Asking the people – another close stem cell vote

Whilst I was checking out the results of the USA Congressional elections, I also had a look at the result of what the USA often calls ‘ballot measures’ – that is referendum questions on a wide range of specific issues.

By coincidence, the state of Missouri (also the location of one of the 2 critical undecided Senate contests) had a ballot asking people whether they supported legalizing stem cell research and therapies consistent with federal law. This is a bit different to what is addressed in the legislation that just passed the Australian Senate, but the vote was about as close – 51% in favour to 49% against out of more than 2 million votes.

At least 7 different states had proposals to ban same sex marriage, all but one of which succeeded. There were also 6 states who conducted ballots to increase the minimum wage (all successful), and 3 that proposed various forms of legalizing marijuana (all failed). One ballot proposal which received wide attention was a referendum in South Dakota proposing to almost totally ban abortion – it failed 45% to 55%.

I know some people are uneasy about Citizens Initiated Referenda because of its potential to allow exploitation of and unfair discrimination against minorities, but I think it could work well with adequate safeguards (like an overarching legislative Charter of Rights which referendum proposals could not be inconsistent with). Another possible protection would be to enable Parliament to still be able to legislate to overturn a vote. I know it has its risks, but so does any form of decision making.

I am concerned at how low the level of public engagement is in our political process – something which I think is getting worse and which I don’t think troubles most governments. Mechanisms like CIR would make more people engage with issues of interest to them and provide more encouragement for them to realise that they can have a direct impact on the broader political process.

Have a look at this page for a sample of more of the ballot measures put to voters in various states in the USA. This page also has some more background.

UPDATED 9/11: I just noticed another interesting initiative. In the state of Nevada, in both the Senate race and the contest for Governor, voters got the option to vote for “None of these.” I’m actually surprised how low this vote is, particularly in the Senate race which was never going to be close. I suppose with voluntary voting, most people who don’t like any candidate just don’t bother voting.

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  1. Citizen initiated referenda work all the time in Switzerland. They vote on everything from joining the EU to reducing the speed limit to 30km/h on suburban streets. The latter is probably the biggest danger – spurious proposals that could slip through – though with Australia’s compulsory voting it shouldn’t be a problem. If Australia had that mechanism, we wouldn’t be in Iraq.

  2. Referenda are probably more costly, but would be more representative of the people’s views.

    In the instance of embryonic stem cell research, it might have prevented very conservative older men from vetoing the use of animal eggs – which I think will create a lot of problems.

    On TV last night, Natasha was positively beaming. She said if it hadn’t been for the compassion of women in the parliament, all of the proposed legislative changes would have gone straight to the wall.

    At my first referendum, the aborigines finally got the vote. That would have been in the mid to late 1970s I think.

  3. Coral:

    I am feeling rather old, but I hadn’t realised I already fitted in the category of ‘very conservative older man’. However, my proposal to prevent the use of animal eggs in the creation of embryo clones was not opposed by anybody in the Senate.

    We have an existing code of ethics which applies to the use of animals in research. That includes a strong requirement that animals not be used where there is an alternative. It would hardly increase confidnce in any ethical codes developed around cloning if we were to blithely ignore a seprate pre-existing code of ethics in the process.

    I don’t think women have a monopoly on compassion.

  4. Coral, I think if you held these referenda at the same time as elections, it wouldn’t necessarily be that much more expensive. But I guess there’d be money spent on advertising for and against proposals.

    Personally, I’m still undecided about them. On the pro side, it means that you wouldn’t have to rely on the government of the day to raise issues, like we do now.

    But I still fear some of the divisivion that could result from some proposals. I imagine that some groups in America bring out the same issue every 2 years in a continual attempt to get their proposal up.

    I’d be interested to see some of the other arguments provided by this forum.

  5. On the issue of CIR it is said to work well in Switzerland as it has a relatively small, homogenous and literate society. Not sure if that really is the case or the message they want to sell.

    They are a real danger of majoprity mob rule and even more based on populist manipulation than we have now.

