Scoop Election 08: edited by Gordon Campbell

System stacked against Baldock petition

April 30th, 2008

By Gordon Campbell
Scoop Image – Lyndon Hood
Kiwi Party leader Larry Baldock made a good point on RNZ this morning about the unfair hurdles facing anyone who wants to bring a Citizens Initiated Referendum in this country. Yesterday, the organisers of the petition for a referendum against the child discipline law were adjudged to be at least 15,000 short of the required threshold of 285,027 signatures.

Among the list of Baldock’s complaints was that this threshold is set too high. He’s right. As Dr John Parkinson of Britain’s York University explains in his comparative study of ‘Direct Democracy’ measures, the New Zealand hurdle is very high by world standards – the valid signatures of some 10 per cent of registered voters need to be gathered within a calendar year, with two month extensions. Since 285,027 is the Clerk of Parliament’s threshold, this means Baldock’s petition needed to gather 781 signatures a day, every day, for a year. “Even well funded initiatives such as the NZ Flag campaign,” Parkinson observes, “managed barely a third of that in 2004/05.”

Compare the New Zealand situation with Switzerland, which gives campaigners 18 months to gather 100,000 signatures – or just 1.75% of registered voters, at a rate of only 182 a day. On the other hand, Baldock may care to rethink his enthusiasm for California’s citizens measures. The threshold for statute initiatives may be only 5% of voters registered for the previous gubernatorial elections, but these must be gathered in just 150 days, at a rate of 2,492 a day – and while the result is binding, such statutes can be ( and regularly are) struck down subsequently by the courts on constitutional grounds.

Even if Baldock gets an extra 15,000 valid signatures over the next two months, there is a further way the petitioners could possibly be frustrated. As Parkinson says, the vote on a CIR in New Zealand has to be held within a year of a successful petition being presented to Parliament – unless 75 % of MPs vote to defer it. In May last year, the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Bill passed by a vote of 113 to 7, a 93 percent margin in a House of 121 MPs. In other words, the petition measure could easily be deferred if Parliament had a mind to do so – say, at least until the review promised by the original legislation is carried out in 2009.

One reason the MPs could cite for deferring the petition would be cost. A valid petition has to be put to a public vote within a year – which leaves the option of it being run in conjunction with this year’s general election, or separately. The 1994 firefighters petition was not held in conjunction with another referendum on crime election, had an extremely low turnout and cost $10 million to run( source : Jenny Shipley quote, in the Dominion, 18 December 1998). IF Parliament wants to guarantee a low turnout (on this non-binding measure) and thus an added reason to ignore the result, it could choose to run the referendum outside the election process.

However, if it wants to get things over with and save money, it could run the poll at election time this year. In 1999, two separate CIRs were held in conjunction with the general election, at a combined cost of $355,000. (source : Dominion 26 November, 1999).

It seems unlikely that Parliament would want to risk the undemocratic appearance of voting to defer – no matter that it would plainly be reasonable to wait until the promised review has taken place. Ironically – given the origins of the legislation Baldock opposes – he might now require a friendly MP to sponsor a private members bill to lower the unfair threshold for CIRs. Because when you put the current requirement alongside the equally unfair 5 % party vote threshold for representation under MMP, the system is patently skewed. It goes to show that politicians should not be entrusted with setting the rules for how the checks – or the cheques – are written on how democracy should operate.


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    1. 8 Responses to “System stacked against Baldock petition”

    2. By Will de Cleene on Apr 30, 2008 | Reply

      High hurdle for NZ citizens’ initiated referenda y’say? No freaking kidding. The current CIR system is a cruel sham of a democratic pressure valve. As someone who gathered signatures for the petition, I whole-heartedly agree with your post.

      From this experience, I would propose some amendments to the CIR Act:

      1) Successful CIRs will be held at general elections. If it was good enough for the wet or dry vote, it’s good enough for CIRs.

      2) Instead of the one year limit, make it a three year limit on signature collection. Doing so eliminates the mind-buggering pace of current referenda, a system which favours organisations such as churches, unions and the AA over the entire citizenship as individuals.

      3) At present, CIR signers must physically fill in the form, completing their home address details. For whatever reason, this may put off a supporter signing. Privacy, for example. No reason complete strangers should read where anyone lives. Invalid addresses make verification of signatures a statistical conundrum.

      I suggest that supporters of a CIR need only put their name and SOME form of official verification. Whether this be IRD or Passport number, WINZ client code, Driver’s Licence, Community Services card, whatever. That way, signature verification can be performed quicker and take ALL signatures into account, as opposed to statistical samples only.

