic creativity, this narrowing of our sights? And the online world is mired in this culture too, as we all know. Sceptical about something? Don’t just be sceptical! Slam it utterly! Decry it! Lambast it!

Everybody in British politics – whether participant or onlooker – has probably wandered down this dangerous road at some point (I include myself). But a democratic state desperately needs a political culture that embraces complex choices. And I do feel (again contrary to Matt Qvortrup’s view) that wherever possible, those choices need to be held under review. This is seen in Bristol Lib Dems’ campaign to get the law on elected mayors changed. Why? Because the state should be capable of being shaped and then reshaped by its people – that’s not just liberal principle, but a liberal and democratic principle.

Imagine a world in which, in two referenda, firstly the public were offered a range of alternate voting systems (AMS, STV, AV, AV+) and then asked to choose between the ‘winner’ and FPTP.  And then we committed the nation in law to do it all again in 20 years’ time, to review and remake our decisions. Of course, a world like that wouldn’t be a golden, shining utopia; I’ll stick my neck out and say that a liberal party doesn’t need to be a utopian party, and that all-or-nothing utopianism can dangerously constrain free-thinking about the future.

Liberalism should be promoting coherent, positive change for our citizens. But it should also be prepared for more than one thing to happen, and comfortable with the idea of voters, as non-‘experts’, being in the driving seat. Are you?

* Matthew Campbell is a member of Bristol LibDems, lives in South Bristol and works for a local authority in the South West of England. He also posts on this site as Matt (Bristol).

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  • Richard Underhill 21st Aug '15 - 11:11am

    This provides democratic improvements and options. Bristol are right to campaign in this way, because a deal with G.O. is inadequate, but the problem is the money. The Tories have lots and others have less.

  • Matt (Bristol) 21st Aug '15 - 12:52pm

    Richard – thanks for your comment.

    I need to stress that I am running two issues together – Bristol LibDems are campaigning to change the rules on elected mayors for Bristol, not regarding the 2-layer referendum (all my comments are offer as opinions on a personal basis).

    I do see that repeated referenda can potentially become a case of who spends, wins — but on the other hand, when the first referendum is consultative, it does give a chance to expose a variety of options to the voting public – hopefully before the main ‘NO!’ campagn would fire into action.

  • Richard Underhill 21st Aug '15 - 2:35pm

    Several councils have had referendums on the rate of the council tax and the consequences for spending.
    Some were ours, others hung or Labour.
    Croydon put four options into one referendum and posted notices on bus stops.
    The current legislation is biased, as Sir Humgrey said in Yes Minister,
    “If the train runs on the guidelines it will arrive at the desired destination.”

  • Living in the Republic of Ireland, I am not convinced that numerous referenda are a good thing. Ultra conservative lobbying in the early 1980s lead to the disastrous Eigth Amendment which attempted to prevent the legalisation of abortion and instead forced women to travel to Great Britain for even fetal abnormality terminations. It is, in my view, highly likely that putting referenda front and Central in British political culture will leave the UK wide open to pressure group politics. Such groups rarely get elected representatives in Ireland but attempt to drive the agenda on European issues in particular. Naturally I’d love to see AV or STV as the voting system for Parliament, but it could well be at the cost of running endless referenda on immigration or the death penalty.

  • Richard Underhill 22nd Aug '15 - 7:41pm

    Please be careful not to agree with Boris Johnson.

  • Matt (Bristol) 24th Aug '15 - 10:37am

    COlin — I do see your point; my article was not an argument for referenda per se, but that where referenda need to be used, they need to be sophisticated enough to not reduce questions to yes/no simplicities.

    Can I check whether referenda in the RoI are generally yes / no or multi-format?

    Also the RoI has a more proporitional voting system — at the moment in the UK (and still, if we had a semi-proportional system), referenda have the potential to balance out the disproportionality of the parliamentary process.

  • Matt (Bristol) 24th Aug '15 - 3:03pm

    Sorry – Con, not Colin.

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