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Muriel Newman's The Column

Newman-Online...(Collective) Wisdom?

This week, Newman-online examines the theory of collective wisdom, and how it relates to the flawed policies of the Labour Government.

Last weekend’s Herald featured an article on the superiority of collective wisdom over that of individual experts. Based on a new book, The Wisdom of Crowds by New Yorker business columnist James Sourowiecki, the author found that groups can be remarkably intelligent and smarter than the smartest people in them.

Results from TV’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire back his theory up: while the so-called experts were correct 65 percent of the time, the audience was right in 91 percent of cases.

This theory of collective wisdom is, of course, at the heart of a democratic system of government: government for the people, by the people, of the people. It also forms the basis of the movement for direct democracy, which is calling for more widespread use of citizen-initiated referenda.

In general, political parties campaign on the programme they intend to implement if elected to power. Once they become government, however, there are few checks and balances on their performance. As a result, a government’s term in office has been described as one day of democracy followed by three years of elected dictatorship!

Real problems can occur when a government becomes removed and elite, captured by minority interests, instead of being driven by the needs of the majority. Labour’s promotion of the Civil Union Bill to introduce gay marriage has contributed to just such a growing unease within society. With its discredited plan to allow consensual sex between 12 year-olds still in the forefront of the public mind, the public worries that this Government seems more interested in interfering in social engineering matters relating to sex and morality, than in running the country.

These concerns have given weight to the view that conscience votes in Parliament are now producing outcomes that are increasingly out of step with mainstream society. As a result, there is a fear that, under this regime, minority interest group agendas – being voted for under the guise of conscience votes – are more likely to become the law.

In this climate, it is little wonder that the call for conscience vote issues to be dealt with by way of binding citizens initiated referenda is gaining momentum. If cost-effective mechanisms could be devised to reduce the estimated $10 million cost of stand-alone referenda – perhaps using electronic or postal voting – it may be possible to implement a system not too dissimilar to the highly effective scheme that operates in Switzerland.

Using direct democracy to consult with the wider public over major constitutional changes would prevent important decisions with far reaching implications, such as the abolition of appeal rights to the Privy Council and the establishment of the Supreme Court, from being rammed through without public mandate.

Further, it may be possible to use direct democracy to test whether the Government has it right on important policy matters. For example, there are issues where the Government appears to be totally at odds with commonsense and public opinion, but whether direct democracy is the appropriate mechanism to force change – or, indeed, whether it will take an election to do that – is an interesting topic for further debate.

Two issues that fall into this category are Labour’s scrapping of Work for the Dole, and its introduction of the new anti-smoking and anti-gambling laws.

With regard to the scrapping of Work for the Dole, most New Zealanders feel uncomfortable with the notion of a government paying people to do nothing. Over the weekend I heard of two cases that are guaranteed to make the blood boil: the first relates to a 46 year-old former airline baggage handler who, two years ago, made the decision to quit his job and go on the dole. He’s now paid to spend his days happily playing his guitar.

The second case involves a 50 year-old with a doctorate degree who was, for many years, a professional student. I understand he has never had a job, and that we pay him to spend his days reading.

These two are some of the tens of thousands of people in our society who think nothing at all of demanding that others support them. While most New Zealanders – even those struggling to make ends meet – are charitable, and do not have a problem with the government supporting people who genuinely cannot provide for themselves, the majority would undoubtedly rather see these two spending their days working for the dole instead of being paid to do nothing.

The second issue relates to growing concerns that the new smoking and gaming laws will accelerate the decline of organisations like the RSA. These clubs, which have traditionally been important social gathering places, have used the proceeds of pokie machines to provide welfare benefits to their members. Many of these clubs now face a drastic loss of proceeds, due not only to machine numbers being reduced – or indeed eliminated – but also to takings being siphoned off by the Government.

Further, the new smoke-free laws means that elderly RSA members who are smokers will no longer be able to go to their club to enjoy companionship and a cigarette – even though many clubs have spent tens of thousands of dollars upgrading their air filtering systems to ensure that they are, essentially, smoke-free – but, facing the option of sitting outside in the cold to smoke, will simply stay at home.

I wonder whether it was really Labour’s intention to increasingly isolate the elderly, to reduce community-based welfare support, and to bring about the decline in club membership, when it introduced these laws? It is a shame that we don’t have an inexpensive system of direct democracy to highlight these problems and warn the Government that it needs to review the effect of its new laws … before the damage is irreparable.

DD-online: In a small way you can participate in direct democracy. I will send your views onto the Prime Minister:

We would like your feedback on this issue.

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