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Rankin: Sound Democracy or Foolish Politics?

Referendums: Sound Democracy or Foolish Politics?


Keith Rankin, 5 April 2001

A few months ago, the burghers and businesses of Onehunga were asked, by way of a postal referendum, whether the local water should be fluoridated. Onehunga has its own prized spring water. It is the only suburb of Auckland to not have its water fluoridated.

One-third of Onehungans replied; about 4,000 people. That's about the same as the response rates in local body elections. Of those 4,000, 62% said "no". I was one of those 62%.

I don't actually have a view about whether fluoride is on balance a good or bad thing to have added to one's drinking water. I voted against the proposal because I have not been presented with any convincing evidence that - given the predominance of fluoride toothpaste - there are substantial public health gains from also having fluoride in drinking water. I have no reason to believe that fluoridated water is harmful. But I do ponder over the possibility that it might be harmful to toddlers who already ingest substantial amounts of fluoride toothpaste.

Fluoridation is an issue that arouses the passions of both proponents and opponents; passions often well in excess of those aroused by much bigger issues. Hence the information we had all seemed to be distributed by the protagonists in what passed for a debate, but was really a slanging match that most people chose to ignore.

Proponents of fluoridation said that children in Onehunga had either 50% or 30% more tooth cavities than children in other parts of Auckland. They were less interested in showing to what extent that vague statistic could be attributed to causes other than non-fluoridated water. Some parts of Onehunga are socio-economically comparable with Mangere and Otara. We were not told the extent to which Onehunga children had worse teeth than those in Mangere. The trick, as always with comparative statistics, is to compare apples with apples.

Anti-fluoride activists tend to present fluoridation as a conspiracy, presumably on behalf of big business interests who favour the local water supply as a kind of sink for their industrial by-products. That's even less convincing than the pro-fluoride argument.

I needed better information. But I didn't want to spend my time hunting for such information. Given that one part of Auckland had had unfluoridated water for a long time, there should have been ample non-partisan information in the local press easily available to us voters. So my second reason for voting against fluoridation was that Onehunga presented an ideal control group for studies of the effects of fluoridated water. If the people of Onehunga continue to happy to be the guinea pigs then we could think of our situation as being that of a fortunate experiment.

My third reason was that of consumer sovereignty. To an economist, fluoridated water is both a "public good" and a "merit good". The Adam Smith in me says that the consumer is always right; ie even when consumers reject paternalist public health experts' claims that their unlovely product is (like cod liver oil or Lane's emulsion) good for us. But I take care to keep the Adam Smith in me in check. After all, Smith was the prototype of conspiracy theorists. It was he who said that businessmen got together in smoke-filled rooms for the purpose of price-fixing. For him, big businessmen were congenitally fraudulent. (He especially disliked Hamburghers; meaning businessmen from Hamburg.)

Having voted "no" in the referendum I was not particularly impressed by the intent of the Maungakiekie Community Board and the City Council Works Committee to go ahead with the fluoridation regardless. Democracy itself was now at stake. In the end the matter was resolved by the Auckland City Council. Indeed Mayor Christine Fletcher did a Charlie Dempsey and abstained, leaving a final vote 10-9 against fluoridation in this one small portion of Auckland.

The issue is particularly interesting for me, because I've been sceptical about populist referendums; eg in a Scoop column in July last year. (In those days, I called them "referenda".)

I've concluded that referendums are an important check on technocratic power, but can lead to very anti-democratic consequences if used in inappropriate ways.

The worst kind of referendum is the "citizen's initiated referendum". What happens is that a particular group of misunderstood people - eg list MPs - get covered in the TV news in a way that makes them seems at best superfluous and at worst an overpaid rabble. So its relatively easy to get 250,000 signatures from people wishing to cull these scapegoats who are all presumed to be clones of Alamein Kopu. The next trick is to get a leading question on the referendum ballot paper; a question that will appeal to the many cynics among us. Regardless of the intellectual merits of the proposal, we all knew beforehand that a question to reduce the number of MPs would receive almost as much support as a referendum to reduce the number of burglars.

