New Zealand is a representative democracy, with a Parliament consisting of members who represent the voters that elected them. This is true of legislatures (parliaments) in all modern democracies. Generally speaking, voters' views are considered and acted on indirectly via their members of Parliament. However, referendums, a poll of voters on a particular issue, give voters an opportunity to express their views more directly.
QED by the OED
The editors of a comparative study of referendums asked the editor of the Oxford English dictionary which word was correct for the plural of referendum – referendums or referenda? The OED editor replied: ‘My own view is that referendums is logically preferable as a plural form meaning ballots on one issue (as a Latin gerund, referendum has no plural). The Latin plural gerundive referenda, meaning ‘things to be referred’, necessarily connotes a plurality of issues.’1
The British attitude to referendums
New Zealand’s system of representative democracy was modelled on Britain's, where referendums were traditionally held in low regard. British politician Edmund Burke, speaking to the electors of Bristol in 1774, expressed the widely held idea that the views of representatives, rather than voters, should be followed in policy-making. He said, ‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’2
The United Kingdom held its first national referendum as recently as 1975 (when by a majority of more than two-to-one, voters endorsed Britain's continued membership of the European Economic Community).
Referendums in former British colonies
In former British colonies there was less concern for Burke's principles of representative democracy and a greater willingness to experiment.
In the United States citizens in New England towns and counties adopted the idea of town meetings almost as soon as they set foot on American soil. Many were dissenters (non-Anglican Christians) who had fled Britain in search of greater tolerance.
In the early 20th century California's constitution was amended to include not only a provision for referendums, but also a means for voters to be able to initiate referendums.
In Australia the federal (national) constitution required referendums to be held if the constitution were to be changed.
Māori and referendums
Māori have only participated in New Zealand referendums since 1949, when Māori electoral rolls were introduced. The Licensing Amendment Act 1949 allowed Māori to participate in the regular prohibition referendums for the first time.
Referendums in New Zealand
The Alcoholic Liquors Sale Control Act 1893 made referendums part of the New Zealand political landscape. These first referendums were local only. In 1911 the first nation-wide referendum, on whether there should be prohibition on alcohol, was held.
Since then the nation-wide referendums that have been held in New Zealand fall into four categories:
- prohibition (or liquor licensing) referendums
- consultative or indicative referendums
- constitutional referendums
- citizens-initiated referendums.