Posts Tagged ‘referendum’

For those of you not following international news, Scotland is beginning the process of nicely asking the UK government to please let it vote on whether it still wants to be part of the UK, again, please and thankyou. While Scotland can’t really hold a binding vote without the UK saying so, the UK also can’t really claim to legitimately represent Scotland if it refuses a well-founded request for a referendum, and there is a lot of evidence that suggests that the tide may now have turned in favour of Scottish independence from the UK, and its re-admittance into the EU. It’s a bold power-move on the day before Theresa May was expected to trigger Arcticle 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, basically pushing the one-year timer on leaving the EU. It has turned Westminster’s vision of a new, global Britain upside down, and arguably into what it already is: a path that risks the very future of the United Kingdom itself, stoking Scottish nationalism and calls for Irish re-unification. Theresa May, of course, has denied that the timing Nicola Sturgeon wants is practical, and will turn down such a referendum proposal. This of course, puts the onus back on the UK government to outline when they would consent to a referendum, which of course has strategically been kept quiet, because it’s more about trying to bully Scotland into staying than actual concerns around the Brexit negotiation. We’ll see how the showdown between the two works out, but so far I’m scoring it to Scotland overall.

For those who are not aware, I am actually a United Kingdom dual national, and have lived (briefly) in England, but the advantage of living in New Zealand for most of my life is that I can have a degree of understanding of the UK while still being seperate enough to see it from the outside. My position has been that the UK is England-centric, and needs to reform its government on a federal basis with a more representative voting system if it wants to hold on to the other three countries-within-its-country, and that if Scotland really want to be independent they should get their wish. (At which point, I would probably never return to the UK to live even briefly, as it would have gone so far downhill as to hold no appeal- nobody will really like a UK where the Tories have a stranglehold on politics once they’ve experienced it, in my opinion)

The Scottish Nationalist Party (which controls the majority of both the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish seats in the UK Parliament) is coming under some arguably unfair criticism that this is part of a “neverendum,” (ie. continuously polling people on independence referendums until one succeeds and then immediately declaring victory) of trying to set up IndyRef2 to lead to a more winnable IndyRef3, (which is not only stupid tactically, but just plain wrong- that timing argument revolves around the misconception that the Referendum is being proposed before relevant details of the Brexit deal are finalised, when in fact the parts Scotland most strongly objects to have already been determined by a Tory UK government, and the First Minister insists on a finalised Brexit position from the UK before a vote happens) and of simply trying to derail Brexit, to which I’d argue you can’t derail something by desperately searching for a pair of rails to get it back onto.

To understand a bit of what’s going on, we need to rewind a little bit before starting on the current situation, and talk about how the EU ended up a little more complicated than an in-or-out relationship. The UK was a lot more “out” already, pre-Brexit talks, than most European nations get to be. It had a special dispensation from the Eurozone, (the name for the area formed by countries which use the Euro as their currency) which Scotland will not get if it rejoins, and an exemption from the Schengen Agreement, which requires abolition of border controls between participating countries, which Scotland would likely also need to agree to in order to re-join the EU. Instead of Schengen, the Republic of Ireland and the UK are in a special exemption that was known as the “Common travel area,” where they’ve agreed to freedom of movement, but still retain the right to check people’s passports and ensure they’re actually EU nationals before admitting them into the UK. This was considered a reasonable compromise for the island nations at the time freedom of movement was proposed, however now that the EU has a formal agreement under the Lisbon Treaty, any new members have to sign up to being 100% in the EU, rather than getting to pick and choose like those who were part of its formation got to. This situation hasn’t differed from the first independence referendum.