Citizens Initiated Referendums almost always ask leading questions. If instead the 1999 referendum about crime asked us to agree to "increase the vote for prison-building by spending less on public hospitals" we would have rejected it en masse. Yet the referendum did ask us to put more resources into punishing prisoners. Given the 1994 Fiscal Responsibility Act, a proposal to increase the funding for one kind of public good (eg corrections) is tantamount to a proposal to decrease the resourcing of other public goods (eg healthcare).

I have identified 4 types of referendum:


  1. Citizens initiated referendum.

  2. Politicians' initiated referendum; eg Winston Peters' referendum on compulsory retirement savings.

  3. 'Expert' initiated referendum.

  4. Referendum to amend a nation's constitution.

The first two types are inherently flawed. Both the 1999 citizens initiated referendums were flawed, in that neither addressed an issue which anyone who was properly informed believed to be an issue of importance.

The second political type includes the half-baked 1990 referendum about whether we should switch to a 4-year electoral cycle. The unfortunate Australian referendum on becoming a republic was also of this flawed type.

The fourth type - eg the 1993 referendum on MMP - is both a safeguard and a means to make overdue constitutional change when other means are not possible. The British referendums on joining Europe (1974) and on devolution (1979 and 1998) were also essentially of this type. (A footnote though is that a late political intrusion into the 1979 referendum caused the Callaghan minority Labour Government to fall five months early, enabling Margaret Thatcher to gain an easy victory in a contest that would otherwise have been close-fought. More Scots voted for devolution than against it. But marginally fewer than 40% of registered voters in Scotland voted "yes". It was this impasse that precipitated the 1979 election in Britain.)

It is the third type of referendum that I am especially in favour of. The Onehunga referendum was of this type. Public Health experts designed a proposal based on their relatively informed understanding of children's dental health, and that proposal was then put to the affected people to ratify. It was not ratified.

Another example of the expert-initiated referendum was the 1992 poll on the first-past-the-post (FPP) electoral system. The proposal to reject FPP was ratified. The referendum represented an opportunity for the public to have their say on a matter that was first identified as a problem by political scientists; the experts in that particular field. Experts and well- informed activists had previously presented sound arguments to a number of forums, not least to the 1986 Royal Commission on Electoral Reform.

My conclusion is that citizen's initiated referendums, and other overtly political referendums, are not only a waste of time and money; they actually pervert democracy. Expert-initiated referendums, on the other hand, enhance democracy. We need more of them, whether at a national or a local level.

It should be left to the well-informed to initiate proposals for change. It is then the role of the citizenry to say "ye" or "nay".

We might consider this with respect to two issues on this year's agenda. One is the review of MMP. Unfortunately the review is being conducted by a political committee. The review should have been done by a commission of independent experts. A referendum on some aspect of MMP would then be recommended if these politically-independent experts identified any real problem. Such a committee of experts would not consider any kind of change to the status quo (which is now MMP) unless they had been able to carefully and logically argue for an alternative. So far, those who claim to be opposed to MMP have not come close to demonstrating that some other system is superior to MMP.

The second issue is that relating to "party-hopping" by MPs. Few if any independent experts have suggested that "party-hopping" is a problem that needs legislative redress. Rather, the intent to deal to a non-problem is the constitutional issue. Any change in the relationships between political parties, MPs, and the institution of Parliament should be initiated by people who understand the place of Parliament in the wider polity. This issue should be allowed to die because it is not being initiated by people who are both politically independent and informed. It is not worthy of a referendum. It will be a democratic travesty if the proposed party-hopping legislation - The Electoral Integrity Amendment Bill - is passed. Political power will pass from Parliament to the political parties.

Referendums have an important place in any democratic society if they address real issues that have been identified by informed people. Public health measures to minimise children's tooth decay are real and vital issues which require the consent of the public whose children and grandchildren stand to benefit from such measures. In these cases, the public are right, even when they may be wrong. 10 Auckland City Councillors and 1 Mayor know just what I mean.

© 2001 Keith Rankin
EMAIL: keithr@pl.net HOMEPAGE: http://pl.net/~keithr/


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