Canadians for
Check Mark  Direct Democracy (CDD)

Direct Democracy -- the right of citizens
to hold referenda on any issue

The People's Mandate,
Referendums and a More Democratic Canada

These notes are made by Colin Stark as an electronic record.

Patrick Boyer. The People's Mandate, Referendums and a More Democratic Canada,1992, Dundurn Press, Toronto.
This is a comprehensive survey of the pros and cons of direct democracy in Canada, with references to other countries.
"This book is timely rich in texture, insightful, and not without surprises" Patrick Watson in the TV series "The Struggle for Democracy"

Patrick Boyer Q.C., Conservative MP for Etobicoke in 1984 and 1988, ran against Kim Campbell for the leadership in 1993, is the author of five books on Canada's electoral systems, and is one of Canada's experts on referendums.


... the PROCESS by which a decision is reached can be as important, and is often more significant than the decision itself. ...

The collective wisdom of a large body of well-informed people most reliably produces the best decisions. ... Pooled information and variety in experience can blend to produce not only a sound course of action, but also and as important, the underlying consensus necessary to implement it.



Canada has remained a timid democracy. The establishment that has run our country has proceeded comfortably - not always in the interests of the people, nor indeed of the country itself - supported by Canadians' deference to authority and a strange willingness to be passive spectators in our own land. We have become what anthropologists call "participant observers".


Some of these people dress up their excuses [opposing referendums] with lofty principles about parliamentary democracy, while their objective is really that of maintaining the status quo.


I obviously believe in the institutions of "representative democracy". But, on the basis of seven years experience in parliament ... I must conclude that serious imbalances created by rigid party discipline must be corrected if we are to keep on calling our MPs "representatives". Even with their faults, our legislatures are still vital to our system of government.

... it would be far more stimulating and productive to have everyone coming to terms with his or her own view about a public issue. That is what happened in Prince Edward Island in 1988, as the heritage and future of the Island were debated in relation to the question of building a fixed-link crossing to the mainland. ... It also happened in 1982 in the Northwest Territories as northerners came to grips with the plebiscite question on whether to divide the region into two territories.

p7, 8

A larger dose of direct democracy could also counteract a number of other developments that have caused political life and the governing process in Canada to suffer in the past decade. Examples of such developments include the ascendant and unchecked role of opinion polling and pollsters, the increasing dominance of single-issue groups, the growing power and influence of professional lobbyists, the hardening partisanship and rigidity of party lines in Parliament and the hijacking of decision making from the legislatures by what has been called "executive federalism".

A plebiscite, it is important to realize, is more than a large-scale, formalized opinion poll. With opinion polls, there can and always will be doubt about the wording of the pollster's question, quibbling about the representativeness of the sample, and a feeling that it is "nothing more than an opinion poll". Nothing, on the other hand, speaks with the same eloquence as a counting of ballots, deliberately cast on a question by the voting citizens of a province or the entire country, after a cathartic debate.

The fourth phenomenon, that of our legislatures being reduced to "rubber stamps" for decisions already taken by cabinet, has to be troubling to anyone concerned about maintaining the dynamic counterbalances essential to a parliamentary democracy. The firm control of government by the prime minister, and at the provincial level by the premiers, has been solidified in the emergence of  "executive federalism" and includes cabinet and a committee system that gives Canada a tableau of governance where dissent is perceived as disloyalty, and even reasonable accommodation of differences becomes a struggle of the first order.

p16 -18 Blending Representative and Direct Democracy

Most contemporary nation states calling themselves democracies not only incorporate into their constitutions the apparatus of representative legislative assemblies, but also balance this by maintaining some provision for direct democracy.

Certainly the more successful democracies creatively combine a healthy mix of direct voting procedures with representative assemblies, and use each approach according to its appropriateness for resolving the matter at hand. In Canada the uses of this device of direct democracy have been somewhat limited - we have held only two national plebiscites so far, although about sixty have been held at the provincial level, and several thousand in our various municipalities.

Before a detailed discussion of the who, what, where, when, and how of referendums, it would be best to face up to the rigid attitude which holds, quite simply, that direct voting by the people on major issues is incompatible with our system of representative democracy.

