Contrasting The Swiss Experience With New Zealand’s MMP System
For a people to maintain the integrity of their nation’s democracy takes hard work, especially in a globalised world, where threats to freedom and sovereignty come from many directions. Today’s electronic communications present a grand scale risk to a nation’s unity and social cohesion. Modern nations are vulnerable to negative influences, especially when agitators employ social media to manipulate public opinion on important issues involving the nation’s security, unity and well-being. Politicians in New Zealand who operate under the Mixed member proportional (MMP) system face challenges from globalist (United Nations, World Bank) influence. As a rule, the government here keeps the New Zealand citizens on the outside when it comes to having a say in guiding our nation’s political activities. Under the present Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system the political parties monopolise power. They control the system and, once elected, have no need to serve the people who vote them into parliament. The MMP system fails to bring people and politicians into a shared purpose, so it cannot deliver the benefits of “Modern Direct Democracy” to our nation.
In contrast to New Zealand’s flawed representative democracy, Switzerland, with 160 years of development in its direct democracy system, empowers its citizens with the means to direct political decisions. The Swiss model and Constitution provide all voters, parties and factions with the tools to participate in the government of their country. As a result of this model, the voters and politicians co-operate to advance their nation’s best interests. The Swiss are so confident in their political freedoms that they allow majority decisions to be obtained by minorities. This happy outcome is unknown in New Zealand politics, for we lack the tools of direct democracy that bring voters and politicians into direct communication on a regular basis.
The Swiss model of direct democracy proves that losers can live with the outcome of a political contest, and still maintain their faith in the system. Their version of democracy eliminates the “monopoly rule of the politician” - for every voter has access to the processes of power. Both politicians and voters are involved in a shared democratic tradition and in productive conversations that provide for active participation in shaping policy. Their political system engages all voters in a process based on use of initiatives and referenda to instruct the parliament. The Swiss example shows how the political process can be designed to provide a direct political feed-back loop, where all participants contribute to the outcome.
Modern Direct Democracy connects voters to the levers of power. The system ensures that the lawmakers and the law serve the citizens fairly and justly. It is human nature for those whose referendum fails to consider that law is unfair but on another day their proposal may win the vote. So direct democracy provides its citizens with the means to balance the dynamics of political power.
Defining Modern Direct Democracy
Modern Direct Democracy is a participation system that gives citizen voters the right to exercise their democratic power at election time, and also between elections, by making choices on important political issues.
Direct Democracy is a political system focussed on important topics, not on personality politics and monopoly of power. It involves citizens making decisions on vital issues as well as choosing who to elect as their members of parliament, mayors and councillors. Under this system, the politicians are accustomed to serving the voters’ concerns. Both sides share the democratic mechanism that regularly communicates clear messages between the elected representatives and the voters.
Direct Democracy ensures that people have regular opportunities to assert their power of vote by deciding on important questions at ballots held up to four times per year. This ongoing public feedback on a range of issues ensures that politicians and government agencies are well-guided by electoral realities. Over time, as the Swiss system demonstrates, parliament takes care of most legislation in an atmosphere of Direct Democracy and voter interest.
Swiss history shows us how Direct Democracy empowers people and directs governments to respect the facts of shared power. In practice, there is a distinction made between top-down government policies and bottom-up initiatives brought forth by the citizens.
Top-down Government-initiated votes are called plebiscites, these measures are exclusive to the authorities. Bottom-up citizen proposals for democratic action are called referenda (singular referendum). To properly discuss direct democracy we need to maintain this distinction between plebiscites and referenda. The table below makes the point most evident.
Classification Of Popular Vote Procedures
|PROCEDURE DESIGNED TO||MAKE DECISIONS ON ISSUES||MAKE DECISIONS ON PERSONS|
(concentration of power)
|PLEBISCITE||Election of representatives|
Modern Direct Democracy in its purest definition includes procedures designed to empower citizen voters, to encourage them to make decisions on important political issues. This understanding expands into two types of voting procedures: popular initiative and popular referendum. These two methods, the popular initiative and the popular referendum, sit at the heart of any definition of Modern Direct Democracy.
The culture of direct democracy advances the procedure of voting as a personal and shared process, where voter participation in local and national affairs becomes a cultural norm. This system is an improvement on New Zealand’s MMP, where the voting day represents the individual’s moment of hope and uncertainty at the ballot box. A process held but once every three years.
In contrast to New Zealand’s MMP, the Swiss tradition involves voters in ongoing public debates, information gathering, and implementation of their decisions. For example, the process of a citizen’s popular initiative begins with a shared idea about an important issue that must be refined until it is suited for public consumption. From beginning to end of this process, people are engaged and share in political communications. The initiative does not end at the ballot box, for the decision has to be implemented in real life. The direct democracy process runs past the citizen’s vote, through the parliament and politicians’ world, and out into the nation’s shared reality.
