Condensed from Facts and Arguments about the Introduction of Initiative and Referendum by Jos Verhulst and Arjen Nijeboer, Amsterdam and Brussels 2007.
(a) Objection: They Cry, ‘Incompetence’ when referring to the average voter.
The critics say that problems are too complicated or too complex for well-considered decision making to be left to the average voter.
Answer: This argument is a rejection of democracy itself. It demeans voters as if they have no education or thinking ability.
Objection: That voters need to be acquainted with the main questions at stake.
Answer: A voter is as qualified as any politician. In Switzerland, citizens make ‘information shortcuts’ and use voting recommendations from organisations such as unions, church groups, sports groups, political parties etc. The cry of incompetence cannot be used against voters using the tools of ‘Direct Democracy’ as those same voters have to elect politicians. Are they competent in one area (electing politicians) but not in the other issues?
Critics using incompetence as an objection need to be reminded of the great ‘stuff ups’ incurred by politicians, such as altering the building codes with the resulting leaky homes debacle. (New Zealand experience)
(b) Objection: That voters lack a Sense of Responsibility;
Opposers of Direct Democracy may say that voters would vote for their own ends and therefore may lack a sense of responsibility for society as a whole; i.e. could vote to abolish or minimise taxes and at the same time increase public spending.
Answer: The reality is in Switzerland where the citizens can vote on government or council spending, they are more responsible than the politicians. Large public debts have accrued against the wishes of the citizens where there is no ‘popular referendum’ available as a check on spending.
Surveys in Germany and the USA show a stable two-thirds of the people are in favour of balanced Government budgets. A study of States in the USA shows states with lowest ‘signature threshold’ (numbers of voters signing a petition for a referendum) have 7% less state spending than States without “popular referenda.” Studies in Switzerland and the USA show that referendums on Municipal Budgets had a strong effect in reducing budget deficits.
Politicians and/or councillors in representative systems of governance never take the consequences of their decisions. i.e. Mangawhai sewage scheme or the Railways' buyback at an inflated price, or alteration to the building code with resulting leaky homes. Auckland City Rail Link will be a recent example of a spend up well over budget.
They have never paid back any expenditure that the citizens never asked for. They can leave and move on to another pasture with no personal consequences.
We the people have to take the consequences of spending and tax decisions, therefore it is only logical that we should have the ‘final’ say.
(c) Objection: That Direct Democracy could be used to oppress minorities, e.g. violate human rights.
Answer; This is another argument against democracy itself.
There is the example of the ‘Parliamentary System’ giving Hitler and the Nazi Party their power, done by Parliament even though the Nazis had a good deal less than half the electorate. In fact, Direct Democracy provides more opportunities for minorities and minority political parties to put issues into the public arena. Debate brings new insights and minorities have the opportunity of becoming majorities.
Research on Swiss Referendums held on minority rights show large majorities in favour. i.e. In practice, the threats to minorities argument does not hold up.
The Death Penalty is referred to frequently as an argument against Direct Democracy. That argument is flawed as it assumes the death penalty is never to be implemented. The death penalty has to be argued as any other issue with free and open debate. To argue that citizens have no right to argue the issue is to assume an argument against democracy itself. The Death Penalty could be possible in a purely representative electoral system as we have at present.
Are we to abolish elections because of that risk?
The facts are that two countries, Switzerland and Lichtenstein could introduce the death penalty by “popular initiative” now (2020) if the voters decided to do so. There is no death penalty in either country. It was abolished by referendum in Switzerland in 1935 for peacetime and in 1992 in the case of a wartime situation.
(d) Objection: The risk of influence by agitators and smooth talkers.
Answer; This is a further extension of the claim of the possibility of violation of minority rights. The reality is that agitators have more opportunity in a purely representative system whereby a small group of politicians dictate what happens. Citizens are swept aside and ignored. In Switzerland, political personalities play no significant role.