The UK is currently part of the European Economic Area, or “single market,” (the EU’s free-trade zone, essentially, which is actually a little bit wider than just EU members) but the Conservative government aims to leave as part of its “hard Brexit” approach, as it’s not possible to opt out of Freedom of Movement, which it wants to do to control immigration, without also leaving the single market. Prior to the Brexit vote and change of Prime Ministers it necessitated, it was considered a ridiculously hard-line position to propose a hard Brexit, as it would essentially be giving away much of London’s financial services industry, either to Ireland or to continental European nations, and none of the leaders of the Leave campaign wanted to commit precisely to a hard Brexit, maintaining that free trade with Europe was possible while still clawing back those immigration powers. (and in the long term, maybe it will be, but not immediately post-exit)
This is as opposed to a “soft Brexit” approach, which is likely what Cameron expected his opposition to advocate, and what was Nicola Sturgeon’s bottom line for Scotland, where the UK would negotiate an exit deal similar to Norway where it retained some degree of free trade and freedom of movement, but could discard roughly 75% of European laws and access/membership of many European institutions in favour of return of sovereignty to the United Kingdom. (which is why a lot of the Remain campaign insisted that Brexit meant either economic shock or inability to claw back control over immigration policy)Now that we’ve covered a bit of EU basics, we can return to Scottish independence. The first independence referendum was an interesting campaign, that largely failed due to two critical campaigns from the No campaign, which was aggressively backed by English MPs:

    That Scotland would be given new powers and the UK would transition to a “near-federal” model.That Scotland would risk its EU membership if it voted for independence, as there was no procedure set up by the EU for secession within member states granting membership to the new nation.

Post-Brexit, many prominent European leaders have made guarantees to Scotland that if they do achieve independence, they will be welcome back in the EU, so let’s dispense with that second argument already. It’s not relevant, everyone knows Scotland has a place in the EU if it can achieve its independence. In retrospect, claims that Scotland risked its EU membership by becoming independent were effective but erroneous scaremongering.

How went the promise of new powers for Scotland? Well, the UK agreed to take less tax away from the local administration… and then promptly went on to kick Scottish MPs out of votes relating solely to England, (making clear that England views the UK Parliament as an English Parliament, belying again that promise of near-federalism) and then in order to secure its Brexit powers in court, sucessfully argued it didn’t need to get permission from Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland to initiate Brexit, even though the law explicitly required it.

Scotland has been agitating since the Brexit vote for a “soft Brexit,” that is, they don’t want England to wreck the entire UK’s economy in its determination to leave the EU. This isn’t an unreasonable position, although it’s unclear whether a compromise between the two positions of the largely-English UK Government and Scottish assembly is even possible, let alone what it would look like. The UK Parliament in Westminster has, essentially, ignored the Scottish Assembly in Holyrood, and proceeded precisely as it wishes thanks to that fundamentally wrong court decision.

So now we’re back to the independence referendum, and Scotland has a legitimate argument that the promises they were made in order to secure a “No” vote have been violated, that their assumption that “No” secured their place in the European Union is clearly incorrect and their attempts to compromise on a soft Brexit have been ignored, and that frankly public opinion may be changing in favour of independence.

This new case for independence is going to pit re-joining the EU against remaining in Brexit Great Britain. And there are disadvantages to both sides- Great Britain means that Scotland’s remaining oil revenue will likely go to collective UK spending, that Scotland will continue to have minimal impact on UK policy, and will be subject to a much more conservative Westminster Parliament controlling much of its law, and even stealing back powers that Scotland currently has.

But rejoining the EU will mean adopting the Euro, which means that Scotland would be vulnerable to potential future crises like the Greek Debt crisis. It also means that Scotland will have difficult financial problems to solve, as current estimates are that it’s a net beneficiary of UK spending compared to its tax take, and under the EU it is likely to be a net taxpayer rather than receive net subsidies. It will have to deal with the realities of joining the Schengen zone. It may be stuck with a UK Northern Ireland to its west and England to its south if calls for an Irish re-unification don’t eventuate, and there will likely need to be some sort of border procedure with England if Scotland does re-enter the EU, as there is no way that England will accept open borders with a country in the Schengen zone. It will also mean a wait for Scotland to rejoin, as it will have to go through the application process, which will mean that Scotland will need to be prepared for life outside of not only the UK if it votes for independence, but also outside of the EU for at least a few months, or even years. It’s also worth noting that the staunchest opposition to Scotland’s re-admittance, from Spain, seems to have softened now that it’s not being compared to the Catalan situation so much.

