our looming fate

sophie stewart

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Increased discussions about New Zealand’s abortion law has thrown the debate between referendums and conscious votes back into the public arena. The outcome of this debate will determine the group of people who decide the future of our abortion laws.

With general elections, referendums are the most important elements of New Zealand’s democracy. But, after the flag referendum they have gained a reputation as an expensive waste of time. The complex nature of abortion law, combined with concerns about extremist movement groups polarising public opinion has made the case for referendums weak.

Further, a referendum has potential to limit the full expression of public opinion on abortion. Only a question capable of a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer can be asked in a referendum. Responding with a mere ‘yes’ or ‘no’ can not capture the scope of public opinion on the multiplicities of abortion law.

Asking a closed question also limits the efficacy of the question itself. The question: ‘should abortion be legal?’ is broad and may alienate undecided votes. But the more specific question: ‘Should abortion be legal before 20 weeks gestation?’ changes the scope of the conversation.

Concerns about the question become less important if Parliament decide the referendum will be non binding. A non binding referendum carries no guarantee Parliament will listen to your opinion and arguably, bears little difference to a (less expensive) nation wide poll. The Prostitution Reform Act was passed in 2003, despite a nation wide poll showing a clear majority of New Zealanders opposed the bill. While referendums have more sway than polls, to be effective Parliament needs to make referendums binding.

In contrast to referendums, a conscious vote is conducted by Members of Parliament (MPs). In a conscious vote MPs vote as individuals, rather than as a party bloc. Assuming Parliament is an accurate representation of public opinion, the speed, low cost and access to expert advice gives conscious votes an advantage over referendums.

But, ambiguity about what a conscious vote actually means weakens this advantage. Parliament has failed to reach a consensus on whose conscious a conscious vote is made on. In the conscious vote for the Marriage (definition of marriage) Amendment Act 2013, MP, Su’a William Sio voted against the bill on personal beliefs, John Key voted according to the view of his Helensville electorate, and Hone Harawira supported the bill in response to party pressure, despite it going against his personal beliefs. Without agreement on whose views a conscious vote represents, how can the outcome accurately reflect public opinion?

The inclusion of list MPs in conscious votes further skews their accuracy of public opinion. Because list MP’s are not directly elected by the public, there is limited opportunity to learn about these MP’s beliefs on moral issues. Yet, you, the public, are expected to trust these MPs to vote for you on important issues, like abortion, without means of holding them accountable.

Accurately gauging the public opinion is a difficult task, so faults with New Zealand’s methods of doing so are inevitable. But, with two changes the popular criticisms of referendums: their cost and time involved, can be minimised.

Holding a mega referendum would allow multiple issues, such as abortion, cannabis and euthanasia, to be voted on in the same referendum. This would consolidate the resources of three referendums into one.

Secondly, if the referendum questions were attached to the bottom of general election voting papers, printing and mailing referendums across the country becomes unnecessary. Referendum participation is also likely to increase because voting is made more convenient as voters are already at the polling booths.

Whatever the solution, it is important New Zealand resolves the debate between conscious votes and referendums. Attention can then be refocused on the primary issues and New Zealand can more efficiently continue its social progress.