      4) To counter-balance this loosening of affairs, CIR wording must be up to scratch. No waffly wishful sentiments, but stuff drafted by lawyers. The Californians have some office that tidies up the intent of referenda.

    3. By Ben Brooks on May 1, 2008 | Reply

      Personally I think CIRs are a waste of time – none of those held recently have been of much use in setting or changing government policy directions. Despite this, they have been very costly. But if you were going to make some changes the ones you suggest are also problematic.

      1) This would likely lead to the result of a CIR being held 2-3 years after confirmation that enough signatures have been collected. In many cases this would significantly undermine the cause of those promoting the CIR (the current proposed referenda are examples).

      2) It shouldn’t be a surprise that organised groups find it easier to collect signatures than other groups. Extending the time limit would increase the importance of the checks to avoid people signing who become entitled at some point later in the three year period.

      3) The problem with this is that the current rules are that enrolled voters can sign. There is a single source of information that captures both names and residence that can be used to check the signatures. Changing this would either make it easier for ineligible people to sign or require the government to do more data matching on individuals which should be a bigger disincentive to signing for those concerned about this type of thing than putting their address.

      4) Lawyers drafting would of course increase the cost. It seems to me that it’d be easier to use something more like the rules used for petitions to parliament (has to request something of parliament; has to be within the powers of parliament to do; clear; only one question/issue etc).

      But ultimately I think the CIRs are simply an expensive waste of time and effort.

    4. By Rose Ryan on May 1, 2008 | Reply

      I thoroughly agree with the above comment on the need for CIR questions to be up to scratch. The wording of the current petition (“Should a smack as part of good parental discipline be a criminal offence?”) contains some very loaded assumptions and does not, to my mind, accurately reflect the current legal situation.

      I remember being struck, on the election night at which Norm Wither’s petition had been voted on, that a group of 20 or so very like minded people who had gathered in a friend’s living room were split evenly in how they had voted. The triple-barreled nature of the question, not to mention the wording that had been used, meant that the real intent of the referendum was obscured.

      As an aside, I am very much enjoying these collumns – if for no other reason than to expand my vocabulary! (and for anyone else who didn’t know what “gubernatorial” is, the MSN/Encarta definition is below!)


      of governor: relating to, involving, or associated with a governor

      [Mid-18th century. < Latin gubernator “governor” < gubernare (see govern)]

    5. By Lewis Holden on May 1, 2008 | Reply

      Well said Gordon – this is a far more accurate analysis of the problems with CIR than most of the petitioners seem to have managed. One comment I read actually claimed the Government (i.e. the Labour Party) had influenced the number of signatures that were invalidated by leaning on the Chief Electoral Officer. Please.

      I like Will’s suggestion. I can say from personal experience with, there are a number of issues with putting down a private address. One person who signed our petition told me that they were moving in three weeks, so their address would be out of date (and hence not valid when compared with the electoral roll). Unless they’re double checking the signature’s excluded because their addresses are incorrect – which would be one hell of a task – there’s a bunch of legitimate signatures being excluded.

    6. By John on May 1, 2008 | Reply

      Yep – it is a high threshold and has been for a while. We should have a debate on both the threshold and the extent to which parliament should (must?) take note of a referendum.
      However, it behoves the organisers of petitions to know the rules and to only submit the petition when they are certain they have enough signatures. Larry Baldock and co would have been better off getting some good advice before hand and to have collected the extra signatures needed, rather than bleating about the system not being fair and querying statistical methods that they obviously don’t understand (they probably didn’t do 7th form stats).

    7. By dave on May 2, 2008 | Reply

      I didn’t do 7th form stats either, I got 50 in SC Maths and left school. I managed to understand pretty much how the statistical methods worked with a bit of research and questioning. I admire Baldock and co for doing this petition. I’m sure they`ll get the signatures and I hope they get enough that are valid.

    8. By selwyn on May 2, 2008 | Reply

      Re the Statistics: For what it’s worth Idiot/Savant says ( the issue isn’t, for example, applying a standard error against the numbers (as Bob McCoskrie has assumed) but – as far as I get it – that not just the number but the proportion of repeat signatures increases when you got from the sample to whole whole lot.

      I stopped stats in 6th form but i suspect this is more advanced than 7th.

      They petitioners say they have continued collecting signatures in the meantime just in case.

      – Lyndon (using selwyn’s login)

    9. By dave on May 2, 2008 | Reply

      The issue for most of those who object to the statistician is not the standard error – should they understood what a standard error is – but what number the standard error is calculated from based on the formula that calculates the invalids and duplicates.

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