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Have we learned anything from past referendums?

Nov 25th, 2011 | By | Category: Featured Article, Front Page Layout, Opinion


REFERENDUMS are not always election-related.

In the past they have been used, sometimes successfully, to change how gambling, military training, and saving money have been conducted in New Zealand.

Up until 1949, off-course betting was illegal, but was practised underground in a thriving market.

Under the Labour Government, a referendum was held to allow off-course betting in New Zealand, with 68% of voters in favour of a change.

So started a craze that rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars a year and involves more than 700 gaming machines in Wellington alone.

If off-course betting had remained illegal in New Zealand, there is no doubt it would secretively carry on.

The average house could be a prominent gambling venue, which enthusiastic punters could visit daily to play the odds – even spending the whole day there if they wished.

There would be ringleaders with a lot of social power who would target financially vulnerable New Zealanders.

Police would have a whole department dedicated to catching horse fanatics and would raid suspicious-looking houses whenever they got the chance.

So maybe it wouldn’t be too different from our current situation – except for police response.

Today, New Zealand police can take up to six months to arrest someone who steals more than $80,000 and confesses, but will quickly react to a tape recording.

The second referendum passed in 1949 allowed compulsory military training in New Zealand, with 77.9% of voters in favour.

Under the Compulsory Military Training Act of 1949, all males, whether European or Maori, became liable for military service when they reached 18.

Trainees had to undergo 14 weeks’ intensive training, three years part-time service, followed by six years in the Army Reserve.

Trainees were allowed the option of serving with the Army, Air Force or Navy.

The scheme continued until 1957.

In 2010, former Invercargill judge Eric Anderson told a Stuff reporter he wanted to see the return of compulsory military training in New Zealand, saying it gives youngsters self-respect and discipline.

But in today’s society where women’s rights are more widely acknowledged and where more than 1500 women are in the armed forces, there is no doubt both men and women would need to be included.

This would cause a dilemma for the New Zealand job market, as without any younger people to do the undesirable jobs that older people might prefer not to do, businesses would fail.

What would a young Wellingtonian do? Flee to Australia where the minimum wage is  $NZ20.90?

That’s more than twice that of the National party’s proposed $10.40 starting rate.

In 1997, a referendum for compulsory retirement savings was held, and 91.8% voted against.

It was a scheme that would have enforced compulsory contributions from taxable income starting at 3%. Sound familiar? Add a colloquial name and an automatic enrolment plan and we have KiwiSaver.

With more than one and a half million people now enrolled in KiwiSaver, it can be said that New Zealander’s opinions on savings have changed since 1997.

Or – for young people at least – it could be the temptation of owning their first home.

But where are your contributions going? They could be invested in property in Australia.

The 1992 election referendum on the voting system allowed New Zealanders to voice their opinion on the first past the postvoting system, with 84.7%  wanting a change.

This year’s referendum will do the same, but with MMP the subject of debate and with the majority of New Zealanders being clueless about the other systems, it looks very likely MMP will stick around.

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is a Whitireia journalism student. Holds Bachelor of Communications, major in Journalism Studies, composite minor in Media Studies and Expressive Arts.
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