    The point rasied abvoe re Iraq is, in my mind a classic example of the problem of CIR. Initially the jingoistic patriotism whipped up by popular media would have voted overwhelmiongly to go and silenmced any vocies wishing to speak out aginst going. Equally now as its turned out to be long, tiresome and chaotic the popular vote is lets get out of here and forget it, which equally silnnces any voices that might have an alternative.

    So I do support our current process of deliberative decision making (even ditehring), although far greater use of real consultative mechansims, as opposed to interest group consultation (ie not just seeking submissions to Senaet enquireies), but greaetr use of citizens panels, properly designed and conducted opinion research etc to assit the deliberative decision making we have now.

    2) It is logically inconsistent to argue on one hand that the bits of tissue used in this research are of no form other than cells and have no humna characteritics when sourced from humans, but they are animals ratehr than equal bits of cells when sourced from anmimlas.

    I do support the bill by the way

  6. Andrew:

    When I mentioned “very conservative older men”, I wasn’t talking about you.

    The media interviewed a really narrow-minded old coot – possibly 20 years your senior, whose comments have really stuck in my mind.

    Natasha said nearly all of the women voted “Yes”, so I’m speculating that about three-quarters of the men had to have voted “No”. Perhaps you could clarify this for us.

    It was Natasha’s comment that women had demonstrated more compassion towards other people’s disabilities/illnesses.

    I have read your speech and responded to it on another thread.


    I think you are right about interest groups re-raising the same isssues very regularly. I guess that’s what you do if you want something to change.


    I think a referendum is a far better way to get an INDIVIDUAL viewpoint across.

    Panellists can speak according to their own consciences, ignoring the views of citizens.

    I loudly applaud the point you made at #5 2).

  7. It just occurred to me that if we did have referenda on certain issues at the same time as an election, it would prevent the elected government claiming it had a mandate for each and ever one of its policies.

    Polls have shown that people will vote for a certain party despite particular policies. It’s pretty clear that not even every elected member supports each and every policy their party promotes.

  8. Hello Andrew,

    Thanks for your initial vote. Despite all the fearmongering and innuendo from the religious right, the issues are very simple. Cloned embryos are made from only one set of genes, the genes of the donor, or patient. All other embryos are the exact opposite, a mix of male and female genes. From a biological, as well as a logical perspective, cloning is regenerating an existing life, not creating a new one.

    Granting equal rights to these two completely different entities can only be done by denying the rights of the half a million sick and broken Australians to GROW THEIR OWN TISSUE to cure themselves. These people are the ones who are going to have to make the decision to be involved in the process or not, and 12 months on we are still arguing about whether it is acceptable to give them a choice.

    The last time the Church barged into Parliament, on RU486, it was to declare that human life as begins from the moment of conception. Cloned embryos are not the product of conception, so on the Church’s own definition of it, a new human life cannot result from cloning. The Church has not conducted this debate with the level of honesty or civility required to achieve credibility in an open mind.

    Please, have faith in your initial instincts and vote for science and hope, and a future for those Australians with the most modest of aspirations, a normal healthy life.



  9. muzz: #7

    You are completely right.

    Having a referendum in conjunction with an election ought to save money also.

    John Collis:

    A new human life CAN result from cloning. Haven’t you seen Dolly the sheep?

    A clone could quite rightly be seen as the second, slightly altered product of the original conception.

    From what Andrew has previously told us, the cloned embryo will contain some genetic material from the host egg (whether human or otherwise).

    I think fewer Christians are against the use of animal eggs than are opposed to the deliberate creation of human embryos for experimentation.

    I predict that this issue will come up again very quickly when there are insufficient human eggs available to do the job efficiently.

    Hot off the press this morning – scientists have restored the sight of blind mice using stem cells.

  10. This thread is converging debate about CIR and the specific cloning issue – I’d prefer people posted specific cloning/stem cell comments on the previous entry if possible and stick to CIR and related issues on this one. Having siad that, to previous comments here so it is easier for readers to follow.