The Tools Of Direct Democracy
- In a referendum, citizens vote yes/no on a policy or law proposed by the government.
- In an initiative, citizens vote yes/no on a policy proposed by the citizens themselves.
Popular Vote Procedures:
Type 1: Initiative
The initiative procedure represents the political right of a minority, normally a specified number of eligible voters, (in Switzerland 100,000) to approach the electorate with an issue. The nominators propose to the other citizens the introduction of a new or improved law. The decision to accept or reject the proposal is made by a popular vote.
Form 1.1 Popular or citizens’ initiative;
A given number of voters (in Switzerland 100,000) advance their proposal onto the political agenda, to allow the electorate to decide the matter. The proposal may be to adopt a new law, or repeal, or amend and change an existing law. The sponsors of a popular initiative seek a popular vote on their proposal. The initiative proposal may include a withdrawal clause. This clause allows the sponsors to withdraw their initiative in the event that parliament has meanwhile taken action to fulfil the demands of the proposal.
The popular/citizen’s initiative operates as a means for innovation and reform. Think of the initiative as a ‘gas pedal’ to progress political issues. Initiatives provide for the majority to signal their need for the parliament to enact specific laws. In practice, this method synchronises the politicians’ focus with the citizens’ priorities.
Form 1.2 Popular citizens’ initiative + authorities’ counter-proposal;
Within the framework of a popular initiative process, the Parliament also has the right to formulate a counter-proposal to the people’s proposal.
If both proposals meet the conditions to go to the voters, the decision as to which proposal is to be implemented is decided by a special deciding question. A popular vote decides on both the citizen’s and the government’s proposals at the same time.
Form 1.3 Agenda-setting initiative;
In this case a group of citizen voters can present their proposal to an elected authority such as local council or parliament. However, the decision to implement or not rests with the authority and not the voter. From a voter’s point of view this option seems to be of doubtful value.
Form 1.4; Parliamentary minorities initiative.
This is a direct democracy procedure and a political right that allows a specified minority within an authority (e.g. one third of parliament) to put forward its own proposal, and to let the people decide on the outcome by popular vote.
Type 2: Referendum
The referendum is a direct democracy procedure which permits a popular vote on any law proposed by the parliament. The voters exercise their right to accept or reject the proposed new law. The procedure is triggered by a specified number of voters (50,000 in Switzerland).
Form 2.1 Popular Referendum: (sometimes called facultative referendum)
A citizen-initiated activity is triggered by a specified number (50,000) to hold a referendum. The procedure permits the electorate to decide whether a particular proposed law or an existing law is to be enacted or abandoned by parliament. This procedure functions as a corrective to parliamentary decision making. In New Zealand’s type of MMP representative democracy the popular referendum would empower the voter to decide, even in retrospect, to accept or reject decisions made by parliament.
In contrast to the ‘gas pedal’ of the popular referendum, the popular referendum operates as ‘the brake’ to limit the power of parliament. In practice, popular referendums (like popular initiatives) are a means of moderating the politicians’ perspective with the citizens’ directions.
Form 2.2 Popular referendum + counter-proposal;
This direct democracy procedure combines a popular referendum against a decision by parliament with a referendum on a counter-proposal from parliament. If both proposals meet the requirements for ballot, voters must choose between the two by means of a deciding question.
Form 2.3 Referendum proposal;
This is the right of a prescribed number of citizens (x%...) to propose to parliament or to the local council that there be a popular vote on a specified issue. Note that the citizens’ proposal is addressed to parliament or to a local body, and the authority then decides on further action, if any.
Form 2.4 Obligatory Referendum;
Should any proposal arise to alter the Constitution, that automatically triggers this legally obligatory referendum. At present New Zealand has no written Constitution so we have no effective means of addressing essential questions about governance.
Form 2.5 Authorities minority referendum;
In this case, the minority of a representative authority (e.g. members of parliament or local councillors) can place a decision made by the majority in the same authority (parliament or council) before the voters for their approval or rejection. This enables a minority of a representative authority to appeal to the voters to ‘step on the brakes’ and restrict or accept a course of political action.
Type 3 Plebiscite:
The plebiscite has no place in controlling Modern Direct Democracy, for it represents the political power of government gained at the expense of the people’s freedom of choice.
A plebiscite, often misnamed “referendum”, is a public consultation controlled by politicians acting “from above” the voters. Plebiscites are initiated by politicians who dictate to the people when, and on what subject, they will be voting. The people have no active participation in the procedure, so it is anti-direct democracy. Plebiscites are framed up by politicians to direct the voters along a political path that is controlled by the government.
Plebiscites extend the parliamentarians (MPs) power over citizens. Politicians use the plebiscite to evade responsibility for controversial issues and to shift the political responsibility onto the voters.
