20 March 2013

CIR and Loopy Eunuchs

The Senate has referred the Citizen Initiated Referendum Bill 2013 - proposed by the sole Democratic Labor Party senator - to the Finance and Public Administration Legislation Committee for inquiry and report by 24 June 2013, with submissions due 19 April.

The Committee is to consider:
1. Citizens' Initiated Referendum (CIR) promotes greater openness and accountability in public decision-making.
2. Laws instituted as a result of a CIR are more clearly derived from the popular expression of the people's will.
3. Government authority flows from the people and is based upon their consent.
4. Citizens in a democracy have the responsibility to participate in the political system.
5. The Inter Parliamentary Union's call on member states to strengthen democracy through constitutional instruments including the citizen's right to initiate legislation.
A legal scholar might consider items 1 through 5 as claims, and problematical claims at that, rather than facts.

The actual Bill is less scary than it sounds, with the senator indicating that the object is to enable Australian citizens to initiate a proposal for a referendum to amend the Constitution.

The expectation is that
a) electors must register to amend the Constitution with the Electoral Commission; and
b) the Electoral Commission must review the application to determine whether the proposal relates to amending the Constitution; and
c) if the application is relevant, that the Elector must submit a document to the Electoral Commission containing the signatures of at least 1% of all Australian Electors; and
d) at least 3% of those signatures must be checked randomly by the Electoral Commission to confirm their validity; and
e) the Minister is responsible for introducing a Bill into Parliament to initiate the legislation to have a referendum to consider a proposal to amend the Constitution, should the Electoral Commission confirm that the necessary criterion has been fulfilled; and
f) the first Saturday of October in 2016 and every fourth year afterward will be the day for a referendum to take place.
Presumably once every four years we get to enjoy watching referenda from coelecanths on such utterly important matters as a 'space shield' to protect us from aliens, a canal from Adelaide to Uluru or establishment of Daniel Mannix Day as a national holiday. (The first referendum under the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993 (NZ) somewhat more sensibly asked New Zealanders to vote on the number of full-time professional firefighters employed by the government.)

The 1994 Parliamentary Research Service paper on CIR commented that
Like other proposals to renovate representative democracy [CIR has] however, been subject to considerable criticism. It is argued that:
• the CIR process can be captured by well financed interest groups;
• CIR supporters mistake majority rule for genuine democracy;
• CIR are socially divisive and prone to produce short-term radical solutions to complex problems and are totally unsuitable for certain areas of policy formulation (eg defence and foreign affairs);
• CIR are costly and destructive of good planning; and
• CIR pose a threat to representative and responsible government and make little provision for minority views
before going on to quote Geoffrey Barker's claim that although CIR "has, of late, attracted some surprisingly respectable friends" it is "largely supported by a raft of 'dreamers and zealots"and
is the last refuge of the political eunuch and loopy populist, and it exposes the nation to dangers including the exploitation of irrational fears and prejudices, and lack of balance and consistency in national policy formulation.
Scholars might turn to 'The Failure of Citizens’ Initiated Referenda Proposals in Australia: New Directions for Popular Participation?' by George Williams and Geraldine Chin in (2000) 35(1) Australian Journal of Political Science 27–48