The Government’s Referendum Bill which was reported back to Parliament last night from the Justice Select Committee is unfair and undemocratic, National’s Electoral Law Spokesperson Nick Smith says.
“The Government is playing fast and loose with referendum at next year’s election. It is manipulating the rules to satisfy NZ First and the Greens and to get the referendum result it wants.
Why bother with the expense of a referendum if the government’s ensuring the result before we vote?
“It is wrong that this Referendum Bill transfers the decision on the topics and wording of referendum at next year’s election from Parliament to Cabinet. Every previous referendum since 1853 held at a general election has been determined by Parliament.
“The Government’s justification for this change that ‘Parliament cannot be trusted’ is deeply concerning.
Many might agree that parliament isn’t to be trusted but that lack of trust will extend as much, possibly more, to Cabinet.
At least if parliament determines the process, it does so in public and not behind closed doors as Cabinet will.
“The Government’s own officials said the Bill is contrary to ‘free and fair elections’. While former MP Peter Dunne has described the bill as ‘Putin-esque’ and ‘reminiscent of the plebiscite approach adopted in countries where democracy in any form is but the thinnest of veneers.’
“It is inconsistent for the Government to be supporting a referendum on euthanasia but not on abortion, when both are sensitive life and death issues at the beginning and end of life. It is also inconsistent that Parliament is having a say on the topic and wording on the euthanasia referendum, but being excluded from any input on the referendum for recreational cannabis.
“The hypocrisy of the Referendum Bill is that it only applies to the 2020 Election. This is the Government writing the election’s rules to suit itself but not wanting any future Government to have these new powers.
If the government can’t trust future government’s with these powers, we can’t trust this one with them.
“It is also inappropriate for the Government to be setting up a new unit in the Ministry of Justice to manage and monitor the public debate on these referendum. The Government has a clear preference of outcome on these referendum and any controls on free speech need to be completely independent such as the Electoral Commission.
“National wants a consistent and principled approach. We need to respect our democratic traditions. The topics and wording of questions for referendum at General Elections needs to be subject to a proper public and parliamentary process.”
The government’s inconsistent and unprincipled approach to the process is an affront to democracy and undermines the integrity of referendums.
It’s bad enough that the government wouldn’t leave the decision on these issues to MPs who ought to have been fully informed on all sides of the debate.
That it is now undermining the process and potentially biasing the question and therefore pre-determining makes it even worse.