Hard News by Russell Brown

Here we go again ...

Anybody get the feeling that Winston Peters would actually rather not be in a governing coalition? Yesterday he announced New Zealand First's non-negotiable bottom line for coalition - an annual round of binding referenda. To the polls every November, then.

National leader Don Brash didn't dismiss the idea, but Helen Clark was quick to raise the spectre of California, which has arguably been rendered ungovernable by decades of direct democracy - which has sometimes been no more than a tool for vested interests. The Herald story pointed out that senior Act party people were sitting at the back of the room for Peters' speech, and that the Business Roundtable had greeted the idea warmly. (Remember the Campaign for Better Government - the right's richly-funded put-up campaign organisation that tried to kill the vote for MMP?)

Peters steered clear of California in his announcement - preferring to point to the Swiss experience with "direct democracy". But Switzerland is a very different country.

Political parties are traditionally fairly weak - more so than unions. Direct democracy has been central to the political culture for more than a century, as has a living tradition of public meetings. TV is dominated by a stable public broadcaster, and print media ownership is varied. Would New Zealand under binding referenda be closer to that - or to the mess that ballot initiatives have wrought in California? It would be easier to feel comfortable with such a proposal if it wasn't being wielded by an incurable demagogue like Peters.

Typically, Peters' back-of-a-fag-packet policy doesn't appear to call for a quorum - a proportion of registered voters required to make the referendum binding on policy. So only a simple majority of those who bothered to vote - and our experience with indicative referenda is that few people do - would be required to overturn policy and thwart the will of a Parliament elected by many more. It would become very difficult for elected governments to make hard choices.

Peters' proposal to curb the "Labour dictatorship" by cutting the number of MPs from 120 to 99 - and thus gutting the select committee process - is simply fatuous, but it will no doubt play well enough with New Zealand First's traditional constituents. God. Spare me from this man and his base populism.

Salam Pax's video on the BBC site is cool - funny, poignant, messy and, in the way he manages to be, uplifting. He talked about his foray into videoblogging in his last Guardian column. But I wish he'd attend to his normal blog. Raed has posted a couple of brief messages, but they're in Arabic …

The super-rich George Soros puts his money where his mouth is, with another $US5 million donation aimed at the "central focus" of his life - getting rid of the Bush administration, which he regards as abusing American power and seeking to create a state of permanent warfare. He has so far given $US15 million to various liberal organisations. I did love the comment from a Republican party official: "George Soros has purchased the Democratic party." Now that's rich.

Soros is being joined in his mission by fellow squillionaire Peter Lewis, who New Zealanders may remember as the pot-smuggling billionaire.