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Referendums on rights are a bad way to go

3 December 2004

Referendums on rights are a bad way to go - Jim Peron

Civil Unions are contentious - at least for a minority of the population. The fundamentalist crowd here have put a lot pressure on members of parliament, especially in opposition parties against the bill.

There have been some surprising flip-flops from a few MPs who suddenly discovered problems in the bill which they didn¹t notice the first time they voted. The heat is too much for a few and they are looking for any excuse in a storm.

The newest argument to justify a flip-flop is that the matter is so important that the public must be allowed to decide. Several MPs have said that unless the Civil Unions Bill is amended to include an automatic public referendum they will vote against it. In principle they support civil unions but the public must decide.

It appears that they want to avoid legislating on hard issues. They want to pass that job off to the public. If that is the case why do we have MPs at all? Why not simply put all votes before the public and save the salaries of 120 MPs and all their staff and support services?

If the voters are able to make the hard decisions then they should be able to make the easy ones as well? In other words, if parliamentarians want to shirk their duty who needs parliamentarians?

But there is another issue here which is most alarming. Either equality before the law for gay couples is a right or it isn't. The MPs using the ³referendum excuse² to justify their flip-flop argue that it is a right but that the voters must decide.

But do we really want the rights of minorities decided by majority vote? Are human rights subject to majority veto?

Would majority referendums have ended the persecution of Jews in Czarist Russia? Would blacks in the American South been given the vote if majority approval was required first?

No minority should be put at the mercy of the majority. No individual or minority should be required to come before a mob begging for their rights.

Having a referendum on the rights of minorities is like asking two wolves and a chicken to vote on what to have for breakfast. The chicken is at an automatic disadvantage.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote: "It is ridiculous to suppose that a man had less rights in himself than one of his neighbours, or, indeed, than all of them put together." But a referendum on rights assumes that "all of them put together" can deny a man his rights.

Oscar Wilde once quipped that direct democracy "is the bludgeoning of the people, for the people, by the people." He wasn't far off in his observation especially if we consider how majorities throughout history were likely to treat minorities.

While I believe most Kiwis are decent enough to grant equality of rights to their homosexual neighbour I¹m not sure that we want to set two precedents at the same time. One is letting parliamentarians abandon their job anytime they feel it¹s too rough. The second is putting the rights of any human being up for a majority veto.

Jim Peron is the executive director of the Institute for Liberal Values.


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