The Law and Order Referendum
and other related issues in New Zealand
The Voters Understood!
Critics of the Referendum make much of the fact that the referendum question was complex, and therefore according to them, not understood by most of the voters. They may have been correct about the complexity to a fair extent, but it was in plain English, plain enough to be understood by all native speakers and probably most of those of our immigrant population eligible to vote.
Treat voters like mature adults, and they will act accordingly
People interviewed on TV news at the time and in other media were all sure that they clearly understood the question. As previously stated, NZ voters are perfectly capable of comprehending such a question when it is put before them - they are not incapable of thinking for themselves! Treat voters like mature adults, and they will act accordingly...
Anybody who had severe misgivings about any part of the question would surely have answered no, as did just over 8% of voters. All we have spoken to who did vote no, were in favour of the victim support part of the question, but were unhappy about either the minimum sentence or hard labour components. As the Dominion editorialised here, along with others, the only real doubt was the intentions of those who voted no, as we do not know which parts of the question they were not happy with.
The question, although it was relatively complex, was not contradictory in its objectives or in the outcomes sought by each component of the question. The overall thrust or policy direction of the question was abundantly clear. The objectives in fact mesh with each other in a way that current justice system outcomes do not.
Victim advocacy groups have been asking for better protection for victims (by means of preventative detention or other means) for a long time. The idea that inmates should work hard and have their earnings go to the victim is one that will also please victim advocates, addressing as it does the restitution/compensation problem.
Support for the victims of crime is not at all in conflict with minimum sentences, in fact long term seperation of the offender from the society in which the victim lives is one of the things need and ask for most. Nor is hard labour or at least some kind of constructive work for offenders in conflict with support for the victim, particularly if, as Norm proposes, some of the proceeds go into the victims pocket! It is hard to imagine many crime victims will have a problem with the offender giving them money.
Had the referendum mixed two or three quite unrelated questions, then misgivings about the clarity of the responses would have had more foundation. For instance, if a referendum was to pose the question "Should the open road speed limit be lowered, prostitution be legalised, and majority jury verdicts be permitted" then confusion would be understandable, as these are three quite unrelated issues with no direct or obvious connection.
The Law and Order Referendum question on the other hand blended three very closely related questions into one, questions that moreover were likely to all be answered in the affirmative or rejected as a whole.
The overall thrust of the referendum question, and of public feeling, is abundantly clear. It has been for some time. The only time the public is at all sympathetic to offenders is when there is serious doubt about their guilt, e.g. Peter Ellis and others, or where there is clear evidence that the person concerned was acting in defence of themselves or their loved ones, or for some other equally good reason, e.g. Mark Middleton in the Karla Cardno case.
...their real concern lies elsewhere than clarity...
In addition there is the fact that the same question that was asked in the referendum was actually put before the public long before the referendum, when Norm Withers circulated his petition for the referendum. Those who criticise the question now after the referendum is complete and all the results are in, should have taken the opportunity to do so at that point, over a year before the referendum. The fact that none of them did so until after 92% of voters said yes leads one to suspect that their real concern lies elsewhere than clarity...
The question was also placed before the Justice Department as they handle electoral and referenda matters as well as legal issues, and they were happy with it. Surely anyone in the Justice Department, or anywhere else in the Government for that matter, with any interest in the outcome of the referendum, had their chance to comment on or even influence the question and its structure. The petition placed the question before hundreds of thousands of people, 285,000 of whom signed it (this is a post audit figure, pre audit it was 378,000). Effectively the question was "beta tested", i.e. field trialled, and with a very large number of people.
Another way of looking at this issue is to analyse the results themselves, which I have reproduced in the table below from the Ministry of Justice report on the General Election results. If we were to assume for arguments sake, that voters from a sophisticated urban electorate with a high proportion of well educated and informed voters were more likely to understand the referendum proposition, and therefore vote against it (or register an informal vote on the grounds that they found the question confusing), then we would expect to find a huge difference in the results from such electorates and other rural or suburban electorates.
...and we still have at least 71.96% of voters having both understood the question clearly and voted in favour of it.
In fact,this appears to be not the case, or at least not markedly so. The electorate with the lowest positive response to the referendum was Wellington Central, although it was still remarkably high at 77.51%. The electorate with the highest positive response was Bay of Plenty with 95.05%. The difference between these two electorates is 17.54%. The electorate with the highest rate of informal votes is Nelson, with 793 informal votes out of a total of 35,174 a rate of 2.25%, just marginally higher than Wellington Central. If we were to take a worst case assumption, and add these two figures together, we still only find that approximately 19.79% of voters at most could be reasonably assumed to have been confused. Subtract this from the exact positive result of 91.75%, and we still have at least 71.96% of voters having both understood the question clearly and voted in favour of it.
