Saturday, March 24, 2007

Lucia Leave Referendums to Dictators

Last week, on Friday March 16, 2007, Chris Trotter had a delightful piece published in the Dominion Post manly how the average pleb in the street cannot be trusted with deciding the fate of such important pieces of legislation such as the Repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Acts - aka the Anti-Smacking Bill.

I'm sure ZenTiger will have something to say about it, so I'm saving it here for posterity - just in case it vanishes from the Stuff website sometime in the future.

Leave referendums to dictators
The Dominion Post | Friday, 16 March 2007

Judy, Judy, Judy, as Cary Grant apparently never said to Rita Hayworth in Only Angels Have Wings. Not to worry. If the impossibly suave Mr Grant never actually delivered his most memorable line, I will. Not to Rita Hayworth, of course, but to United Future MP Judy Turner.

Because what Cary did or did not say isn't really the point. The point is how he didn't say it: which was in a sort of descending glissando of disappointment that shows precisely my reaction to list MPs who publicly repudiate the very representative functions they were elected to fulfil.

So. "Judy, Judy, Judy, what on earth possessed you to introduce an amendment to Sue Bradford's private member's Bill requiring the issue of smacking to be decided by referendum?"

And not just any old sort of referendum either, but a referendum in which more than 60 per cent of the eligible voting population must have participated, and in which 60 per cent of those participating must have voted affirmatively.

Coming from an MP representing United Future – which, having received just 2.7 per cent of the party vote, nevertheless felt justified in vetoing the Cabinet participation of a party with 5.3 per cent of the party vote (the Greens) – this sudden conversion to the cause of direct democracy seems a trifle out of character.

Never mind. Let's accept that Judy's personal political credo holds direct democracy superior to representative democracy.

What, then, are the implications of government by referendum?

The referendum's most serious drawback as a mechanism for making important political decisions, especially on questions that involve a high degree of evidential and ethical complexity, is that it imposes upon those ultimately charged with deciding the issue not the slightest obligation to behave with diligence or integrity.

There is simply no way of gauging whether the citizen who enters the polling booth has devoted one month, or one minute, of thought to the referendum question: or whether he or she has read any of the relevant literature, or questioned any of the acknowledged experts. We cannot discover if they have a vested interest in the outcome, and haven't the slightest hint concerning their character. The citizenry's "Yes" or "No" vote is cast in secret: possibly after the most serious deliberation; but, equally possibly, out of the most appalling prejudice – we have absolutely no way of knowing.

Now, it may be objected that all of the above applies with equal force to general elections. Which is true. But with one crucial caveat. At a general election, the electorate merely decides who shall decide – it makes no decisions itself. What's more, having made their choice, voters are afforded all the opportunities for scrutiny and judgment of the decision-making process that referendums deny.

Our system of representative democracy means that on contentious issues – like whether or not it should be lawful to forcefully correct a child – citizens can rest safe in the knowledge that the matter will not be decided on a whim.

In the case of the "Anti- Smacking" Bill, every MP has been subjected to the most intensive lobbying. The matter has been debated at length in party caucuses. A select committee has studied copious evidence, and heard the expert testimony of many dispassionate witnesses as well as the passionate opinions of numerous partisans. Committee members then drafted and distributed a report for the guidance of their colleagues.

Most importantly, every member of the House of Representatives has been required to declare their final judgment on the Bill by voting for or against it in public. If the electorate disapproves of the result, it has the opportunity to remove offending MPs in 18 months.

An errant citizenry is not removed so easily.

It's a sobering fact that referendums and plebiscites are among the most-valued political tools of demagogues and dictators. Why? Because they convey the impression of democracy, while simultaneously suppressing the very behaviour that gives democratic decision-making its legitimacy.

If there had been a clear majority against Sue Bradford's Bill, would Judy Turner have introduced her amendment? I suspect not. Had the numbers been in her favour, I suspect Judy's faith in representative democracy would have been undimmed.

But even then, Judy would have failed in her understanding of what it means to be a true representative of the people. Because, in her haste to uphold the "rights" of parents, she would have forgotten that children – like Jews and blacks – are people too.

Related Link: Stuff

1 comment(s):

ZenTiger said...

Yes indeed. Chris writes such leftist tripe, I feel duty bound to say something to bring some balance back to the world.

Selective Democracy

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