10/07/2007 - 22:00

Democracy's a nice idea...but

10/07/2007 - 22:00


Save articles for future reference.

A long weekend on New Zealand’s beautiful south island is something I’d always recommend.

A long weekend on New Zealand’s beautiful south island is something I’d always recommend.

That’s a view I held well before visiting this exquisite corner of the world for a second time last month; this time to speak on democracy at the now-famous Summer Sounds Symposium, held in picturesque Blenheim – New Zealand’s wine capital – and organised by leading Kiwi author, Amy Brooke.

Attending were academics, journalists, writers, entrepreneurs, a leading Christchurch publisher, and several former Kiwi MPs, including Don Brash, NZ National Party leader from 2003 to 2006 and governor of his country’s Reserve Bank between 1988 and 2002.

At the September 2005 election, Dr Brash came within one seat of toppling Helen Clark-led Labour, but he’s now left the political stage.

That said, strange things can happen when preparing for such trips, with the strangest, in my case, involving currency exchange.

Less than 12 hours before leaving, I decided I needed 100 Kiwi dollars so as not to be caught without local cash on arriving in Christchurch.

I was somewhat surprised to find that, to get that $NZ100 here, I had to pay $A100 plus 35 cents.

“I could have sworn the exchange rate a few days ago was one Aussie to $1.14 Kiwi,” I told the teller.

“Oh, there’s an $8 fee for each transaction,” she replied.

However, my currency conundrum became more puzzling two days later when I handed over $A150 at a Christchurch bank and received exactly $NZ160, which included the fee.

That meant I’d received just more than $NZ106 for $A100, compared with slightly less than one-for-one in Perth.

Why the disparity?

Naturally, I’ll now tell NZ-bound Aussies never to change their cash until they’re there, otherwise they’ll be well and truly clipped in Perth.

Probably better advice would be for Australia, (population 21 million) and NZ, (population four million) to establish a common currency, one that could be called the ANZAC.

After all, the Australian-NZ Closer Economic Relations (CER) Treaty was signed in 1983 to cover trade in goods, and later trade in services plus business regulations.

One of the former MPs at the symposium, now a practising lawyer and company director, said his firm had recently acquired and now leases out aircraft that are presently being used over Australia since, under CER, Kiwis and Aussies may now operate in each other’s skies.

The company bought four mothballed Boeings parked in the Arizona desert.

“The air frames were excellent,” he said.

“All we had to do was install new engines and outfit them as cargo carriers.

“All are now leased, with one flying into Perth every night.”

But back to the symposium.

My talk – titled “Does electing politicians make us a democracy?” – considered a question often highlighted in State Scene, namely, just who is calling the legislative shots under our so-called representative government system – the politicians or the people?

Long-time State Scene readers will know this column has argued regularly and often that so-called representative government, or representative democracy, too often puts the people’s views way back to the end of the queue.

A good recent local example of this is WA’s three daylight savings referendums of 1975, 1984 and 1992, all of which showed solid majority opposition to what many now call “daylight sweating”.

Notwithstanding the results of those referendums, failed Liberal leader, Matt Birney, and failed ex-Labor minister, John D’Orazio, were able to team-up to launch an undemocratic campaign to gain parliamentary backing to impose daylight saving.

Another equally blatant case of such illiberal conduct was Treasurer Eric Ripper’s recent claim that the February 2006 referendum that solidly rejected extending shopping hours should be reconsidered, which actually meant he wanted the majority vote overturned.

My talk highlighted certain constitutionally enshrined procedures in Switzerland and 34 American states, where the will of the people takes precedence over undemocratic politician-initiated fads.

These states have varying combinations whereby the people can initiate constitutional and legislative changes, including the ability to block moves by their parliaments whenever specified proportions of voters – generally between 3 per cent and 10 per cent – back citizen-initiated calls for referendums.

In other words, the will of the people – the majority – takes precedence over what a tiny group of politicians may undemocratically want for reasons best known to them.

Not only are such constitutionally enshrined procedures absent across Australia, but WA’s 1983 Referendum Act was written to allow politicians to ignore majority voter decisions, making it the most undemocratic piece of legislation ever enacted by any parliament.

Swiss and American-style democracy is something that institutionalises bottom-up or real democracy by permitting the people to initiate and/or block legislation; something our politicians would have a fit about.

No fewer that 18 of America’s 50 states have what’s called constitutional amendment initiatives, meaning a constitutionally defined petition process whereby their state constitutions can be re-written, added to or amended if the people wish.

Since constitutional law cannot be altered by state parliaments, this direct or real democratic right gives the people an automatic superiority over politicians in 18 US states.

In Switzerland, if 100,000 voters sign a referendum petition within an 18-months period calling for constitutional change, a nationwide referendum must be held on that question.

And no fewer than 21 American states extend the same right to their people for the initiation of ordinary laws, that is, statutes.

Although Switzerland is without statute initiative it has, along with 24 American states, a blocking or veto initiative, meaning if a set number of voters petition for a referendum and the majority backs the petitioners’ call, a law just passed by parliament is revoked.

In Switzerland’s case, only 50,000 signatures need to be collected over 100 days for a referendum to be held to block bills.

If this existed in WA, Messrs Birney’s and D’Orazio’s “daylight sweating” bill would never have seen the light of day.

And just to let politicians know who’s the boss in a real democracy, 18 American states have a constitutionally enshrined recall process, under which elected officials can be forced to face another special election if a set number of voters petition for it.

That, incidentally, is how Arnold Schwarzenegger replaced his incompetent Democratic predecessor, Gray Davis.

If this existed here, it is unlikely Mr D’Orazio would be an MP now.

What all this means is that 34 US states have at least one of these direct democratic procedures. That leaves 16 states without any such procedure, that is, they’re like primitive and undemocratic WA.

Seven states – Arizona, California, Colorado, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, and Oregon – have all four democratic components.

Although State Scene can truthfully report that most at the symposium seemed favourably disposed towards greater or real democracy, I failed to win over two of the former Kiwi MPs, as least for the time being.

On returning home an email awaited me.

“Joe, I enjoyed meeting you in Blenheim at the weekend,” one of the ex-MPs wrote.

“And though, like most politicians, I recoil from the ‘full frontal version’ of your direct democracy, I certainly understand your arguments, and will give them further careful thought.”

Let’s hope his promised “careful thought” eventually results in him backing what he calls a “full frontal version” of democracy that exists in Switzerland and so many American states, but not in primitive and undemocratic NZ or WA.



Subscription Options