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.

Electoral District YES Percent (of
Valid Votes)
NO Percent (of
Valid Votes)
Valid Votes
Informal Total
Votes Counted
Electors on
Master Roll
Albany 31,959 93.17 2,341 6.83 34,300 307 34,607 41,815
Aoraki 32,026 94.18 1,980 5.82 34,006 334.00 34,340 39,665
Auckland Central 26,116 83.56 5,138 16.44 31,254 642 31,896 39,934
Banks Peninsula 33,305 89.20 4,034 10.80 37,339 399.00 37,738 42,584
Bay of Plenty 32,786 95.05 1,709 4.95 34,495 262 34,757 41,630
Christchurch Central 28,727 88.69 3,664 11.31 32,391 405 32,796 40,083
Christchurch East 30,073 93.36 2,138 6.64 32,211 243 32,454 38,061
Clutha-Southland 29,056 94.71 1,622 5.29 30,678 259 30,937 37,167
Coromandel 32,496 94.11 2,034 5.89 34,530 367 34,897 40,278
Dunedin North 27,252 87.62 3,850 12.38 31,102 482 31,584 36,885
Dunedin South 33,125 92.61 2,643 7.39 35,768 316 36,084 41,686
East Coast 25,672 94.06 1,620 5.94 27,292 237 27,529 33,275
Epsom 29,160 87.33 4,231 12.67 33,391 389 33,780 40,316
Hamilton East 29,712 90.95 2,958 9.05 32,670 385 33,055 39,443
Hamilton West 29,948 93.44 2,104 6.56 32,052 228 32,280 39,305
Hunua 29,899 94.34 1,794 5.66 31,693 253 31,946 38,326
Hutt South 29,099 91.04 2,863 8.96 31,962 308 32,270 37,576
Ilam 29,684 88.41 3,892 11.59 33,576 404 33,980 39,472
Invercargill 29,901 94.63 1,698 5.37 31,599 271 31,870 37,303
Kaikoura 30,267 93.58 2,077 6.42 32,344 269 32,613 38,550
Karapiro 29,399 94.82 1,607 5.18 31,006 297 31,303 38,167
Mana 27,220 90.60 2,824 9.40 30,044 290 30,334 34,968
Mangere 21,218 89.01 2,620 10.99 23,838 325 24,163 32,851
Manukau East 26,606 89.26 3,200 10.74 29,806 460 30,266 40,490
Manurewa 25,507 92.99 1,924 7.01 27,431 214 27,645 35,815
Maungakiekie 25,251 89.57 2,939 10.43 28,190 386 28,576 36,417
Mt Albert 26,292 88.64 3,371 11.36 29,663 450 30,113 37,264
Mt Roskill 29,209 91.31 2,781 8.69 31,990 484 32,474 40,122
Napier 30,925 93.19 2,259 6.81 33,184 245 33,429 38,801
Nelson 31,450 91.47 2,931 8.53 34,381 793 35,174 41,212
New Plymouth 30,366 93.95 1,956 6.05 32,322 332 32,654 38,635
North Shore 32,024 91.55 2,954 8.45 34,978 379 35,357 41,569
Northcote 28,643 91.43 2,685 8.57 31,328 439 31,767 38,191
Northland 28,229 93.65 1,915 6.35 30,144 324 30,468 36,748
Ohariu-Belmont 31,468 88.63 4,038 11.37 35,506 376.00 35,882 41,067
Otago 29,597 92.79 2,301 7.21 31,898 306 32,204 37,096
Otaki 33,826 94.03 2,149 5.97 35,975 362 36,337 41,629
Pakuranga 30,382 93.74 2,029 6.26 32,411 296 32,707 39,358
Palmerston North 29,143 90.91 2,913 9.09 32,056 444 32,500 38,376
Port Waikato 28,831 94.40 1,711 5.60 30,542 233 30,775 37,490
Rakaia 30,955 93.23 2,247 6.77 33,202 264 33,466 38,633
Rangitikei 29,886 94.42 1,766 5.58 31,652 435 32,087 37,381
Rimutaka 29,387 93.37 2,086 6.63 31,473 267 31,740 36,913
Rodney 31,625 94.16 1,960 5.84 33,585 278 33,863 39,579
Rongotai 27,304 83.72 5,309 16.28 32,613 601 33,214 38,635
Rotorua 27,754 94.30 1,679 5.70 29,433 243 29,676 35,457
Tamaki 29,531 90.54 3,084 9.46 32,615 381 32,996 39,326
Taranaki-King Country 26,235 94.35 1,570 5.65 27,805 173 27,978 34,455
Taupo 26,573 94.73 1,479 5.27 28,052 219 28,271 34,483
Tauranga 32,063 94.73 1,783 5.27 33,846 375 34,221 40,079
Te Atatu 27,497 92.70 2,165 7.30 29,662 336 29,998 36,947
Titirangi 27,090 91.64 2,470 8.36 29,560 319 29,879 35,696
Tukituki 30,648 93.98 1,963 6.02 32,611 319 32,930 38,768
Waimakariri 34,989 94.10 2,195 5.90 37,184 247 37,431 43,305
Wairarapa 30,808 94.12 1,923 5.88 32,731 334 33,065 38,023
Waitakere 28,059 93.24 2,033 6.76 30,092 320 30,412 36,916
Wellington Central 27,422 77.51 7,956 22.49 35,378 746 36,124 41,883
West Coast Tasman 28,414 92.81 2,200 7.19 30,614 609 31,223 36,590
Whanganui 29,220 95.01 1,534 4.99 30,754 265 31,019 37,123
Whangarei 31,260 93.95 2,013 6.05 33,273 296 33,569 39,350
Wigram 30,981 91.56 2,857 8.44 33,838 382 34,220 40,803
Hauraki 14,220 89.45 1,678 10.55 15,898 182 16,080 26,476
Ikaroa-Rawhiti 16,219 88.12 2,187 11.88 18,406 203 18,609 26,957
Te Tai Hauauru 14,149 88.55 1,829 11.45 15,978 194 16,172 24,725
Te Tai Tokerau 16,196 88.06 2,195 11.94 18,391 236 18,627 27,748
Te Tai Tonga 16,554 88.41 2,170 11.59 18,724 235 18,959 27,584
Waiariki 15,817 89.42 1,871 10.58 17,688 195 17,883 25,910
TOTAL VOTES CAST 1,886,705 91.75 169,699 8.25 2,056,404 22,849 2,079,253 2,509,365

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;
"Shall we go into town tonight, have some sushi, have a look around Borders (a huge bookstore in downtown Auckland for those of you not familiar with it), and go see Kevin Costner's "WaterWorld" at the movies?"
If they say yes, than safely we can assume five things
1) They want to go into town tonight,
2) They want to have sushi for dinner tonight,
3) They want to go to Borders,
4) They want to see "Waterworld",
5) and they have NO Taste in films! (apologies here to all Kevin Costner fans!)

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.
"Words mean so little, they don't even move the leaves on trees"

A Statement/Speech from Norm Withers Home Back to Top