Are referenda democratic?

It was a surprise twist in an otherwise boring CBC National News panel the other night. It was an argument over whether a referendum was really democratic or redundant in a representative democracy. While it was not the well respected At Issue politically expert panel, the argument held enough interest to mull over as we drifted off to sleep.

What the panel did not get to was the point that there are questions that a representative government is expected to answer and then there are questions that are the purview of the citizens. What cannot be denied is that parliamentarians are entitled to change their minds and that the citizens have the final say in any matter.

In the example of the recent Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the initial decision to join the European Union was made by the UK parliament and the more recent vote to leave was by referendum. Both votes were legal. In effect, parliament ruled in the legislation enabling the referendum that the referendum would decide. And any parliamentarian who did not understand the risk involved in a referendum deserved what he or she got.

While there seems to be an opinion that a question on a plebiscite need not be binding on parliament, a referendum is considered final. It was why Prime Minister David Cameron had no option but to resign when his foolish offer to hold a referendum on leaving the EU blew up in his face.

Canada’s experience with referenda is no more joyful. In recent memory, the ill-considered Charlottetown Accord Referendum, and provincial referenda in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia have all failed. And that is not because Canadians dislike referenda. They take them seriously.

But Canadians also seem to want clear, straight-forward questions. If you ask them if they want to change how they vote, for example, you need to do a thorough job of explaining the alternatives. The people want to vote on it but first they need to understand it.

And it would be quite awkward for the Trudeau government to attempt to make material changes in how Canadians vote without a referendum or plebiscite. That horse has left the barn based on provincial precedents.

What is really amusing in the current Ottawa referendum argument is that the Conservatives are arguing for a referendum because they think that the voters will turn it down. The supposedly democratic Liberals are arguing against a referendum because they also think their vote reform will be shot down. Which begs the question: why bother?

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Copyright 2016 © Peter Lowry

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