In reality, the proportion of voters confused by the referendum question is likely to have been much lower than this, borne out by the fact that in Auckland Central, another sophisticated urban electorate, the vote was 83.56% in favour, while in Christchurch Central it was not far off the national average at 88.69%.
The proportion of informal votes registered was also much lower in most of the other electorates, with a national total of 22,849, just over one percent. This is slightly higher than the percentage of informal party votes (0.95%) but quite a lot less than the percentage of informal electorate candidate votes (1.85%). This is yet another indication that perhaps the average voter was somewhat less confused about the referendum question than some people like to think!
The Ministry of Justice Report on the General Election results did mention some incidences of confusion about the referendum question, but these appear to be merely anecdotal and no solid data is presented to back up assertions of mass public confusion.
The subject of the intelligence of the average New Zealander is another issue often raised by those who are of the view that NZ voters are incapable of making decisions. Statements are made such as "50% of voters are of below average intelligence". Actually, when the question is examined in more depth, this turns out to be not quite true.
The average NZ voter is going to be somewhat more intelligent than the average New Zealander overall. Consider this; on average, only 84.77% of all those on the electoral roll actually bother to go out and vote. Incidentally, only 82.86 of those on the roll voted on the Law and Order referendum, very slightly more than those who voted on the other referendum on the number of MP's.
Therefore, the 15% least intelligent.... tend not to participate in the democratic process anyway.
Those who are motivated to vote generally tend to be more intelligent and better informed than those who dont (with the exception of those who have become so disillusioned with the political process that they have given up on it). They take an interest in the world around them, and usually read newspapers, or at the very least watch the TV news, so at least have a little knowledge of the issues at hand.
And of course, the dimmest of the dim, such as those in prison, are mostly excluded form the democratic process anyway. Therefore, the 15% least intelligent, those who "shouldn't be allowed out unattended" as one wag put it, tend not to participate in the democratic process anyway.
The isuue of whether the voters understood the question, and wished to answer all components of it in the affirmative, is one that is perhaps best addressed by means of an analogy, and so we shall do so here.
If one were to put this question to a partner/friend/flatmate;
In fact, most people would say no. But of course they may actually like the idea of going to town, looking around Borders, and maybe even some sushi too. They just have some taste when it comes to films ;-) . If the same question was put to them, but this time substituting a half-decent film, instead of a load of overlong, overblown Hollywood hype, we would instead get a yes!
By putting the situation of a complex multifaceted question at an everyday level, hopefully we have clarified this issue somewhat. Of course, in the referendum question, the situation is less ambivalent, given that all the aspects of the referendum question were highly compatible, and to a certain extent actually are dependent on each other.
One of the requirements a crime victim has of the justice system regarding an offender, is to be protected from them long term, which is the major driving force behind the campaign for minimum sentences. A system where the pain and trauma a victim undergoes is recognised, will first and foremost ensure an offender will be prevented from further persecuting the victim, by taking the offender out of circulation.
Even if the public are not in agreement with the referendum question down to every last detail, the mood of the public is clearly in favour of a tougher stance on law and order, and has been for some time. This is undeniable to anyone who has been taking any notice of stories in the media in the last few years, let alone the referendum result. It would not be in the interests of this or any government to ignore them, or try to deflect their concerns with empty rhetoric (Matt Robson, are you listening?).
Another, more complex approach that nevertheless brings us to the same conclusion is to treat the question as an excercise in Boolean Logic. Basically, this is a means of sorting through a number of conditions to arrive at a simple go/no-go or yes/no answer. It's used in a number of Internet Search Engines amongst other things, but the application here is fairly simple.
The Referendum question was what is known as a conditional "and" statement, i.e. for the statement to be "true" or valid, all the component statements must all also be true. If any one of the component statements is untrue (i.e. in this case a voter disagreed with it) then the entire statement is therefore rendered invalid or untrue (and in this case would have got a "no" answer).
This is exactly the process voters went through, perhaps subconciously. Most saw the three statements, agreed with them all, and therefore voted yes. Some may have agreed with two (the first two in most cases) but not all three - and therefore voted no. As stated earlier, this appears to have indeed been the case with those we have spoken to who voted no.
Where there is any doubt at all with those who did vote yes, it might lie with the definition of "hard labour", i.e. in the third part of the statement. That the electorate want reform of the justice system and longer minimum sentences there can be no doubt whatsoever
And, to finish, here's a wee quote from Norm for those who have the power to make the changes needed, but instead merely make sympathetic noises.