Northern Advocate Column

Referendums: one tool in the democracy toolbox, not always the best

18 November 2020

I used to think we should have more referendums—the binding kind, which gave politicians no wriggle room to ignore us, the people. It seemed so sensible to me, so obviously democratic. Fair decision making simply came down to the maths. More than 50% of the vote and you had a decision. This was ultimate democracy, where everyone’s voice was heard and tallied. 

The high point for me was the 1993 referendum that gave us MMP. We made the politicians do something they didn’t really want to do. And I was on the right side of history (though only by a slim margin, 53.8% voted to change our electoral system).

But later, came a low point. The referendums on changing New Zealand’s flag got really odd. Many people on the left, who you’d expect to wish the Union Jack gone, voted for the status quo because they didn’t like John Key. And choosing from uninspiring alternative designs before deciding to ditch the current flag was the wrong way about. It all got a bit silly, so I didn’t even bother casting a final vote. So much for my enthusiasm for referendums.  

Our latest referendums, on euthanasia and cannabis legalisation, got me thinking more about this democratic tool I’d once been so enamoured with. One problem with having a referendum is that once the referendum is done there’s little likelihood of having another on the same issue anytime soon. But on many issues—cannabis legalisation probably being one—different generations can think differently. So the majority opinion may shift as the years pass. Making decisions by referendum, unless we keep voting on the same issue over and over (which no one wants) doesn’t allow for the majority view to change over time. We’re stuck with the cannabis decision for a while now. For a government to ignore it would undermine the whole point of having the referendum. This tallying of “for” and “against”, doesn’t provide the opportunity for a large minority to make change that others will come to agree with, or at least accept, later. Democracy can tolerate and should allow, on occasion, minority leadership. Referendums don’t enable this, which is a weakness.  

Another problem with referendums was most clearly seen with the Brexit vote in Britain. A narrow vote for leaving the European Union imposed a decision on nearly half the population that they strongly disagreed with. The brutal maths of a decision based on a majority vote leaves no room for compromise or arriving at a consensus. Having close to 50% of the population living with a major constitutional decision they don’t agree with is going to create problems.

It’s not just countries that grapple with how to make democratic decisions. Does a company, a school, a union or a sports club make decisions via consensus or by putting things to a vote? Having a vote leads to winners and losers. It can compromise the functionality of the group, leading to splits and unhelpful antagonism. Getting consensus is a skill, it requires a different kind of leadership than calling for a vote. Building consensus requires everyone (or at least most) in the group wanting to achieve a consensus decision. Majority voting doesn’t require that you engage with the other side to reach a position somewhere in the middle. It may not encourage carefully listening to what other people have to say. 

Now I’m not advocating that we stop having referendums. It’s just that my own view of them has evolved. Democracy is a more difficult and nuanced thing in practice than I once imagined. And it isn’t a prize on its own. It’s worth asking, what are we trying to achieve with democracy? I’d argue it’s fairness, justice and equality of opportunity to lead a flourishing life. Democracy should be regarded as a set of tools, not just a hammer. With multiple tools, we construct a house (a whare) that aims to achieve the greatest human well-being and reduce any harm and suffering.

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