Today Winston Peters made a public statement that NZ First would not be voting in support of the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill. This was not because the NZ First necessarily opposes the Bill, but because, to quote Peters:
“NZ First… wants a public referendum to decide the issue. We believe issues such as this should be decided by trusting the people of NZ to decide rather than to leave it to temporarily empowered MPs.”
I understand that when you belong to NZ First, being only “temporarily empowered” must always be at the forefront of your mind. But it is clear that MPs abusing their power as democratically elected leaders is not NZ First’s motivation for demanding a referendum. Instead, it is painfully clear the real reason behind this stance: cowardice.
Let’s start off with the obvious: representative democracy. The basic premise of representative democracy is that it is unworkable for decision-makers to consult with the wider public on every issue so we elect a smaller number of people to represent our views and make decisions on our behalf. A system in which decision-makers go back to the public on every issue is known as direct democracy. New Zealand does not have this system. Instead, every three years we elect 120 MPs to act on our behalf, spend some of our money, and make decisions that promote the rights and well-being of all citizens. We do this in the belief that this model is more desirable than requiring them to consult on every issue that comes before Parliament. In this system, temporary empowerment and accountability through elections are generally seen as good things. Dictatorships are not.
While this is the basic premise of representative democracy, it does not mean once MPs are elected they have a free reign to do as they wish until the next election. They should be regularly gauging public opinion and ensuring they are acting in the interests of the people. However, referenda are often a bad way to go about this, and referenda are especially bad ways to go about this when the issue in question is of some importance to all New Zealanders but of heighted importance to a minority of New Zealanders. In other words, a referendum should be a last resort and should almost never be resorted to when we are looking at a minority issue.
There are many reasons I believe referenda are an undesirable way of gauging public opinion. They are blunt: they over-simplify often complex questions and insist that we provide a yes-or-no answer. The “anti-smacking” referendum showed – if nothing else – the futility in asking a question to the whole nation if it is a poorly-worded question. Referenda are hideously expensive – even if done with an election. And, most importantly in my opinion, they no longer provide a useful voice of the nation. One only needs look back to last year’s election to see the traditional methods of voting are not working. The trip-down-to-election-booth model does not reflect modern life. It’s probably the only time in three years I actually use a pen to write something important. Referenda are no different – if you are only able to mobilise 68% of the population on what is effectively a vote on every issue for the next three years, good luck mobilising them to vote on just one issue. Until the process around referenda – including the way in which citizens initiated referenda signatures are collected – reflects the realities of modern life (read: computers) they will generally not be a useful way to gauge public opinion.
I qualify that with the word ‘generally’ because I believe referenda still play an important ‘last resort’ function. It is for this reason that I support the asset sales referendum. It’s clear that Labour and the Greens did not see a referendum as their preferred option. There has been a long and hard campaign against asset sales going for some time now. I have no doubt that if Labour had been in a stronger position on other fronts (namely, popularity in terms of leadership and wider policy), asset sales could have easily taken them to victory in the 2011 election. However, that was not to be, and as a last resort to protect what essentially is the future wealth of all New Zealanders I support the efforts to stop asset sales.
Which brings me to the major difference between the asset sales referendum, which I accept has merit as a last resort, and NZ First’s call for a petition on marriage equality. Asset sales affect all New Zealanders. Currently, we all own those assets and they are about to be sold back to us and eventually sold to whoever can afford them. It affects us, our children and our grandchildren. However, marriage equality is different. It affects us all, yes. One does not need to be in a same-sex relationship to support basic human rights. However, the difference with marriage equality is that is has a large impact on the lives and rights of a minority of New Zealanders – 10 per cent if you accept conventional statistics. This is not to say I think anyone who heterosexual should not get a say on marriage equality. It’s simply a fact that it affects some people – namely those who are currently deprived of rights afforded to all other citizens – far more. It is for this reason I believe a referendum would be the worst possible way to go about changing the law in this area. MPs need to be mindful when they vote on this Bill that public opinion is important, but that as a minority issue public opinion is just one consideration, and that protecting the rights of minorities should be a greater consideration. I strongly believe public opinion is in favour of marriage equality, but really that’s just a bonus.
It is clear that Winston Peters likes to fancy himself as the cunning maverick of New Zealand politics. No doubt he is very aware that there is no way National will initiate a referendum on marriage equality. They have repeatedly said it’s not a priority for them. Further, there is no citizens-initiated referendum in the pipeline, and of course no one is going to collect 200’000 signatures when the issue is already before the House. Instead, Winston thinks he has found his party a way to take no stance at all and allowed NZ First to do what it does best – sit on the fence. Essentially, NZ First has shown itself too coward to take a clear stance – ironically, in a situation it as a party did not need to even take a stance, given that it will be a conscience vote.
Perhaps, though, Winston has for once positioned himself on a barbed wire fence. What this stance shows is a party battling with its identity. It is a party that fears sitting too close to the left and too close to the right so positions itself nowhere. It is no secret that NZ First has taken a number of left-leaning positions lately, including opposition to asset sales and support for extending paid parental leave. Perhaps Winston is scared that NZ First appears too left-leaning and he felt the need to throw a line to conservatives. However, this is not an issue to assert political identity or to try and grab a few cheap votes. This is an issue that allows New Zealand to finally afford all citizens the same rights under the law. It allows New Zealand to remove what is currently a massive black mark on our human rights record. When you have a suicide rate among young queer people as high as it is, you have an opportunity to tell them they are not second-class citizens that deserve to be discriminated against by their own country. NZ First can claim that they do not necessarily oppose marriage equality. However, to take no stance as they have effectively opted to do is essentially the same as taking a stance against marriage equality. In the words of Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”.
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