    John – the argument you put, which is similar to that put to me by a few other people, makes some sense in the immediate context addressed by the legislation. However, it runs into serious problems (for me anyway, and I expect for our society) once you consider the prospect of an embryo clone growing well beyond the 14 day period.

    If we adopt the belief that embryo clones are just extensions of the original person who provided the cells, or something similar to growing one’s own tissue as occurs with skin grafts and the like, then why would we not allow the embryo clone to grow further so its organs, body parts, etc could be harvested?

    My understanding is this scenario is highly improbable at the moment, as the science hasn’t really developed sufficiently. But it is quite possible down the track once the science of cloning develops – as it will in Australia with the passage of the cloning Bill (and of course alreday is in many other countries)

    It is totally illegal under our laws (current and pending), but the point is if we adopt a rationale such as you have put as a main reason why it is OK to create embryo clones for research and experimentation, once the technology develops further what argument would there be against proposals that we should legalise the harvesting of organs from clones to provide cures for various diseases?

    Ken: Your proposlas for better public deliberative mechanisms are good ones, and could provide a good alternative to CIR, which does suffer from the limitations of many proposals that require a yes/no answer to a complex issue. It could also be a requirement of any process that uses CIR.

  11. Yes, I think it’s still a problem – people don’t fully understand what might be created if the embryonic product of therapeutic cloning was implanted and grown.

  12. I’d agree with a level of Citizen Initiated Referenda though as Andrew said there would have to be certain limitations.

    My understanding was that the initiative and referendum in the US system was one of things introduced in the progressive era to fight corrupt party machinery along with the primary system and the ability to recall elections.

    There would be a number of benefits. It would encourage people to get more active, particularly around issues as change wouldn’t have to go through political parties.

    It would also motivate people to campaign around specific issues in elections, not just parties and candidates. Often issues that people are passionate about get lost during election campaigns. Though lobby groups may become more prominent, particularly the more well-funded and organised groups.

    Muzzmonster: I agree if we had CIR, it probably would provide a check on governing parties when they try to introduce something that was not in their election platform. However, if we take into consideration Andrew’s idea that parliament can overturn it. Will it be a major issue that will help get rid of that government or could you potentially have a farce where there’s a constant changing of particular legislation?

    Just a thought.

  13. Another good alternative to CIR could be for locals in each community to elect an individual to represent the views of the community in a place of forum. The delegates in such a forum would collectively guide the nation along a path in accordance to the wishes of the electors.

    In order for a check to be placed on this forum, a second forum would be created where delegates are elected in proportion to the level of support they have in the community. Delegates in this forum would be able to actively engage with and seek the views of members of the community as they review matters of public importance.

  14. Yes, that could be a reasonable starting point CU – although I like to think that a modern democracy could do better than that.

    However, I guess Australia could at least have another go at trying the method you suggest. If those people who control the first forum would let the proportionally representative people in the second forum “actively engage with and seek the views of the community as they review matters of public importance” as you suggest, we’d certainly have a much healthier system here.

    It certainly used to happen once upon a time, and it worked much better than what we have now.

  15. I’m not entirely sure that CIR is as brilliant an idea as all that considering Andrew’s observation about civic engagement.

    On one hand, if we did have CIR we wouldn’t be in Iraq right now but on the other hand, we’d probably have abandoned sole parents benefits or something.

    Maybe referenda in circumstances when opinion polling results reach a tipping point, but even that has its problems.

    I’d like to see a local council try it out first. Nope, that doesn’t work either, or we’d be preparing for recycled water in Qld.

    In conclusion, dunno.

  16. Andrew, I would be interested to hear your thoughts vis. deliberative polling.

    In Australia, this hasn’t taken off so much as in the states, presumably because we don’t have the lobby culture and the money that comes with it.

    Our real example was used with the republic, but in some ways I think it did deliberative polling a disservice.

