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ELECTION 1999: Voting In The Dark

The state of democracy in New Zealand looks shot to bits as, only four days out from a general election, nearly half of all voters do not understand how our electoral system works and forty per cent are unaware they will also be required to vote on changing our democracy and our justice system. What kind of election is this if not the most ignorant in this country's history? Jonathan Hill writes.

As Scoop journalist John Howard noted this week, there is a feeling in this country that parliament has become a house of political parties rather than a house of representatives. That is that many New Zealanders feel the composition of parliament and the behaviour of those who comprise it is not representing them. Given that nearly a half of us do not understand that the party vote is by far the most important of our two votes is it surprising that we feel we have parliaments which we didn't elect?

We certainly do elect our parliaments, but whether we mean to or not now seems highly suspect. As a country we have voted in an electoral system without actually understanding it and now three years down the track we still can't come to grips with how we elect parliament. Further, this election we will also be asked whether we should cut the size of parliament by one sixth and whether we support more focus on victims of crime and longer sentences and hard labour for violent criminals.

Essentially we are being asked whether we support the reform of our justice system and our parliament and those voters who do know this probably know nothing about the issues. For issues of this magnitude the lack of a comprehensive state funded public education campaign is inexcusable and the complete absence of media coverage and media-led debate on the two referenda questions is also a concern.

However the fact we have not been educated - or for many even informed - of the issues concerning the referenda doesn't appear to be stopping us from jumping to conclusions. Around seventy per cent of us are expected to answer yes to both of the questions, despite a high powered panel of political scientists and numerous criminologists advising that the measures proposed in the questions would have seriously adverse impacts on both the parliament and the criminal justice system.

We are set to vote blind, guided by emotion alone, and nobody seems to be overly concerned.

Criminologists are especially concerned at the way the question regarding length of prison sentences is phrased. The question asks: Should there be a reform of our justice system placing greater emphasis on the needs of victims, providing restitution and compensation for them and imposing minimum sentences and hard labour for all serious violent offenders?

Criminal justice experts say the question is a classic example of a question which should never have made it onto a ballot paper. They say it is confusing, emotive, convoluted and blurs the issues. The greater emphasis on victims is a central plank of progressive restorative justice models as advocated by the Alliance and the Greens and the hard labour and minimum sentence components are conservative policies advocated by the political right like ACT.

So the question is in fact two starkly different questions which must be answered as one. Criminologist Warren Young says a paranoid public, fuelled by a media driven panic, may vote for longer jail sentences with hard labour without understanding the implications. He says locking people up for longer has never acted as any deterrent and only turns out angrier and more dislocated people at the end of their sentences.

On top of that keeping people imprisoned for longer will obviously boost prison populations and, rather than working to keep people out of jail - and rehabilitate them if they get there - more public money will be spent on the opposite end of the scale - building more prisons.

It is clear that with restorative justice programmes working remarkably well in a number of New Zealand localities there is scope for a debate on the reform of our justice system. Under the current system a victim of a crime - be that a violent or property crime - plays no part in the justice process other than as a witness on behalf of the Crown. Once in court the crime becomes an offence against the Crown and the victim and his or her needs are effectively sidelined.

There does need to be a much greater emphasis on the victims of crime, we would all admit to that, but the current system makes very little provision for this. Victims of crime who go through a restorative process generally find the process of personally dealing with the offender and having a say in the punishment satisfying, healing and empowering. Criminals say the process is far more useful than a longer prison term and helps them to recognise and deal with the implications of their actions.

Longer prison sentences and hard labour will not act as a deterrent and will not rehabilitate criminals. It's as simple as that. On the contrary in fact, and all the experts and various studies can prove it. This referenda question is a knee jerk reaction which is poorly considered, emotive and confusing.

Sure, there are criminals who need to be locked away - some for an indefinite period - but these are a minority. The focus of a modern justice system must be to provide suitable redress to the victim and to rehabilitate the criminals.

Answering yes to this referenda question will further neither of these goals.

Likewise the question asking whether the number of MPs in parliament should be reduced from 120 to 99 is similarly based on emotion and knee jerk reaction instead of informed debate. The dissatisfaction with the performance and behaviour of our parliamentarians is widespread and for the most part justified, but how is simply cutting the number of those who get to parliament going to solve the problem?

The simple answer is that it won't. This question looks set to be passed by a large margin as people see it as an opportunity to sock one back to parliament and to register their displeasure. However political scientists warn that the proposed reduction will leave New Zealand with one of the smallest parliaments per head of population in the developed world.

They argue that minority groups - Maori, women and other ethnic groups - will suffer as a result of the reduction in representation and that the South Island stands to lose the most. It is also worth remembering that 120 was the recommendation from the Electoral Commission who argued this number was necessary to prevent cabinet dominating the governing party through a majority – thereby forming a government within a government.

Anyhow, it would be one thing if New Zealanders voted for both of these measures if there was an appropriate education campaign and we understood the issues and implications. I find it incredible that there has been no debate, no advertising and no education campaign on these two issues.

Sure, both the questions are non-binding, but the public will see the result as a major endorsement for change and will demand action accordingly.

The justice system. The political system. The two most important systems in this country - the foundations of our society. We are set to overwhelmingly vote to `reform' them both and most of us have absolutely no idea what we are doing. Or why.

An ignorant democracy is only a fraction better than no democracy at all.

ends

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