This page was updated on May 15th 2002
(Frequently asked questions)
FAQs may be the quickest way to get the flavour of direct democracy if you are running for political office, or office in a non-profit group; or making a speech or writing an article; or just curious. These are revolutionary ideas whose time will soon come.
This document and Executive Summary http://www.npsnet.com/cdd/ give a quick introduction to direct democracy.
What is direct democracy, in a phrase?
It is the right of citizens to hold referenda on any issue, and to veto existing legislation.
Why do we need direct democracy?
In a word -- ACCOUNTABILITY. At all levels, our governments are not accountable to ANYONE. If you ask "to whom should governments be accountable", the obvious answer is "the voters".
Why would we want direct democracy?
We hear a lot about "western alienation". We believe that most people are alienated from our political system because they are excluded from it, and that direct democracy will significantly improve access to law-making at all levels.
How many people want direct democracy?
In 1991, 83% of BC citizens voted for citizen-initiated referenda, in a referendum that was part of the BC election. In 1995, the Harcourt government introduced an act carefully designed to make citizen-initiated referenda virtually impossible.
Don't ordinary citizens lack the time, intelligence, and wisdom to make good decisions?
No. If this is true, then democracy of any kind is a poor system.
Does this actually work somewhere, or is it just right-wing theory?
It has worked in Switzerland at all levels of government for more than 140 years, and in several other countries, including the U.S., at state level. While it is the policy of the right-wing Canadian Alliance Party, many left-wingers support it also. Many small parties, including the BC Greens, Conservatives, and the Marijuana Party support it. The people who don't support it, generally, are those who have, or aspire to, power -- i.e. the governing party and the official opposition.
But doesn't Proportional Representation (PR) have the same benefits?
No. We at CDD support PR, which would make our electoral system much fairer by allocating seats in proportion to the popular vote http://www.npsnet.com/cdd/PR-West.htm But PR keeps all the power in the hands of the politicians -- direct democracy allows citizens to overrule politicians on major issues. Even more importantly, direct democracy creates, over time, a culture whereby politicians become (albeit reluctantly) more responsive to the electorate on most issues. http://www.npsnet.com/cdd/
But they have this in California, and money buys referenda down there!
If that is true, then we in Canada (and in U.S.) need to have spending limits on referenda, and on elections as well. Who runs our governments now, if not the rich?
But doesn't it lead to mob rule?
"Majority rule" is not "mob rule". People voting in referenda take their responsibility very seriously. The Charlottetown referendum showed this -- all the major parties supported it, yet voters turned it down. A referendum is very different from a poll.
But don't referenda take away the rights of minorities?
Studies in the U.S. have shown that the record of Representative government is no better than that of referenda in this regard. Neither system is perfect. Our constitution and our courts protect us; and the "double majority" is a protective feature that we can build into direct democracy.
If only 5% of the voters have to sign a petition to get a referendum does this lead to "neverendums"?
The percentage can vary from 1% (in large or geographically diverse populations), to 20% in a small town. Each situation requires its appropriate percentage. The hurdle should not be so high that a referendum can never be called. Most citizen-initiated referenda fail. Most referenda that try to overturn government legislation also fail. And the people can call a referendum to change the percentage.
But don't we get special-interest groups running the country?
They already run the country by lobbying government. In fact, some say that a government that wins an absolute majority of seats with only 41% of the popular vote is itself a "special interest group". But no, 99% of legislation will continue to be made by government. Only a few laws will be made, or overturned, by referenda each year. The majority, which is not a special-interest group, will make these decisions.
How about the cost?
Referenda can be held on election day at minimal cost. The cost of a separate referendum is about $.70 per voter, but with the advent of electronic and telephone voting, this cost will decrease. What is the cost of undemocratic legislation? What is the cost of the Senate?
Can referenda solve complex issues?
This was one of the problems with the Charlottetown referendum, which should have been broken down into a series of simple questions. But referenda do not solve all problems.
Will direct democracy weaken the power of governments?
Voters will gain some power. And government will be better able to resist lobby groups.
Are you suggesting that we do not live in a democracy?
We live in what we call a democracy, and every few years we get to elect our next dictator.
What other advantages does direct democracy have?
It allows a majority of citizens to create legislation that governments shy away from, like secondary suite laws at the local level; and to veto legislation that government rams through, like fast ferries, GST, or NAFTA.
It allows citizens to vote on major issues, not just for political parties.
What are the most serious objections to direct democracy?
The unspoken ones like:
What can I do to help attain direct democracy?
- I, your representative/cabinet minister/PM/chief bureaucrat (r/cm/pm/cb), am not about to give up any of my power;
- I (your r/cm/pm/cb) am full time on this job, and therefore I know more than you do;
- I (your r/cm/pm/cb) am smarter than you;
- I (your r/cm/pm/cb) fear the will of the people (I call it "mob rule") because it does not correspond with the party line, or my private agenda.
We know of no easy answer, since those in power seem firmly opposed to power-sharing. So be prepared for a lengthy engagement -- or a miracle! We find that getting involved in community and local council groups to check out what happens in your neighbourhood is one first step, as is reading about the experience of others, writing letters, etc.
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