The plebiscite does not represent the democratic principle. Rather it operates to entrench the people deeper under the power of those in control of the political process. New Zealand’s recent history of plebiscites, e.g. Sue Bradford’s “smacking bill” and voter’s acceptance of recreational marijuana, expose the politicians’ monopoly of power and avoidance of moral responsibility for their actions.
Form 3.1 Plebiscite (Authorities controlled popular vote);
An authority such as government or council employs the popular vote procedure to seek voter support for a particular course of action. The author of the ballot proposal and the initiator of the process are the same, i.e. government or council).
The Three Tools At The Root Of Modern Swiss Direct Democracy:
- The mandatory referendum for all constitutional changes.
- The optional/popular/facultative referendum when requested by at least 50,000 voters within 100 days after the publication of a new law.
- The citizen’s initiative for proposed new laws or amendments to existing laws.
Each example above, in the Swiss case, requires a minimum of 100,000 voter signatures, to be collected within 18 months, before they can be presented to the people for affirmation or rejection.
The New Zealand Parliamentary Experience:
New Zealanders get to vote once every three years. This represents the single opportunity when we participate in our representative democracy.
We do not get to vote on specific policies but rather on whole packages of them, presented as the policy platforms of competing political parties. Kiwis vote for individual electorate politicians (72 nationally) and on parties - but the parties select another 48 politicians (list politicians) from within their ranks.
Once those 120 politicians are elected under our MMP system, they are free to disregard the voters’ preferences for the policies and principles they presented at the election to garner votes. Our representative democracy has a serious problem when its roots are connected with politicians who manipulate power and whose betrayals erode the system’s integrity.
Consider the business analogy to explain the relationship of the voters and the elected. Voters are the employers and the politicians are our employees paid for by our taxes. After each MMP election, we voters face an employer-employee problem. We employers have no way to ensure that the employees we voted on trust will perform according to our instructions and preferences, and not act to further their selfish interests.
Once elected, and free from voter control or the need to serve the people, most politicians resist any correction or direction from those who voted for them. In contrast with the “resistant” politicians of MMP democracy, the politicians selected under direct democracy are well-motivated to serve the intentions of the voters. They are held responsible to deliver on their election promises because the voters have access to the Tools of Direct Democracy, and the nation’s political culture expects the best of all its citizens.
When politicians realise that the voters have the power to engage the initiative over parliament, they learn to consider citizens’ preferences on all issues. This desirable outcome, of positive behaviour from politicians, is a consequence of direct democracy. Politicians respect the voter’s ongoing power to engage with and to direct the political process, even if that brings challenges to the politician’s decisions or support for them, as required.
In contrast with the Swiss case, where some 14 parties together constitute the parliament, New Zealand’s MMP “representative democracy” consists of governments dominated by single-party politics. These major party groups form a government in coalition with minor parties. In turn, the political opposition is formed by parties of similar nature but lesser numbers.
Once elected, both the governing group and their opposition have no need to check with the electorate. Often the parties share an agenda that minimises the importance of the voters. That explains the intrusion of the United Nations, lobbyists, and foreign interests, to influence politicians and to dilute New Zealand’s sovereignty.
The MMP representative democracy outcome consists of package deals made among the political parties, where the voters who elected them have no say in the process. The politicians readily sacrifice their election promises and policies upon which voters made their choices. Only the politically powerful win in this game.
The forces of political expediency, deal-making, and manipulation push aside any honest politicians with the desire and decency to serve their voters. In this game, the voters are always the losers. We pay the bills, yet we are rendered powerless and frustrated by this system of politician’s democracy.
Direct Democracy minimises opportunities for political irresponsibility
The Tools of Direct Democracy allow citizens to remove the opportunities for politicians to engage in “back-room deals”. Direct Democracy brings voters to the fore, so they have the power to vote on critical matters and to guide politicians’ behaviour. Because they are exposed to citizens’ scrutiny, and controlled by the Constitutional/legal power of Direct Democracy, politicians in this system are careful in their dealings. They tend to act responsibly when serving the public interest.
Once you understand the advantages of Direct Democracy (DD) you have no reason or interest in supporting the retrograde system of MMP representative democracy. Politicians who support MMP against DD are obviously self-motivated, untrustworthy, and likely to act against the interest of the voter. The same politicians will demand high salaries paid for by voter’s taxes. Such an arrangement is abusive, bound to fail and a disgrace to human dignity and a travesty of human rights.
Now that we have the opportunity to introduce Direct Democracy for New Zealanders it must only be a matter of time and voters’ determination before we advance our nation to a better way of government.
The above information on Direct Democracy is derived with permission from information presented in the Guidebook to Direct Democracy in Switzerland and Beyond. Published 2010
Authors; Bruno Kaufmann, Rolf Buchi, Nadja Braun.
Other observations on New Zealand politics and the MMP system are from the opinions and insights of the editors.
Edits: D. K. McKenzie, Chris Newman, Direct Democracy New Zealand