Scotland is smart to push for IndyRef2 now, while the Article 50 negotiations on the UK leaving the EU are still in the future. If Westminster shows reluctance to allow a Scottish vote on independence, it’s highly likely that as part of their determination to punish the UK for leaving, leaders who are militantly pro-EU will likely push for guarantees for Scotland and Northern Ireland to be able to determine if they want to split and re-enter the EU, as EU members are pretty adamant that the UK will be choosing between what it would call a “bad deal” or “no deal.”

And unlike the first independence referendum, if this one eventuates, it will be much more difficult to find Scottish organisations willing to front another “No” campaign- Scottish Labour has all but collapsed, and all the promises that helped the “No” campaign out last time won’t be credible after Theresa May’s strongarm position on devolved administrations in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales.

Fairfax has an interesting article up by Eric Crampton, in which he laments that the referendum might not pick a Condorcet winner. He actually understands voting systems, I would say, but he’s not exactly picked a great one to advocate. I agree with him to the extent that I think releasing anonymized voting data so people can run it through other electoral systems seems like a legitimate use of the OIA to me, and shouldn’t compromise secrecy. (I have fired off an enquiry to the Electoral Commission checking on this info, and asking them to identify any legislation that would prevent disclosure of the number of each unique preference order chosen in the first referendum)

Update: I did get my OIA back, but it refused to release the information on the same grounds, and I really didn’t think it was worth taking to the Ombudsman.

But determining if there even is a Condorcet winner requires voters to rank every option, an exercise that often fatigues voters who only want to vote for options they’re enthusiastic about. Requiring people to rank minnow options is a recipe for suppressing voter turnout. (They had to make voting compulsory in Australia to combat the fact that people don’t want to rank every option, which their at-large STV system requires for no sensible reason) Many people legitimately do not care which of several options they get if their actual preferred options are knocked out of the race.

There are two other problems with a Condorcet race. The first is that in insisting that head-to-head (or pairwise) competitions are the best measure of success, it actually robs the race of wider context. Sure A beats B, and B beats C, and A beats C, but you can only ever tell how any option fared relative to a single other option. You can’t see that actually A is the second or third choice of many voters, and that in a more expressive race B might actually be the best candidate.

I have said before that the way the referendum works is the best way it could work, if we vote using an election system we’ve already trialed in New Zealand.

The last problem with a Condorcet race is that it often doesn’t produce a winner. Using flags as an example, what if Koru beats Red Peak, Red Peak beats the Red White and Blue silver fern, but that silver fern beats Koru, and they all beat the remaining two options? Then there is no Condorcet winner. Election systems based on this idea of head-to-head contests then apply mathematical rules, often about how decisively each option has beaten each other option, to decide a winner, when this information should be supplied by voters. STV does a crude version of this by asking voters to rank every option they want to win. (Our version in New Zealand allows them to omit options they don’t care about, and treats them all as last-equal, never assigning your vote to them)

STV is not a perfect voting system. It’s not even the best voting system we know about. It fails the “favourite betrayal” criteria under certain circumstances, meaning you can cause your favourite to win by ranking them lower than your actual preference, and cause them to lose by ranking them first. But it is a more expressive and generally superior voting system to Condorcet systems, and it generally produces a good result compared with FPP “tick only one box” systems.

If Eric wants a more representative vote, I suggest he advocate Range Voting for future referenda. Here’s what it might look like for the first referendum: (You could even sneak the current flag onto the ballot and eliminate the need for two referenda in this system, as unlike STV, it wouldn’t cause any issues adding the current flag into the ballot)

flag referendum range vote

Basically, you rate as many flags as you like from 1-9. The voting form could be exactly as simple as the STV one, or you could include check boxes like above for people with difficulty writing clearly distinct numbers.  On the form above, we would count the vote as 9 for Black and White silver fern, 8 for Red Peak, 5 for Black Blue and Red silver fern, no preference for Koru, and 1 for Red White and Blue silver fern.