“Switzerland is the only nation in the world where political life truly revolves around the referendum. The country of 8 million shuns popular leaders, and the division of executive authority among the seven members of its Federal Council further discourages the politics of personality. When individual political figures do happen to rise above the multitude, it is almost always on the shoulders of a referendum campaign. Legislation in the Federal Assembly is an intricate dance of avoiding or winning a popular vote. The great political moments of modern Switzerland have occurred not in the following of bold statesmen but in the national debates that have drawn the masses to the polls to decide their country’s future.” (Kobach, 1994, p. 98)
Direct Democracy via “popular referendum” and “popular initiatives” is much more issue related, where a purely representative system is a ‘more person’ oriented system.
(e) Objection: The Power of Money.
This argument is that a lot of money can be used in a media campaign to control the debate.
Answer: The power of money in a direct democracy situation is always less than in a purely representative system which is the system we use in New Zealand. In our current system, you only have to influence a small number of politicians.
In Direct Democracy, they, the influencers, have to influence the entire population and publicly too. Further, public broadcasting media can give the issue fair and balanced debates in which supporters and opponents can receive equal opportunities to speak.
Thus, economic imbalance, if there is any can be radically reduced. Equal right to speak is legally enshrined.
Before a referendum, voters could receive an information pack (as in Switzerland) with the essence of the proposal explained and arguments briefly listed. Voting recommendations from interested groups are noted. It has long been standard in Switzerland and various states in the USA, that spending budgets of supporters and opponents of the issue are made public.
(f). Objection: Lack of possibilities for refining and qualifying the issues.
According to this argument, referendums are crude and simplistic, offering only yes or no options. In reality, Direct Democracy offers a greater possibility to fine-tune and discriminate than a representative system. There are only limited choices from political party opinion and programmes. In practice party politicians never agree with choices that voters would make. The voters never get to decide on each issue on its merits. Therefore, it is absurd for sitting elected representative members to claim a lack of refinement.
Remember, leaders of political parties usually dictate how parties should vote and that is often based on ‘horse-trading’ with other parties. If Members of Parliament could vote according to their consciences the dividing line would rarely run along party lines.
(g). Objection: That Conflict with Representative Democracy damages Parliament.
Some say that the authority of parliament is undermined by voter’s referenda, others say that the importance of politics is threatened and weakened.
Answer: It is wrong and incorrect to equate democracy only with representative democracy as if having members of parliament to represent us is the “be all and end all” of democracy. In reality, it is not representation by members of parliament but the ‘people’s sovereignty’ that is the essence of democracy. In other words, “Democratizing Democracy”
Parliament is there for democracy; democracy is not there for parliament.
It can not be said that democracy is limited so that parliament does not get its nose ‘out of joint’.
If there is always the possibility of ‘Citizen’s Initiative’s or of “popular referenda” being launched, parliament is then under pressure to legislate in accordance with the will of the people.
Those claiming that referendums damage public credibility of parliament must realise that people long ago lost faith in parliament (refer Gallup Poll 2002, 36000 people, 47 countries).
Further, in reality, most laws are still enacted by elected politicians, however, they cannot push through legislation where there is no support from the citizens and therefore, they the politicians risk a ‘popular referendum” to overturn such legislation.
They must take account of the current thinking of the citizens and build support for their proposals in advance.
What is wrong with that? Nothing!
(h). Objection: Overburdening and Voter Fatigue.
According to this argument, referenda ask too much of the voters and they become less inclined to vote.
Answer: Even if there is a low turnout that is still a greater percentage of the people voting directly on the issue compared to the number of elected representatives. It is very doubtful that in New Zealand that turnout would be low. There is a good argument that a great number of voters are itching to have a say. For instance, there was a very large turnout for the “reduction from 120 members of parliament to 99 members by reducing the number elected from the Party list”. Turnout 84.8%, yes 81.5%, no 18.5%.
There are no European or United States studies to show where a larger proportion of voters are in favour of fewer referenda.
