Justice Minister Andrew Little sounded distinctly priggish, when he chided National’s Nick Smith in Parliament yesterday.
Smith had asked if Little stood by all his statements, policies, and actions on electoral law and referenda?
The answer was yes, he did.
But Little couldn’t resist the temptation to go further and say:
” … I should point out that the accepted plural of ‘referendum’ these days is ‘referendums’.”
This was a disquieting reminder that the “accepted” way of saying things could well be incorporated in a new “hate” law which Little seems keen to have enacted to curb our freedom to express ourselves.
In the case of the plural of “referendum”, it quickly became apparent that there was no one correct answer.
Hon Dr Nick Smith: I note the Clerk’s Office has a different view.
SPEAKER: Yes, and so does the Speaker.
But it quickly became apparent that – in the case of hate speech – what will become acceptable may depend on where you sit on the Left-Right political spectrum.
Hon Dr Nick Smith: Does he stand by his statement last week that the removal of prisoners’ voting rights was “fascist”; if so, is his coalition partner, New Zealand First, fascist for supporting the policy?
Hon ANDREW LITTLE: I made no such statement.
Hon Dr Nick Smith: Does the Minister deny the report in Newshub on 12 August last week in which he said the policy of removing the right of prisoners to vote was a “fascist sort of policy”?
Hon ANDREW LITTLE: The member has taken a small number of words out of a longer quote. What I said was that the National Party Government of 2010 had followed what was then, I think, a fascistic sort of ACT Party—no reflection on today’s single member representing that party—in passing the law, and in order to do so, they had defied the advice of their own Attorney-General, who had said that doing so was inconsistent with the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act, something that I know is very important to that member.
Act’s Davis Seymour inevitably raised a point of order: he was grateful for Little’s concession that he wasn’t a fascist, but –
” … I actually take offence at referring to past members of this House from any party as being fascists. It’s a very serious claim, and historically inaccurate and very insensitive.”
How far did he get with that line of argument?
SPEAKER: The problem I have is that the word was introduced by the questioner, allegedly as a direct quote from the member outside the House, and the Minister was, essentially, being required to answer that. I think it is a different context to making an allegation, a more general allegation, that doesn’t flow from a question. I was listening carefully. I know that some of the members concerned or former members concerned will not be happy with it, but I did let it run.
Smith put another question.
He didn’t get far, either, and Little took advantage of the Speaker’s intervention.
Hon Dr Nick Smith: Does the Minister accept that in the Newshub interview he used the word “fascist” in respect of the ACT Party and the National Party, and does he now regret that, noting that his own coalition partner, New Zealand First, supports the policy—
SPEAKER: Order! Order! The member’s done two questions.
Hon ANDREW LITTLE: Sorry, I heard at least three questions there, and I think probably the most accurate one is no.
Point of Order consulted the Cambridge Dictionary online for advice on the plural of referendum. The answer:
plural referendums or formal referenda
This article in The Spectator was headlined Why the plural of ‘referendum’ must be ‘referendums’.
Especially interesting is the history it provides:
It’s odd no one can agree — not about the politics, but about the word.
Part of the trouble is that it’s newish, never used in English before 1817. Since then, like foot and mouth, it has come in spikes.
One spike was in 1898–99, when the six colonies of Australia tried to federate.
Referendums held in 1898 failed, because New South Wales had required a minimum of 80,000 votes in favour, and only 71,595 were forthcoming.
So in 1899 everyone wore ribbons printed with ‘Federation Yes!’ This time it worked.
A generation later, in 1923–4, The Spectator sought referendums on Empire Free Trade.
For a century and more, The Spectator called them referenda: in 1945, or in 1978 in a piece by Vernon Bogdanor, or in 1997 in one by Sir (as he wasn’t yet) Peregrine Worsthorne.
In 1993, even Simon Heffer wrote here of referenda. Since, in 2010, he was to declare for referendums in the Daily Telegraph style book, perhaps that referendahad been thrust upon him by subeditors.
How can we decide? The OED says referendum is either from ‘classical Latin referendum, gerund or neuter gerundive of referre’. It doesn’t insist. Its 1989 edition had said: ‘referendums is logically preferable as a modern 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’. It thought referendums would prevail. A revision in 2009 found usage ‘fairly evenly divided’. It judged the appeal to plurality of issues ‘unlikely to affect actual usage’.
More’s the pity, writer Dot Wordsworth concluded. Gerund or gerundive, she said, the plural in English must be referendums.