That would mean that this voter would feel that Black and White silver fern is the best possible option, and Red White and Blue silver fern is the worst possible option. They think Red Peak is very good, and that the Black Blue and Red fern is average. The scores for each option are then averaged in each counting station, and weighted by the number of people who recorded a preference for each option. (The number that didn’t vote for each option is also recorded) These totals can be passed to a central office, where some simple multiplication and addition can determine national-level winners easily. (The winner is the option with the highest average score that reaches a minimum threshold of people choosing to vote for that option. If say, less than 10% of voters expressed a preference for an option, it would be discarded regardless of it’s rating as being too obscure, to protect from obscure options winning with a relatively small number of votes, especially in elections with a large number of available options to rate)

The advantages of this system are numerous. First, it implies a preference order. Secondly, it allows people to express the size of the gaps in their preference order- this voter not only thinks that the Red White and Blue fern is the worst option, they think that even their second-to-last preference is average, while that option is terrible. It allows voters to express how bad they feel the options they don’t prefer are. Voters can even deliberately rank their most-preferred option lower than 9, or their least-preferred option higher than 1, if that’s how they honestly feel. (although that’s a less strategic way of voting- it’s a form of deliberate favourite betrayal, described above)

It has all the advantage of determining a “beat path” (from Condorcet) or a “preference order” (from STV) with the added bonus that it puts these things in context of how much each option beats or loses to each other option, and doesn’t require complicated totalling, instant runoffs, (which can introduce accidental favourite betrayal) or mathematical resolution when no condorcet winner is found. (For range voting to result in a draw, the electorate actually has to exactly prefer the candidates by the same amount)

This is the perfect system to use for a referendum when there are multiple options to choose from. It lets you independently express opinions for multiple options without one option affecting another, it can eliminate multiple-stage or multiple-question referenda like the flag referendum or the MMP referendum. And it’s just a more expressive way of voting.

There’s been a lot of noise from the right wing in this country that ignoring the family first referendum and going ahead with the §59 repeal is the same as the government of today ignoring the keep our assets campaign and going ahead with the mixed ownership model bill. (which I am now shortening to ‘MOM’)

As promised, here are more than three reasons why that’s rubbish:

  1. The previous referendum didn’t actually address what the bill did, it addressed a strawman of the bill that hasn’t come to life since. No innocent parents are being arrested for symbolic smacks. It was possible to say ‘no’ to the referendum question while still supporting the repeal- in fact, I convinced some people that they actually wanted to vote ‘yes’, to more clearly express their support for the repeal.
  2. It’s unlikely that people will deliberately spoil their ballots en masse to express their disdain for the current referendum question. A significant number of people did so for the previous referendum.
  3. The justification for repealing §59 was never that the public supported it. It was purely on the merits of the policy, and parliament (because the repeal enjoyed broad support of almost all of that parliament, in the end) was okay with owning that decision and going with policy over politics.
  4. One basic democratic ideal is that of continuous consent. We live in a democracy, but the government is trying to claim it doesn’t need continuous consent from the public by claiming that the election was a mandate for asset sales.
  5. Some argue that the public misunderstand the MOM. But all of the public criticism of these asset sales still applies.

To go into each of these a little deeper…

Firstly, the §59 repeal was a very specific bill geared towards removing a defense for the crime of assault, with the aim of making prosecution of serious child abuse easier in cases that went before a jury. If the question were to address the repeal bill, it should have asked “Should we repeal reasonable force as a defense for parents or guardians charged with assaulting children under their care?” It did not aim to prosecute ordinary parents for smacking, whether said smacking was “good” or not.

Secondly, if the question is so atrocious in a referendum that people are protesting it by spoiling their ballots, then something is seriously wrong with it and using it as a justification for anything is spurious at best. I won’t deny it did indicate that there was a lot of ill will about the repeal bill, but that’s okay. The left owned an unpopular decision, and I think it has actually made us a better country for having the debate, as it has reduced tolerance for both outright child abuse, and for corporal punishment.

