Max Rashbrooke is a research associate at Victoria University of Wellington’s Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, and has just published the report Bridges Both Ways: Transforming the openness of New Zealand government. This article sets out the first of five ‘big ideas’ drawn from the report, with the rest to follow in subsequent weeks.

Number One: Crowdsourced bills

For most people, the process by which laws are made is a hopelessly arcane one. They have no idea how they might ever get involved in proposing or writing something that might one day become law. The procedures of Parliament are a complete mystery to them.

Of course, you could say that that’s what we have MPs for, and that’s true, up to a point. But they hardly have a monopoly on ideas for good laws, and there’s no guarantee they will think of everything that people might want put forward.

Fortunately, other countries have been thinking of ways to demystify the lawmaking process. Indeed some of the most exciting democratic innovations around the world involve the public in directly crafting and proposing legislation. One that’s worth looking at closely is Finland’s creation, around five years ago, of an online platform where citizens can propose laws that its parliament must vote on if they attract more than 50,000 signatures.  

New Zealand could follow this lead by creating a secure online platform for people to put up their ideas for draft bills. That could be a bill for a ‘Google tax’ like the one Australia has, or to create incentives for local councils to free up land for housing, or to decriminalise abortion. Whatever people proposed, the form they’d fill out would require them to give reasons for their bill, cite evidence and carefully explain how it would achieve what they wanted. That would do a lot to deter trivial or poorly-considered proposals.

“Why should we wait around for Parliament, when we have good ideas of our own?”

A small number of the proposed bills would be selected each year to go before Parliament, via some kind of democratic process. It could be that, as in Finland, all those with the support of more than 1 percent of eligible voters – which in New Zealand would be around 35,000 people – could go forward, or Parliament could reserve a few places each year for the top-voted crowdsourced bills, as it does for the Members’ Bills put up by opposition and backbench MPs. And Parliament would have to give priority to crowdsourced bills, to ensure they don’t get put off forever while the Government gets its own bills through.

As with Members’ Bills, the selected bills would be passed onto the Office of the Clerk to be drafted and improved, as another quality check and to increase the chance of their being passed. And they would, if supported by MPs, go through the normal process of being examined by select committees and commented on in public consultation. There is, admittedly, no guarantee the bills would become law. But Finland has shown it can work – the bill that gave them marriage equality was a crowdsourced one. And what’s certain is that the process would force politicians to give the bills a fair hearing, and would raise the stakes for going against popular sentiment. Even when crowdsourced bills don’t succeed, they create valuable debate and lay the groundwork for later change.

Official drafting and Parliamentary sovereignty would play an important role in checking poorly-considered or illiberal measures. If, for instance, someone suggested bringing back the death penalty, or a law that would trample on the rights of minorities, Parliament would still be there to stop it going through. In any case, the Finnish experience shows people use the process to suggest pretty reasonable (though of course debatable) things, like tougher penalties for drunk driving and changes to copyright laws.

If implemented, this process could provide a more concrete target for petitions, which currently get handed to a select committee and then, usually, die a quiet death. Crowdsourced bills would largely do away with the need for citizens-initiated referenda, except where individuals wanted to show overwhelming public support for their proposal. But if they still went down that route, successful referenda could likewise generate a draft bill to go before Parliament. The crowdsourcing process could also work in tandem with methods where government departments create radically open places to debate or ‘crowdsource’ legislation, while retaining control of the progress of laws.

The Finnish experience shows these things can work. And, what’s more, they help people feel like they can ‘do’ politics. Research shows that the crowdsourced bill process can engage people who aren’t otherwise politically active, including those in marginalised groups. In short, it’s an easy way to demystify a complex process, and to bring the art of law-making within everyone’s grasp. MPs will always run most of Parliament’s business – but why should we always wait around for them, when we have good ideas of our own?

Leave a comment