GOVERNMENT – REFERENDUM
Referendum is the term commonly used in New Zealand to describe what is more technically referred to as a national poll: the direct voting of the people as to what action should be taken by the government upon an issue. Thus it is in contrast with the more usual manner of determining government action in New Zealand by means of a decision of the members of the House of Representatives.
Despite several unsuccessful attempts late in last century to make a referendum a regular part of the legislative process, in New Zealand today the government is required by statute to submit only two issues to the people by way of referendum: the issue under the Licensing Act 1908 as to the control of the liquor trade, and the issue under the Electoral Act 1956 as to whether certain sections of that Act should be amended or repealed, if a certain majority in the House of Representatives cannot be obtained. The first issue must be placed before the voters at each General Election, but the second only when the occasion arises. There is no provision for the people to petition to have an issue put to a referendum.
By reason of the absence of legislation of a general nature providing for and regulating the holding of referenda, if the government wishes that a referendum be held it is necessary that a specific statute be passed authorising the holding of the referendum and regulating its procedure, which is usually done by prescribing the form and contents of the ballot paper and adopting the general procedural provisions applicable to the licensing referendum, e.g., Gaming Poll Act 1948, Military Training Poll Act 1949.
At first sight the advantages of a referendum appear to be that it enables an issue to be considered on its merits apart from party politics, ensures that government action is in accordance with the wishes of the people, and develops a sense of political awareness and responsibility in the people generally. Moreover, from a purely political point of view, it relieves a government of a difficult or unpopular decision. But there are also distinct limitations and disadvantages to a referendum: unless it is taken upon an issue which is so narrow that it is capable of being answered by an unqualified “yes” or “no”, upon which neither party has any policy, upon which the people are adequately informed or able adequately to inform themselves, and upon which the voters are sufficiently interested to record their vote, there is no assurance that the decision will be divorced from party politics. Moreover, the issue must be one of such urgency as to justify the expense and inconvenience of an appeal to the people before the next election, and yet not so urgent as to be prejudiced by the delay caused by the holding of a referendum. Finally, recourse to the advice of the referendum as a means of referring to the electorate a politically contentious question is an abdication of parliamentary authority, and could be easily abused.
Thus the field in which a referendum can effectively and properly operate as an accurate and desirable indication of the informed wishes of the people is very narrowly restricted, and it has not been used for other than the licensing issue since 1949.
by Donald Edgar Paterson, B.A., LL.M.(N.Z.), LL.M., J.S.D.(YALE), Lecturer in Jurisprudence and Constitutional Law, Victoria University of Wellington.