Thirdly, there are two models for justifying a given policy. You might call them “grass roots” vs “centralised”. National has claimed that asset sales had a mandate, ie. that they were justified from the grass roots. Parliament decided it was going to mandate the §59 repeal itself onto other branches of government, ie. that they were taking centralised authority, and leading public opinion rather than following it. A referendum against the second type of decision doesn’t really influence parliament, wheras a referendum against the first type ought to.

Fourthly, to quote myself earlier,

A political mandate is retained by the support of the voting public. Note that word I used, “retained”? You don’t just get to have one for three years after winning an election, not if you endorse a democratic system which requires continuous consent of the governed to function.

John Key got a mandate to form a government, (which is what your politics 101 text book refers to, but I don’t think you’re a child, so you should already know that passing policies and forming a government are two different things that each require their own mandate to be justified) but there was never a clear display of public support for asset sales, as they weren’t the only issue at play in the election. He’s never obtained one since. This is a dramatic change of national policy that Kiwis have opposed ever since the first time it was hoisted on us, back when Labour was acting like, well, ACT.

You can pass a law without a mandate from below, if you have a good reason to – hence why we disagree that this referendum and the previous one are comparable. This is the reason that common definitions of mandate include a “higher command”- you can have a ‘strong leader’ who decides that they know better than the populace, if they’re willing to sell their idea and own it if it’s a failure. National have wisely not tried that justification for this policy.

We’ve let National choose their own justifications, and we’ve knocked each one they’re actually willing to admit down. Passing this law is undemocratic, it’s economic self-harm, it’s theft from the public, and it’s just plain stupid. I’m not sure what more you could ask for in terms of reasons to stop it.

The government never got a direct mandate for this policy, and it certainly doesn’t have one now, when it proposes to actually put it into action. Polls have always opposed asset sales, but the government said that their popularity meant that people supported them.

Fifthly, the public understand just as well as the government, if not better, what is going on. The problem, from the government’s perspective, anyway, is that people have realised that partial sale is little better than full sale. With partial sale comes the move to a corporate model for SOEs under the MOM, which is the cause of many of our previous issues with asset sales- a corporate-structured entity owned by the government is almost as bad as a corporate-structured entity accountable only to its shareholders. With partial sale comes minority shareholder rights, which means the government does not really retain full control of the company as it claims to- shareholders have legal justification to sue the government if they vote for any action that can’t be justified as increasing profits.

And for bonus points, I’m going to go for the other two defenses of passing this bill that don’t really relate to the referenda. The government attempts to defend the sales by saying they’ll be to kiwi mums and dads, and we’ll try to get them to keep those shares in New Zealand. Well, that’s a load of rubbish. In the sense that the term “mums and dads” is used in politics, it usually refers to median kiwi families. They will buy, at best, a vanishingly small minority of the shares put up for sale. As always, investment will be done, in the large majority, by the investment class with the existing wealth and disposable funds to afford it. Having kiwi millionaires own the shares is little better than having overseas billionaires and multinationals own them- it’s still benefitting people who don’t need more wealth, and who aren’t going to govern these former SOEs in a way that will benefit ordinary people.

Not only that, the government’s only announced plan that could reasonably prevent people from on-selling their shares to wealthy foreign interests, and worsening our cashflow problem, is that they want to offer bonus shares to people who hold on to the current shares. Except- <em>whoops</em>- they don’t have time in Parliament left to pass a law authorising that, and any capital loss (ie. spending that’s not an investment of some type) not authorised by an Act of Parliament is illegal, so they can’t.

The final attempt to defend this dead idea is that the sales will be good for the economy… except they’ll lose the government money in only a few years, the interest rate on our national debt is so low that cutting our way to a surplus doesn’t really do much for the state of our debt, and the higher electricity prices are likely to plunge growth back into the negatives again. So this is a relatively rare case of a bill which has completely no justification.

Remind me why it’s going to pass through parliament, again? Oh, right. Because Peter Dunne wants to be in every government he possibly can. What a great reason for stealing our state-owned power companies from us.