    I think, in smaller governance situations, that deliberative polling can be extremely useful, and I love the idea of informing people before getting them to vote (surely, in the best of all possible worlds, a parallel to what our politicians do?).

  17. Andrew,

    In regards to the inquiring nature of the second forum, there is someone who believes “inquiries are about providing opportunities for public concerns to be heard and for valid areas of concern to be examined” and that interference from individuals in other places can lead to a “perversion of the process.”

    The view that the second forum becomes an echo chamber of the first forum when a group of people having control of both forums is, as has been noted, “quite clearly not true.” Those who oppose the majority would be the ones responsible for the perversion of the process, as they attempt to “enter into an issue to try to score political points and to try to oppose for opposition’s sake” rather than allowing a collective consensus to decide.

  18. I see CU – so anyone who opposes the majority on any matter, or even seeks to have an issue examined that (the minority who control) the majority don’t want examined, are ‘perverting the process’.

    Dissent = perversion. Interesting notion.

    It’s seems this idea of yours supports a notion that one group of people, all elected together at a specific time, should be able to do whatever they feel like for the next three years and everyone else who seeks to propose different views is ‘perverting the process’.

    Doesn’t sound like a very good process to me. It could possibly work OK in some circumstances, but if you had a an extremely rigid party system where parties almost always voted as a block – say like in Australia – it would be seriously deficient in trying to ensure community views and wide ranging information were taken into account.

    Seems almost like an elected dictatorship really – particularly given the prospect that people could use their time in power to do things like rort the electoral laws and massively increasing their access to entitlements and taxpayers’ money to maintain their hold on power.

  19. The elected dictatorship, where have I heard that line before? That sounds rather similar to a line used by a former leader of the Democrats, Meg Lees.

    Should representatives be “seriously deficient in trying to ensure community views and wide ranging information were taken into account”, I would expect those representatives would fail in their attempt for re-election.

    Given that no one single party holds an absolute majority in either house of parliament, I guess the sole factor holding the current government in power is coalition unity.

  20. Very tiresome CU, but will indulge you one final time.

    More and more often these days, representatives can’t help being “seriously deficient in trying to ensure community views and wide ranging information were taken into account” about major issues that affect huge numbers of Australians, because they are prevented by ‘Coalition unity’ from being given the time and opportunity to do so.

    I sincerely hope those who prevent this process (which you yourself recommended) from being able to work are held to account for perverting and degrading it, but it is difficult to bring the facts and impact of such things to the attention of the general public in the context of an election campaign (not least because ‘Coalition unity’ enables the government to raid taxpayers pockets to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars to promote themselves).

    You may well be right that Coalition unity is the sole factor holding the government in power, which is rather tragic. Enforced groupthink based on nothing but the imperative of holding onto power and privilege is a very narrow base from which to try to ‘represent’ public opinion. Sounds like a good argument for testing out some versions of CIR, so at least the diversity of public opinion gets an airing, instead of all views being subverted to the over-riding imperative of Coalition unity, regardless of the facts.

  21. CU:

    We already have an elected dictatorship, and you want more of the same?

    We need independent thinkers in the parliament, who deserve a chance to represent the views of their constituents and have them debated.

    We don’t need a coalition unity, of ANY parties or persons whomsoever, shutting down debate and controlling information so that one despotic leader can have all of the say.

    The name, Adolf Hitler, comes to mind.

  22. Andrew Bartlett:

    Voting options —
    Thanks for that link to Nevada. Please, please, please can we have “None Of These” on our ballot papers too, please? It might minimize the harm done by factionalism, nepotism, branch-stacking and policies-for-sale …. but then I’ve always been an optimist. :-)

    CIRs —
    My own bad experiences with rigidly-controlled opinion management in tight organizations, like the RSL, turned me right against CIRs. As the saying goes “Tyrrany Is Always Well Organized”. But the ultra-shonky way the Republic referendum was presented to the voters made me rethink my dread of CIRs …. at least with a CIR there my be less chance of a referendum questions being worded along the lines of “Do you want motherhood abolished?”

