Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Democracy disappoints

Our Christian friends have done it: their pro-smacking petition now has the required 285,000 signatures to prompt a citizens' initiated referendum, to be held by post at heaven knows what cost to the taxpayer. It's not the fact that this referendum will be non-binding that bothers me - it's the fact that it is going ahead at all.

Democracy is rule by the majority, but the majority isn't always right. Some ideas are dumb no matter how many people support them. Example: when the Homosexual Law Reform Bill was being debated, Keith Hay and others organised a petition of many thousand signatures in an attempt to prevent the legalisation of consensual sex between adult men. According to opponents of homosexuality, all sorts of social evils were about to ensue. (The petition was judged to be dodgy and was discredited. Mickey Mouse was found to have signed four times, for example - dishonest sod that he is.) NZ had a moral crisis, but the sun rose the day after the bill passed into law, life went on, and - with the exception of the likes of Family First - society realised that gays aren't that bad. Similarly, you don't find many people out there who are proud they supported the Springbok tour. Ideas change and society moves on. It was, of course, the democratic right of Hay and his cronies to launch their petition, but their public persecution of gay and lesbian people did very little to enhance democracy, tolerance, or any of those fine liberal values that our society is supposed to cherish.

I'm not advocating the stifling of democratic debate, but in the case of the smacking issue, the arguments in favour have been uniformly dumb. Let's run through them.

1) Smacking works.
2)
The state can't tell us what to do in our homes.
3) God says it's OK.

It seems to me that if you can discipline kids without violence - and it's manifestly clear that you can - then you should, whether smacking works or not. The state can and does tell us what to do in our homes, and most people would agree that banning wife-beating, for example, is a quite legitimate thing for the state to do. Finally, church and state are separate and have been for some time. Get over it. It was important to discuss these issues publicly in the interests of social progress. And we did. At length.

But when the debate is done and dusted, if there's still no good reason whatsoever to support smacking - and I truly haven't heard a single one - then why spend millions of dollars rehashing the issue via a referendum? In my admittedly half-arsed reading of the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993, I could find no power of the Clerk of the House of Representatives to reject a frivolous petition question. If there is no such power (and one of you smart readers might know of it), I'd like to see one.

Citizens' initiated referenda have the potential to be stupid, wasteful or even harmful. Imagine, for example, a petition banning people from Muslim countries from emigrating to New Zealand in the name of quelling terrorism. Such a petition would be obviously offensive and would make Muslim kiwis feel unsafe and threatened. Yet it's not impossible that such a petition would succeed in meeting the threshold to trigger a referendum, or would do social damage even if it didn't get the required signatures. I don't feel particularly comfortable with public discussion of smacking kids: I find it difficult to explain to my children why some people think I should hit them. And then there's the monetary cost of referenda. It seems a bit ironic that NZ is about to spend up big on a ballot about hitting kids when, as a result of the 'It's not OK' campaign against family violence, under-funded community anti-violence programmes are being flooded with more clients than their meager resources can deal with.

Of course, there are a lot of practical problems with what I'm arguing here. Who gets to decide when a petition calling for a referendum is frivolous or damaging? And how do you set a 'stupidity' threshold for vetting petition questions? As usual, I don't have all the answers ... just a sneaking suspicion that democracy isn't always democratic.

16 comments:

Hugh said...

In my admittedly half-arsed reading of the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993, I could find no power of the Clerk of the House of Representatives to reject a frivolous petition question. If there is no such power (and one of you smart readers might know of it), I'd like to see one.

Your reading is absolutely correct and this was the intent when the law was made. The Act was intended in the same spirit as the Electoral Reform Act passed the same year - to hold to account governments that frequently ignored the expressed wishes of the public. Of course a government is not bound to follow the dictates of the referendum when it is passed, and this is where your desired rejection of frivolities comes in.

But really, I don't think you can call this process undemocratic. Frivolous, logic-free, short-sighted, sure. But the fact that something wastes money and leads to bad policy-making doesn't make it undemocratic. Democracy makes no promise that policy will be based on logic or free of frivolities, merely that it will reflect the popular will.