On the contrary, the large majority of citizen’s who never vote in either a referendum or a general election are still in favour of Direct Democracy.
(i). Objection: That the phrasing of the Question can be manipulated.
According to this objection, the question in the referendum can be asked in a misleading manner.
Answer: In practice, this is mainly a problem in ‘plebiscites’, not in ‘direct democracy’. Plebiscites are non-binding popular votes that are formulated by politicians. An instance is the current government-initiated referendum on legalising non-medicinal cannabis.
In Switzerland, plebiscites by the ruling majority are not permitted.
Referenda are held within defined laws which lay down wording rules. A referendum question must be stated simply and objectively. With a ‘popular initiative’ Referendum, it is simple to establish that the initiative relates to one issue only.
Another difference between Direct Democracy and representative (Government) decision making is with representative decision making, voters are generally left in the dark about the implications of their vote. i.e. look at the last election. Voters do not know of hidden agendas.
In the case of Direct Democracy, voters have a clearer picture and almost always know precisely what they are voting for or against.
Despite this lack of openness by politicians, opponents of Direct Democracy often dishonestly claim they have to cope with ‘ambiguous’ phrasing of the question which will be put to the voters in the referendum.
(j). Objection: Conservatism or enthusiastic activists.
According to some, a referendum ensures that essential innovations are blocked because people want to maintain the status quo. Others claim exactly the opposite, that committed activists use referendums to take over democracy, because the silent majority does not mostly go out to vote.
Answer; If you examine the behaviour of politicians, they are often the ‘blockers; of modernisation. Opposition by politicians to direct democracy itself is an example. Then you have the example where politicians want to be more ‘so-called progressive’ than the citizens. An example is continual growing public spending. This increases their power, so you get budget deficits and greater public debt.
A study of referenda practice in Switzerland and the USA shows that conservative and progressive groups have varying success with referenda. Claims that committed activists can hijack direct democracy have little substance. Swiss and American experience shows that voters are extremely cautious. Also, when voters are unsure, they tend to vote against the question in a “popular” Citizen’s Initiative Referendum.
On the other hand, committed activists and lobby groups have a greater chance to hijack the representative system.
They only have to persuade a smaller number of politicians.
(k). Objection: That there are better instruments than the ‘Binding Referendum’.
When confronted with the clamour for Direct Democracy the first response of politicians is to ignore it. When a time comes when they can no longer ignore the clamour, the politicians look for alternatives to show, ‘yes ‘they are not deaf to peoples demands. They look for alternatives that are not as threatening to them as ‘Binding Citizen’s Initiatives.
They look for ‘so-called’ better solutions, better options.
Answer: In Belgium, they came up with ‘citizen’s panels’ and ‘citizen’s surveys’ - A device to gauge people’s opinions without taking away the politician’s powers.
Citizen’s panels give people only a quick snapshot of an issue. Binding Referenda give much more opportunity for opinion-forming because at the end of the debates people have to vote one way or the other.
(l). Objection; That BCIR is a ‘danger’ to the country. Who’d a thought it??
This argument is often cited in Belgium. Here at this juncture, we must note that you would expect that the state is there for the people, and not ‘the people are there for the state’.
Answer: If the state can only exist by suppressing the development of democracy then the state has no right to exist in its current form. It is clearly not what the people want. Language and ethnic differences in Switzerland have not proved to damage federal unity. French-speaking Swiss voted to join the European Union in 1997. The German-speaking did not and produced a narrow majority result against joining. No problem there.
About the authors:
Jos Verhulst has a PhD in Quantum Chemistry from the University of Leuven, Belgium. His other studies include philosophy and economics. He is the co-founder of Democratie.nu, the Belgian movement for direct democracy.
Arjen Nijeboer studied Journalism and Communications at Windesheim College, Zwolle, the Netherlands and International Relations at the University of Amsterdam. he is the co-founder of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe and the Referendum Platform.
Edits and New Zealand examples added by Don McKenzie, Direct Democracy New Zealand.