Below is the draft of my submission on the Electoral Referendum Bill, which I'll be sending down the virtual rabbit-hole later today. If you haven't already submitted, the Campaign for MMP has an online submisison form here.
- I support the Electoral Referendum Bill, but have some concerns about specific provisions. I ask that the bill be passed with amendments.
Referendum questions and process
- I support the proposed process and wording of the referendum. In order to be perceived as fair, the referendum process must mirror that used in 1992 – 93 to enact MMP. The two-stage process and the questions asked do this. Any attempt to change them will be perceived as an attempt to stack the deck in favour of one outcome or another, and so undermine the legitimacy of the result. I applaud the government for resisting the urge to do this for its own political advantage.
- I also support the proposal to review MMP if it wins the first referendum. I believe MMP is the best electoral system out of those on offer, but it is not perfect. In particular, the threshold is too high, resulting in unfair and undemocratic results. A review will allow these concerns to be addressed and the system to be improved, without regressing back to an unfair, undemocratic system.
- I have grave concerns about the proposed voting process, in particular section 11(2) and all of subpart 3 of the Bill. While intended to save time and money, these undermine fundamental safeguards designed to protect the integrity of the poll. I would rather have a fair vote than a fast one, and I ask that these provisions be removed from the bill.
- I oppose the current provisions relating to advertising, in particular the lack of any spending limit for referendum advertisers.
- The referendum in 1993 did not have a spending cap. As a result, Peter Shirtcliffe and the Campaign for Better Government [sic] were able to spend over one million dollars in an effort to buy the outcome. They almost succeeded. The Electoral Reform Coalition have said that if the referendum was held a week earlier, they would have lost as a result of the CBG’s scare campaign.
- The proposed referendum looks likely to be the subject of a similar big-money campaign from the same people. We may not be so lucky this time.
- Against this background, the absence of spending caps and proper disclosure for referendum promoters smacks of the government trying to stack the deck, by allowing their friends to buy the outcome. This undermines the legitimacy of any vote for change.
- Spending caps are essential to ensure the fairness of electoral outcomes. They are designed to ensure a rough “equality of arms” between contestants. Without them, elections run the risk of being a contest of money, not votes. New Zealand recognizes this, and imposes spending limits and tough disclosure laws on parties contesting the vote at elections. We also impose similar restrictions on groups advocating an outcome in a citizens initiated referendum.
- The referendum should be subject to similar provisions. Advertisers should be subject to the same spending cap as applies under the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993 ($50,000). And they should be required to disclose their spending, so we can see who is trying to buy our votes, and how much they are spending on it.
- While spending limits and disclosure requirements are a prima facie restriction of freedom of speech, they are a justified limitation designed to protect the right of the people to free and fair elections (itself affirmed in the Bill of Rights Act). This is an important public purpose, and they are proportionate to that purpose. $50,000 is more than enough for a campaign to effectively advocate their position. What spending limits restrict is not freedom of speech, but the “freedom” to drown others out and buy elections.
- I do not wish to make an oral submission to the Select Committee.