After all if we complain that democracy should preclude people from voting for policies that we find frivolous and logically unsustainable, it's not long before we complain that they're voting for political parties that are similarly frivolous and ur-logical (NZ First, anybody?) and then you're on a slippery slope once again.

Can't this referendum be seen as a good thing? A chance to reject the concept of child abuse as part of good parenting decisively and on a nation-wide scale? Is the referendum question to be judged by the fact that one of the potential answers doesn't meet the frivolity test?

Anonymous said...

I have been trying to see this as a good thing. But when I saw the question I just thought "Oh please..."

ms poinsettia said...

Can't the referendum results only be non-binding since the question reflects the bill repealing S59. It's not actually illegal to smack your children, you just can't defend yourself on charges of assault under S59, and there's explicit reference to light smacking as ok. So this really is a huge waste of money.

ideologicallyimpure said...

@hugh: I don't think it's going to go as suggested in your last paragraph, hugh, and entirely because of the way the question is phrased. Even if people are against s59-type defences, for example, ticking Yes on this referendum means explicitly stating that you think a smack should be explicitly illegal - and that's going to make a lot of people uncomfortable, especially if they're not hugely politically-minded and aren't sure if a Yes vote will actually lead to that kind of legislation. It's an incredibly loaded question.

I, however, have no compunction with meeting idiots with ridicule, and will quite happily tick Yes and encourage others to do so.

Hugh said...

Impure: Yes, I admit that last paragraph was a glass-half-full way of looking at it. The real problem with the Citizens Referendum Act is that the questions in all the Referendums initiated under it have been so loaded as to make the answers almost meaningless. I always try to answer them with regard for the context of the wider policy program of the groups pushing them, which is strictly speaking not what one is intended to do. But it's impossible to consider a single issue in isolation since policies affect one another in both foreseen and unforeseen ways.

I should probably say at this point that I don't like Referendums.

Ms Poinsettia: The Referendum result can be disregarded by the government of the day without any reason needing to be given. I think the idea is that a government that blatantly ignores Referendums will be punished for it electorally. In practice though governments have been able to ignore them, often without even giving a reason. National waved off a referendum result requiring them to give more funding to the fire service by saying that the referendum was too narrow and gave no indication as to where the money should come from; Labour didn't even bother to give a reason for not responding to referendums demanding that Parliament's size be reduced and the criminal justice system be shifted to a 'focus on victims' in 1999.

I believe you're wrong about the Bill though. It doesn't explicitly say light smacking is OK, it simply says the police have discretion. This has widely been interpreted to mean that light smacking will be the subject of that discretion, but it's not that explicit.

But a Referendum under the 1993 Act does not need to have any relevance to, consistency with or effect on any existing law, it can be a completely out-of-the-blue policy proposal.

Tui said...

Can anyone clarify for me specific differences between the way police discretion in assault cases works, and the way police discretion in child abuse cases under these laws works? Because - as much as I agree with the assertion that since you can discipline children without smacking, you should - there seems to be a huge sense of paranoia about parents being sent to jail for slapping a kid once. (Regardless of whether I think people should be sent to jail for that kind of thing...) but correct me if I'm wrong, isn't this how adult assault law works, basically?

Carol said...

Shouldn't there be some rules against a referendum using such a badly worded and slanted question as this one?

I'm struggling to see how it would be translated into law. Like, how would "good parenting" be defined? Didn't that woman who horse-whipped her son/daughter think she was being a "good parent"?

Hugh said...

Carol, I don't think the intent was that referendums would be directly translated into law, simply that governments would take into account the opinions expressed in them when making law.

Anna McM said...

Hugh, you're right in that this referendum won't disqualify anyone from the formal processes of democracy or anything like that.

But a tenet of liberal democracy is that everyone has equal moral worth. Promoting the idea that it's OK to hit kids (but not adults or animals) undermines the moral worth of children, just as ALAC ads which blame women for rape undermine the moral worth of women.

And I don't see how encouraging the electorate to flout reason, ethics and research with a dumb and expensive referendum could ever be conducive to any meaningful democracy!

