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Finally, a trio of chunky referendum issues to spice up the next election

In Toronto, a man takes a selfie during a marijuana legalisation party in October. Photo / Getty Images

Referendums on some ticklish issues would spice up our next election.

Mmm... Wake up and smell the democracy.

Does someone have to be a total politics tragic to have felt a frisson of excitement when Justice Minister Andrew Little floated the possibility of holding three contentious referendums at or before the general election in 2020?

Probably. But for those of us with a taste for this kind of thing, an omnibus poll on cannabis law reform, euthanasia and rejigging MMP promises to add extra savour to the usual cyclical menu. Any of the issues on its own has the potential to unleash fear, loathing and fireworks, along with – more usefully – an exploration of the facts, reasoned debate and thoughtful consideration of possible outcomes. Brought together as a triple-header of referendums on election day, they could spice up the 2020 campaign – and give voters three good extra reasons to pay attention.

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Not convinced? That may be partly because our last referendum, in 2016, was such a fizzer. Some people obviously felt strongly about wanting to change the New Zealand flag or keep the one we’ve got, but in the end flags are about presentation rather than substance. It was like having a national debate about decor.

Ditching the Union Jack from the top corner of the flag would supposedly have been “symbolic”, but always seemed a little beside the point with the Queen still our head of state. Now, that poll – the one that takes the first step towards turning us into a republic, or delays the inevitable – will be worth getting excited about.

To better appreciate the appeal of a decent referendum, think back if you’re old enough to 1992 and 1993, when we voted to replace our First Past the Post voting system with MMP, an historic step some of us still seem to be trying to get our heads around, politicians included.

The desire for change back then was supercharged by a sense of betrayal felt by voters on both sides of the political divide, due to Labour’s post-1984 swerve into Rogernomics and National’s continuation of the approach after 1990, despite having promised a Decent Society.

That sentiment was harnessed by reform campaigners such as the late Rod Donald, who had long promoted the proportional-representation cause, even when most of the mainstream wrote it off as irredeemably kooky.

Read more: National's high-risk gamble on marijuana and euthanasia

On the other side of the argument, unlikely alliances were forged in defence of the status quo. Neither main party was thrilled with the idea of diluting the power they were granted, turn-about, by First Past the Post – which explains how then Labour deputy leader Helen Clark ended up on the same side of the argument as National Party figures like Bill Birch and anti-MMP campaign leader Peter Shirtcliffe.

The strange bedfellows fought hard, but lost. And all their predictions of doom, gloom and instability if MMP was adopted have since been revealed as over-egged, to put it mildly. When National opted to revisit the question with a referendum in 2011, nearly 58% of voters voted to keep MMP.

Looking back, that jolt of “people power” back in the early 90s has enforced another kind of stability in the years since, constraining our leaders from those surprise flights of reforming zeal that somehow didn’t rate a mention in the manifesto.

A protest for a further vote on the final Brexit deal. Photo/Getty Images

We don’t have to look far, however, for an example of a referendum delivering an ever-worsening roster of unintended consequences.

Britain’s Brexit, like our switch to MMP, was set in motion by a leader who actually opposed change, but promised a referendum for reasons of political expediency. In New Zealand, almost a quarter of a century ago, Jim Bolger swallowed his objections to the new system and calmly put together our first MMP government. But having provided the Brexit matches, UK Prime Minister David Cameron saw no option but to stand well back when voters duly lit the blue touch paper.

For now, it’s impossible to see Britain’s messy divorce from Europe bedding in as smoothly as our big electoral change has in the past 25 years (give or take the odd minor party meltdown). Perhaps Cameron’s successor Theresa May is her country’s own Great Helmsperson, capable of fulfilling the wishes of the narrow pro-Brexit majority while avoiding the worst of the widely predicted consequences. But with dire warnings mounting – and the British Parliament set to vote on her exit deal soon after this magazine went to press – few would bet on it.

None of the three issues flagged for referendums here are on the scale of a Brexit or a wholesale change to our voting system, but they are meaty enough, especially if rolled together into a Super Saturday election-day poll. Each arises out of separate fields and different circumstances: a public vote on the personal use of cannabis by the 2020 election was agreed to by Labour and New Zealand First as part of the support deal with the Greens after the last election; Act leader David Seymour’s End of Life Choice Bill passed its first reading late last year, but to win the support of New Zealand First could be amended to require a referendum; and Electoral Commission recommendations that the MMP threshold be reduced from 5% to 4%, and the coat-tailing provision (which allows parties that win an electorate seat to bring in more MPs without reaching the threshold) be axed, date back to 2012, but were rejected by the National-led government of the time.

Each is in its own way worth putting to the public, in what younger voters might regard as a kind of “crowdsourcing” of political decisions.

Canada’s recent decision to legalise the recreational use of cannabis and growing opinion-poll support for cannabis law reform here suggest we might be at or approaching some kind of tipping point on the issue. The anti-reform lobby perhaps encourages some of our MPs to be more cautious than they need to be; passing the decision on to the public will give a reliable gauge of whether it’s an idea whose time has come.

Similarly, why should passionate campaigners on either side of the euthanasia debate squeeze our MPs over a conscience vote until the pips squeak? A referendum would lower the temperature of the parliamentary process, and allow the public to sum up the issues before revealing its view, as expressed in the calm and properly democratic secrecy of a voting booth.

Read more: What you learn at NZ's cannabis museum-cafe 'will stay in your system for weeks'

Finally, taxpayers paid an estimated $1.4 million for the Electoral Commission to review MMP and recommend changes, only to see them shelved. Opinion polling and the submissions the commission received suggest the coat-tailing provision has few fans beyond the parties – looking at you, National and Act – that have tried to take advantage of it through shoddy electorate deals. Giving the public a say on whether to adopt the proposed changes is well overdue.

It’s also clear referendums generally might be a useful tool for a “three-headed” government that has to balance the priorities and bottom lines of three very different parties. Kicking issues into a formalised court of public opinion should avoid the corrosive effect they might otherwise have on inter-party relations.

Committees, reviews and working groups can similarly be used to at least defer decisions over issues where Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens are likely to be at odds, though that music has to be faced eventually.

National Party leader Simon Bridges has condemned the Ardern Government’s reliance on the latter approach, and he was also pretty cool on the multi-referendum idea, asking whether voters might not find too many polls distracting from “the main deal” of the general election. He fretted that three complex issues would be “a lot to take in for people”.

His concern is touching, but he really should have greater faith in his fellow citizens’ ability to multi-task. 

This article was first published in the January issue of North & South.