  23. To CU / Senator AB and others the debate here is being hijacked into a poetical discourse. What we really should be talking about is community consultation, not electing more people with the inevitable factionalism already acknowledged as the not ideal political paradigm we have now.

    We have the elected people already what we need to consider is how to enable their decision making to be better informed on the one hand and how to enable the community to have meaningful and representative input into the process.

    The process of engagement moves along a series of stages from information giving (passive provision of information eg newssheets etc) through information seeking (request for comment / submission) to sharing (direct interaction and finally participatory decision making.

    Most of our political processes are stuck on levels one and two – and in truth that’s the way the bureaucrats and political processes like it.

    People need to understand civic engagement is not a substitute for decision making, that is the proper domain of the elected representative, nor is it a panacea that means people will get what they want – it is a process to better inform the decision making process and to enable a greater involvement by ordinary people in decision that affect there lives.

    So please not more talk of electing more people and more understanding of the principles and polices of community consultation.

    Lynette – you might be surprised at the very real level of commitment to these processes by a lot of local governments – in fact at that level far far superior to anything that happens at the states or federal level.

  24. I’m very uneasy about CIRs, because, as Senator Bartlett would undoubtedly know, sometimes you have to make tradeoffs between desirable goals – the classic example is funding extra services or reducing taxes. How do you capture the necessity of making this kind of choice in ballot questions? And what happens if financial circumstances change?

    Furthermore, what happens when a policy that, when actually tried, turns out to be a bad one, is entrenched by CIR?

    I do, however, agree with the general sentiment for greater citizen involvement in politics. On that basis, I think Nicholas Gruen’s proposal for a People’s Chamber, where randomly selected citizens make a third house of parliament with limited but still significant powers, is worth a thought.

  25. If we can somehow have our voices heard at a meaningful level, and for those voices to carry the same weight as those who have lots of money and influence.

    Now, you do have to wonder about Sen. Steve Fielding who I heard was elected on 2% of the vote (haven’t verified it myself) allows the new media bill to pass. Do you think that he was acting on behalf of his constituents, what was the trade off – school chaplains or something even worse and yet to come? Most of us would not have wanted either of those outcomes.

    I still can’t agree with the idea of someone being elected to make decisions on our behalf, then, can have a conscience vote, and completely disregard the electors, and the greater good of the people. Or, do a behind the scenes deal whereby the electors are forced to live with the consequences (which were never put to them in the first place). Where is the accountability in the process and any real punishment for betrayal of the trust of the people? Is it taxpayer funded retirement on a gold pass for life?

    When we have an election, I’d like to see what each candidate stands for, there in black and white, before I mark my paper. We get delivered to us by virtue of the generous postal allowance, lots of glossy party machine achievements etc. but none of the hardcore beliefs and prejudices of the candidate, which I’m sure would affect my vote.

    There’s too much power in the hands of too few and not enough honesty and transparency – FOI is a travesty and not being honoured at all.

    How do you get the situation where our country is complicit in the invasion of another, completely against the wishes of the population?, I can think of no worse betrayal of the people, people (on both sides) dying for a fake cause.

  26. #25 – Is missing the point a bit. The point is that CIR and ohter mass majority processess have inhereht risks in completely taking any non-popular issue off the agenda.

    The last paragrpah is not accurate. There was popular support for the invasiosn, and there is equally popular support now for getting out. That is the danger of the whole “will of the people” arguemnt. Marginalsied will be even more marginalised – not in my view a good thing.

  27. Ken [post 23]:
    I commented on the “None Of These” option on ballot papers because Andrew Bartlett linked to it. (Excellent idea!!). Nobody is hijacking the discussion.

  28. I thought having a “Citizens council” could be a good idea. This would composed of citizens selected at random from each state, the number from each state being equal to the number of representatives in the house and the senate of each state (as in, Tasmania gets 17, NSW gets 62). Ideally this would be large enough to prevent corruption or intimidation of the entire council, but small enough to not be too expensive. It would be a low paid or unpaid position, for a limited term (1 month, 3 months, one year) possibly with cyclic selections (eg, if the term is three months, NSW selects a few citizens every week).

