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Direct Democracy Comes to New Zealand

Direct Democracy Comes to New Zealand

Roger Monckton - www.betterdemocracy.co.nz

Fullmarks have to go to new Wanganui Mayor, Michael Laws and the 6 new councillors from the "Vision Wanganui" team for literally, giving "power to the people". Laws and his team have initiated Direct Democracy in the Wanganui District Council and have ensured that Wanganui now leads the rest of the country in this enlightened decision making process.

The "Vision Wanganui" team utilizes Council Initiated referendums which allow Wanganui citizens the final decision on "matters of significance". The referendums only proceed after a balanced information campaign outlines the pro's and con's of each referendum question, enabling the district to make clear informed choices. These council initiated referendums were initially considered non binding but the council now considers itself bound by the voting results to date.

The "Vision Wanganui" team have also allowed citizens to initiate binding referendums - this is achieved if 10% or more of those enrolled on the Wanganui District Council electoral roll sign a particular referendum petition. In overcoming this hurdle a binding referendum is initiated whereby all the enrolled Wanganui voter's can vote on this particular issue, the result of this voting would then be binding on Council.

In May 2005 the Wanganui Council initiated their first referendum, each person listed on the Wanganui electoral roll was given the oppotunity to prioritize 3 projects out of 14 capital funding proposals, voting was done by post with 54% of voters returning forms.

The Splash Centre extension came in first position followed by the Central City Waterfront Development and the Footpath upgrades.

And although the referenda were non binding, Law's said that the council considered itself bound by the results, and as a result the council changed it's capital project priorities and voted $2.5 Million to the Splash Centre extension, $600K to the riverfront development and an additional $120K (annually) to the footpaths.

Following this success, Council initiated a second referendum in January 2006 involving 5 referenda questions, with results published on the 11th Feb 2006. After well informed debate and dissemination of information 55% of voters returned postal forms.The referenda questions and the summary of the voting response is listed below

1.WATER FLUORIDATION ................. 74% voted to have no Fluoridation
2. WATER SOFTENING..................... 75% voted to soften wanganui's salt laden "hard" water
3.SPELLING OF WANGANUI.............. 82% chose to spell Wanganui without an h
4. SIZE OF COUNCIL......................... 60% voted for the number councillors to be reduced.
URBAN WARDS:............................. 53% voted for one district wide ward.

Laws has stated that the council will also treat these referendum results as binding, and with the average national turnout in the 2004 local body elections running at 49% - the Mayor has hailed the 55% voting response as a stunning success, giving a clear indication that the Wanganui People want to have a say in how their hard earned ratepayer dollars are spent.

Regarding the referenda results, Laws said: "The Fluoridation voting was for an overwhelming rejection of changing the status quo. I compliment the campaign of the anti Fluoridation lobbyists, particularly PJ Faumui. Wanganui's decision was made on a factual basis not fear." He said, he was also personally delighted at the results of the referenda questions on: water softening, reducing the number of councillors and the abolition of the urban ward. "The latter was the only really close vote but it still will be persuasive in terms of the council's representations to the Representation Commission."

One can only hope that other politicians will follow Wanganui's lead, and that at the next Local Body elections held in New Zealand in 2007 we will see other teams of visionary councillors elected on the basis of introducing binding referenda at the local body level.

If we take a moment to think about all our collective colonial grass roots.....it is entirely appropriate and not that surprising that a small deeply historic, vibrant city such as Wanganui is initiating such radical change .......long may provincial New Zealand show us the way forward!!

FOOTNOTE: Whilst Wanganui District Council has instigated the first use of Direct Democracy in NZ it is important to remind the reader that 190 Million people in Switzerland, Italy, Liechtenstein and 23 States in the USA have been using Direct Democracy very effectively as a check on central and local government, in some cases for over 100 years. The real surprise is that it has taken so long for Direct Democracy to take root here in Godzone.


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