Brexit and the popular vote – a lesson in folly that should steer NZ First away from facile referenda

Veteran journalist David Barber, a champion of  voluntary euthanasia, and Ken Orr, spokesman for Right to Life, have found common ground.  Both agree that our elected politicians should not be passing the buck on the End of Life Choice Bill to a referendum.

They question the need for a binding referendum being held at the 2020 general election, if the contentious End of Life Choice Bill is passed at its third reading on November 13.  This is the consequence of the nine MPs of NZ First pledging to support the third reading of the bill on the condition that Parliament votes to support its supplementary order paper requiring such a referendum.

But the Brexit shambles in Britain provides ample evidence that a referendum can undermine a democracy rather than buttress or strengthen it.

The shambles is the subject of an article, headed Brexit is putting parliamentary democracy in question, recently published by the European Council on Foreign Relations, an international think-tank.  

It begins:

“Brexit may well become a textbook example of the damage that a referendum can wreak on parliamentary democracy.”

The author is Caroline de Gruyter, a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad and an ECFR council member.

In a parliamentary democracy like the UK’s, she observes, laws are made by elected representatives of the people, according to rules of play that have been established after long consideration.

“Members of Parliament almost never agree about anything. That is why they are there in the first place. Their job is to turn issues inside out, to deliberate endlessly, and – finally – to find careful compromises that take the diverse opinions of the voters into consideration. Thus, parliamentary democracy is a way – a ritual, almost – to ensure that various groups within society are not at each other’s throats.

“A referendum, in contrast – if it is not carefully managed and accompanied by rational debates, such as those that recently took place in Switzerland and Ireland – revolves around the sentiments of the masses. It is a snapshot, because … this sentiment can easily be manipulated and is as changeable as the weather.

“Moreover, it undermines the parliamentary process. Instead of reconciling groups in society, it sets them against each other. In the Brexit referendum, 51.9 percent of voters excluded the other 48.1 percent. Since then, there has been no way back and no way forward. Whatever happens, someone always shouts ‘that is undemocratic’!”

Sometimes the politicians simply ignore a referendum result, no matter the weight of public support for whatever is being decided.

Remember the referendum on reducing the number of MPs from 120 to 99 held on 27 November 1999? The proposal was supported by 81.5% of voters, with a turnout of 82.8%.

In that case – of course – the MPs’ own jobs were at issue and (phew!) the referendum was unbinding . 

Whereas that was an example of a governance issue that should not have been decided by self-interested politicians, more often than not MPs should simply get on with the job of legislating.  The select committee process typically ensures that public opinion is taken into consideration.   

On the issue of voluntary euthanasia, the weight of public opinion is already all too plain.

And as Barber noted in a letter to the Dominion-Post yesterday, every scientific opinion poll for the past decade has shown that two-thirds to three-quarters of voters want a law change to allow the terminally ill to die painlessly and peacefully.

“MPs should simply do what we elected and pay them to do – carry out the wishes of the majority,” Barber wrote.

On the Scoop site today, Ken Orr agrees that …

“Parliament has a duty to legislate for the protection of the lives of every member of our human family and not to preside over our destruction. Parliament in voting 63 to 57 in favour of the amendment to have a binding referendum on the End of Life Choice bill has shamefully abdicated its responsibility to protect the lives of the most vulnerable in our community.”

Whereas Barber says there is ample evidence to show public sentiment supports voluntary euthanasia, Orr argues that the total prohibition of the taking of the life of an innocent human being is the foundation of the law and of medicine.

The fundamental medical ethic of not killing or helping patients kill themselves must not be reduced to a popularity contest.”

NZ First therefore had a duty to protect life by voting against this bill.

Winston Peters is claiming that we should rely on the collective wisdom of the community and not on temporarily elected MPs, Orr notes.

“Why then, did he not call for a referendum in 2003 when his deputy leader, Peter Brown, presented his Death with Dignity bill? If this contentious bill is passed, NZ First must accept responsibility.”

While we await Peters reply to that question, let’s get an understanding of referenda and the fickleness of public sentiment.

Caroline de Gruyter – in her article – invites us to look at what happened in Tarrenz, a mountain village in the Austrian state of Tyrol.   

In 1938, villagers in Tarrenz held two referendums on the same issue in quick succession.

The first, held on March 13  1938, was organised by then Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg.

Schuschnigg was intimidated by Hitler, who increasingly threatened to invade Austria. On 9 March, the chancellor tried to push against the tide by announcing a referendum on the preservation of Austrian independence. But, two days later, he cancelled it under pressure from Hitler, who promised to invade if the vote went ahead.

Hitler side-lined Schuschnigg anyway, replaced him with a loyal Austrian Nazi,then marched his forces into Austria.

“But Tarrenz had not received the news that Schuschnigg’s referendum had been cancelled. There, the referendum went ahead as planned, with 100 percent of residents voting for Austrian independence – and, therefore, against Nazi domination.

On 10 April, another referendum took place. Because many Austrians welcomed Hitler with open arms, he quickly decided to ask the Austrian people to approve the annexation. This, he reasoned, would provide legitimacy to the Anschluss. And so, within one month, the village of Tarrenz went to the polls once more. To the question of whether their country should be joined to the Third Reich, 99.7 percent of Austrians said “yes”. In Tarrenz, support was even higher: there, everyone voted for Nazi domination.

The point is that the village completely changed its opinion on an issue within one month.

A referendum – remember? – is a snapshot of popular sentiment.

As Tarrenz illustrates, this sentiment can easily be manipulated and is as changeable as the weather.

Moreover, as the Brexit referendum illustrates, it undermines the parliamentary process and sets groups against each other instead of reconciling them.  

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