Referenda and Human Rights

So recently I stumbled across a site advocated binding citizen-initiated referenda. This is an issue I’m really conflicted over. Basically, they want multiple referenda each year that the government is required to follow on contentious issues- so most of the issues that are today considered a conscience vote, where MPs do not have to vote along party lines, would instead be put to referendum.

On the one hand, I believe that in terms of experimenting with economic policy and social initiatives, public opinion is a very useful guide, and overwhelming public opinion should be respected. This is part of why a proportional system like MMP is so important to New Zealand politics- it ensures that the values represented by the various parties are as close to proportionally weighted in parliament as they are in wider society. It is also excellent that the select committee process is so much more important under MMP, and that citizens have the opportunity to point out flaws in legislation that MPs may have missed, or are simply more evident to specialists in a particular field. This wider consultation benefits everyone.

On the other hand, as The Greens rightly pointed out during the Section 59 repeal debate, human rights are non-negotiable. A person may not sell themselves into slavery, argued a famous philosopher. A population ought not to tyrannise itself, even if the majority agrees to it. Even if the majority of the public thinks it is okay to hit children, or to deny women the vote, or to legally persecute people based on race or sexuality, these people have no right to force their bigoted opinions onto those who really feel the result of that sort of discriminatory law. While the majority might have some interest in seeing these rights repealed, they are far less fundamentally effected by such laws and thus their opinion does not merit equal status. New Zealanders may by and large be reasonable people, but that doesn’t mean they’re perfectly informed, nor that they are uninfluenced by arguments that lack respect for human rights and social well-being.

These sorts of arguments for binding referenda can easily run aground of women’s rights and men’s rights. Imagine if a law on breastfeeding came to public referendum- it would take just a few women not considering it important to allow it to be overwhelmed by men, even though they were completely unaffected by the issue. It’s not a matter of men being unreasonable, either- just that they don’t experience these issues themselves and thus have much less incentive to be tolerant of them.

I feel that no referendum has the right to propose the repeal of any human rights, especially the basic ones like freedom from violence or abuse. This holds whether the referendum is binding or not. The fact that the referendum on sanctioning mild parental abuse has been approved with its almost tautologous wording* should be of great concern to New Zealanders, and not a cause for celebration of the public opinion.

*(during “good parental practice” could mean almost anything, including taking out your anger on a child without realising you’re doing so)

Referenda are an incredibly powerful tool, and I fundamentally agree that issues should go to referendum, and that there should be much more pressure on politicians to follow the results. But Parliament is an important block on making sure that we are not entirely a mob rule. We elect high-profile individuals who present a set of principles, that we attempt to hold them to account on. These individuals are an excellent check on the mob rule that would result from purely direct democracy, and sometimes it is necessary that they overrule us if we are disregarding very important principles.

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