Hugh said...

But a tenet of liberal democracy is that everyone has equal moral worth.

That's more of a tenet of liberalism than democracy. But even if that is true, it's always been accepted that in some circumstances that equivalence of moral worth is not an absolute. Liberal democracies accept killing the citizens of countries they're at war with and locking up convicted criminals, for instance.

There's a grey area, basically, where this basic moral worth is not seen as universal, and almost all major political disputes within a democratic context involve who is and isn't within that permissable area. The smacking debate is part of that. I agree with you that smacking isn't necessary, but to argue that those who disagree are fundamentally undemocratic is, IMO, a bridge too far.

I'm also interested that you say this debate is 'done and dusted' - eg that we've had the debate and there's no virtue in debating it any further because a decision has been made. Would you feel that the same is true when the debate has been had and the more liberal/progressive argument has failed to carry the day - eg, that there's no point in a universal student allowance.

And I don't see how encouraging the electorate to flout reason, ethics and research with a dumb and expensive referendum could ever be conducive to any meaningful democracy!

Again, democracy is not about policy that's logical, ethical, research-oriented, clever or cheap. It's about policy that represents the popular will.

And to be blunt I don't want to live in a world where the popular will isn't listened to because it doesn't fit expert opinion, or its expression is too expensive. We already live in that world, to a degree, and I'm not at all keen on going further down the path.

Anna McM said...

Again, democracy is not about policy that's logical, ethical, research-oriented, clever or cheap. It's about policy that represents the popular will.

Yeah, that's my problem with it. The popular will can sometimes be completely rancid - racist, homophobic, sexist, etc.

Hugh said...

Yeah, that's my problem with it. The popular will can sometimes be completely rancid - racist, homophobic, sexist, etc.

I don't think anybody on any side of the political spectrum would disagree that democracy often leads to bad policy. But democracy is based on the assumption that the best policy is the policy most people want at any given time, not the policy that meets some sort of objective ethical, moral or procedural standard.

And before you decry that too hard, bear in mind that your objections to democracy delivering these sorts of outcomes are basically identical to a member of the Business Roundtable's objection to democratic processes consistently delivering majorities for a welfare state.

Anna McM said...

Ideas should stand up to logical and ethical scrutiny though. That's why we have a court system. If we left it to the majority to directly administer what they consider to be justice in a given situation, it would be a debacle. This is just one instance in which exptertise intervenes in 'democracy'.

Hugh said...

We have a court system but it is very much subordinate to the legislature - court judgements can be overruled by Parliament, but the reverse is not true.

You're right that our system doesn't provide for popular enforcement of policy, and that the line between policy implementation and formulation can be blurred, but your problems seemed to be purely with the policy formulation side.

And I would be wary of promoting the role of experts. There's a tendency among all groups to praise the role of expert opinion when it agrees with them, and to criticise experts as undemocratic when they don't agree. For instance, I doubt many of this blog's community would agree that expert economists (most of them low-tax, low-spending types to a man) should guide us in deciding what's the best way to create economic growth.

Anna McM said...

Check the credentials of some of the experts the Business Round Table has quoted. There's an interesting literature on the highjacking of 'expertise' under neoliberalism. Which isn't to say that everyone right wing should be disqualified from speaking, or that experts don't disagree - but the BRT have paraded an awful lot of shite research/experts around over the years.

Hugh said...

My point about the Business Roundtable was actually separate from my point about experts not always saying what we want to hear. Many BRT members genuinely believe that the welfare state is a product of popular selfishness and shoddy logic, and presumably feel similar pangs of frustration as you do when contemplating the smacking ban.

As for the experts, all I can speak of is my own experience, and I've found most academic economists to be noticeably right wing - maybe not to the degree that the BRT is, but certainly to the degree that, if expert advice was followed in this area, we'd have a lot less taxes and a lot less social services to go with it.

But ultimately this is straying far from my (and your) point, which is that something can be short-sighted, contrary to expert opinion, morally abhorent and expensive without being undemocratic. So criticise the referendum for any of the above, fine, but I don't think there's any grounds for calling it undemocratic.