    This council would have some executive powers and possibly veto, both potentially only with super majorities. In a republican model, it could be used to select and/or approve a president. It could either meet as a whole or like the electoral college of the US only meet in their respective states or there could be even no meetings at all. It is quite possible that the citizens council would have no business for months or, if there are no exceptional events.

    It could also be used instead of citizens referenda. The reason being is discussed on this page:

    If I’ve understood that page roughly correctly, with a citizens council of about 200-250 people, we can be 95% – 99% certain that the vote of the citizens council is within 5% of public opinion as a whole, assuming the citizens council is a random sample. We are 99.999% certain that the citizens council is within 10% of public opinion. This means that a two-thirds majority in the citizens council with most likely represent at the very least a majority of public opinion.

    Its role would have to be strictly defined, but I feel more secure giving the sole power to call a re-election to a say, 80% majority of a citizens council than to a governor general selected by the prime minister, or solely by a president who can be threatened or corrupted.

  29. Clinton [post 29]:
    It SOUNDS like a good idea …. IF the selection process can be 100% free of manipulation; IF the participants can be protected fron intimidation, deceit and corruption, etc. But what do parliamentarians themselves think about it? (Apart from protecting their own patch of turf, naturally).

    Agree wholeheartedly with your concern about a prime minister having anything to do with the selection of a governor-general. We have all paid a hellish price for permitting the existence of that opportunity to abuse power. We don’t allow judges to be given presents by litigants and yet we allow prime ministers to put forward the names of governors-general.

  30. “None of These” sounds good to me as a voting option, Andrew.

    I agree with muzz. We should have referenda whenever elections are held to save money, and to save us from dictators who don’t take the views of constituents into account.

    More power to the people!

  31. I have changed my mind about “None of These” as a voting option.

    It would take away the opportunity to try to get rid of candidates/politicians I don’t like by putting them at the bottom of the voting order.

    The candidates of the larger parties might also be even more likely to be elected than they currently are.

  32. Some Republicans Go Too Far

    I think that “pro–life with no exceptions” is not a good idea, and it’s hurting Republicans. I lived in South Dakota and this did not play well with my Republican friends. I also think the “no stem cell research” argument is not playing well, especially coming from Rush.

    You cannot argue that stem cell research is morally wrong and in vitro fertilization is ok. It makes no logical sense. How can you say it is ok to disregard eggs as long as we are making babies, but it’s not ok to use those very same eggs for research to save people.

    The mean spirited gay bashing is also not playing well. I am not for gay marriage, but why shouldn’t gay people have legal rights like civil unions? I was shocked at the mean spirited comments directed at Karen Handel just for talking to gay constituents during the recent election cycle.

    I do not agree with the politically-correct prohibition against mentioning God in public, and most Americans agree. Yet, to not say certain Republicans are not crossing the line on comments about issues like abortion, stem cell…. is just not being realistic.

  33. the cloning legislation in Australia is never going to be okay for those who don’t agree with it… either way people will be lobbying hard either to outlaw or permit scientific experimentation with embryos.

    There’s a lot of superficial about vague moral and ethical issues, without much philosophical rigour – there’s not actually a forum where the debate can be had seriously.

    There’s no discussion on the potential danger of tampering at the biological and genetic levels. Manipulation of a new natural system brings with it the implication – us being human – that a natural system will in future have to be managed. It will become commodified in some form in our mercantile era, as body parts are being now. Genetic manipulation will be employed for functionality, for productivity, for status, and will then become a matter of style and fashion.

    Maybe I’ve read too much speculative fiction on the potential long-term outcomes, but it seems to me we need some discussion of the potential long-term outcomes… what’s human? Which parts to we want to keep?

    A new article at the Irony Party presents a serious examination of the issues associated with this legislation under the title Legislative Hurdles for New Humans (at

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