Do Canadians need more direct democracy?

Posted on March 23, 2012 in Inclusion Debates

Source: — Authors: – Opinion/Letters-to-editor
Published on March 6, 2012.   By Peter McKenna

I wrote in these pages recently about the need – given our declining voter turnout figures – to consider compulsory voting in Canada. Of course, voting is a critical component of any functioning democracy, but it is certainly not the only one.

Equally important is the presence of political discourse, public debate and consultation, and accommodating citizen demands. The problem with this, though, is that so few opportunities exist for ordinary citizens to participate directly in the political process – especially when it comes to actually influencing or shaping public policy and political decisions.

Part of the reason for this is the tremendous concentration of executive power in the hands of Canada’s prime minister and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). And this is doubly so when the party in power in Ottawa has a sizable majority, as Stephen Harper does today.

Add to this a weak Senate chamber and nearly impotent parliamentary committees and you end up with a system that seriously challenges “government by the people, for the people.” Much has been made lately about the Harper government’s ability to simply ram through contentious legislation on a bevy of matters – from law and order issues to Internet surveillance – without having to worry about any public push-back.

In the midst of a growing electoral or ‘robo-call’ scandal, is it not time for Canadians to consider the option of more government- or citizen-initiated referendums? By permitting more direct citizen input in policy decisions, would this not strengthen our democracy and political life in general?

We’ve had countrywide, and government-initiated, referendums in the past (on conscription and constitutional amendments) and several provinces have held referendums on issues such as video lottery terminals (VLTs), on joining Confederation, and electoral reform

In August of last year, though, British Columbians voted in a citizen-generated referendum on whether the province should retain a harmonized sales tax (HST). Almost 55 per cent of BC voters chose to scrap the tax – leaving both the business community and the provincial government with little choice but to admit defeat and repeal the measure.

Should we now hold binding referendums on cuts to social spending (changes to OAS), budgetary deficits, environmental matters, tax increases and capital punishment? Or should we have a more restrictive list that includes only critical questions like constitutional change, fundamental alteration of our health care system and international trade agreements?

It is worth noting that such referendums are more commonly used in Europe, the United States and Australia. At one point or another, they have instituted different mechanisms for consulting more widely with their respective publics: through government-initiated referendums, obligatory referendums and direct and indirect citizen-initiated referendums.

Obviously, there are weaknesses or deficiencies with each of these referendum types. For example, some scholars worry about how these participatory democracy initiatives will impact minority groups and their rights and whether citizens can actually make pivotal decisions involving public policy matters.

There are, in addition, legitimate concerns around the impact of referendums for government accountability and even the sustainability of political parties. One should also be cognizant of the ever-important issue of referendum fairness: in terms of who crafts the question, on whether the government remains politically neutral and if there are appropriate limits and controls on spending (such as disclosing funding sources) and initiation/petition drives.

Many of these challenges, however, can be minimized by proper regulation and the introduction of effective safeguard measures. Countries like Switzerland and New Zealand, which have extensive experience with referenda, would be instructive in terms of bullet-proofing this process from many of its potential flaws.

The important point is to ensure that as many voices are heard in the public square as possible, and through a variety of consultative mechanisms (people’s commissions, forums and the like). We need to have faith in our citizenry.

It will also be necessary for governments in Canada to instruct their respective electoral bodies to provide each household with sufficient information and argumentation to make an informed choice in any scheduled referendum.

No one is suggesting that these referendums would necessarily be the final say – especially those of a citizen-initiated variety. It may be more appropriate for governments to assign the referendum question to a parliamentary/legislative committee for thoughtful deliberation and to initiate a series of public hearings before actually sitting down to craft the referendum legislation (including regional and linguistic protections). This, in turn, would ensure that the finer points of our parliamentary democracy – namely, representative and responsible government and political accountability -are maintained.

Needless to say, this is not a clarion call for holding an endless stream of referendums on trivial and divisive matters.

Still, we should not be afraid of empowering citizens by giving them the tools to reject government decisions or allowing them to place important issues on the political agenda. Some provinces (though not all) already have referendum legislation on the books, but there is nothing really formalized at the federal level. Perhaps it’s time.

Peter McKenna is professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.

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