In Canada's parliamentary democracy, goes this reasoning, we elect members of Parliament to make our decisions, and we do not want them passing the buck, or dodging an issue.

Many eminent and eloquent Canadians express this line of thought. Some add that issues are too complex to be put to the (uninformed) people in a simple "yes or no" question decided by a single round of balloting. Still others support this with a "floodgates" argument, suggesting that if we start holding referendums on one or two issues, this will open the gate to the vast dam that currently holds back mob rule.

What would be the point, they ask, of having MPs at all? Buttressing that with a final argument, some critics conclude that direct voting is simply "unparliamentary", or even worse, "un-British".

The answer to all this is that referendums and plebiscites are not meant to replace parliamentary rule, but rather to enhance it. Our system of government depends, ultimately, upon the consent of the people being governed.

Canada is not a dictatorship where tyrannical force is used to obtain public acquiescence in the measures and programs of the government.

Nor is it a theocracy where we follow the dictates of our leadership because of blindly obedient religious faith.

Ours is a democracy where, at the end of the day, there simply must be public consensus about where we are going, and general agreement on how to get there.

Without consent the whole elaborate superstructure - the legislatures, the courts, the financial system, the commercial marketplace, the acceptance of laws and norms of behaviour - will corrode until it collapses.

How are we to achieve consent, this indisputable glue of a democratic society? Elections every four or five years? Opinion polls? First ministers' meetings? One method, that of diffusing amongst the electorate a greater sense of personal responsibility for the actions of government, Vernon Bogdanor has noted, results in decisions of government acquiring greater authority and legitimacy because they are based upon a wider degree of support.*

Because the major issues facing Canada now are as much political and psychological as they are economic or technical, the all-important educative role of referendums and the consent that can be created by an inclusive and participatory approach are both vital. The environmental and social behaviour challenges currently facing our country, for example, cannot simply be resolved by a mechanical application of legal rules or precepts of the social sciences; they depend crucially upon the mobilization of popular consent.

"This consent requires that there be in the political system some focus for the public interest," says Bogdanor, adding that this interest would come about through "a feeling that the policies of a government reflect more than merely the interests of its supporters" and that the community of interest "cannot be assumed, but must be constructed through intelligent political action."*

Of course, many of the issues of immediate concern to most Canadians in the social and economic sphere are not simple, and they could not be readily solved through a single direct vote of the people. Nor can such complex and interconnected decisions be separately referred to the voters. Direct voting - like everything else involving the exercise of statecraft - must be used intelligently. This book gives a number of examples of wise and unwise uses. Where referendums and plebiscites can be appropriately used, however, they additionally serve the fundamental role of creating consent for the actions of government, taken through parliamentary voting.

p26-38 - (Headings only)

Classification of Referendums and Plebiscites

The Initiative Technique

The Power of Recall

(includes 8 bureaucratic hurdles to direct democracy)

When Purity Encounters Practice

Semi-Direct Democracy
(a cumbersome but accurate term used by Swiss lawyers)

The Present Picture (in Canada)


Seven More Points in Favour of Referendums

(Headings only)

All issues are faced

Decisions are brought close to the people

Public decisions are publicly arrived at

Popular will is accurately expressed

Apathy and alienation come to an end

The public interest is served

Citizens' human potentials are maximized

p49 Some Arguments against Referendums

p54 Some Attributes of a Legislature

Quoting Butler and Ranney:

"Representative assemblies are far from perfect, but they have several crucial advantages over referendums:

their members meet face-to-face regularly;

they do not immediately or necessarily vote up or down every measure that comes before them;

they discuss, refer, study, delay, amend, and give and take.

Their discussions only occasionally approach unanimity, but their discussions approach the small-group ideal far more closely than the discussions preceding referendums.

Even in national legislatures votes are mainly expedients to get decisions when the time available for discussion has run out.

In referendums votes are the very essence of the decision process.

p82 Financing of Campaigns

p87 Who's Got the Mandate?

Powerful governments have long promoted the doctrine of parliamentary democracy that brazenly holds that once elected by virtue of winning the most seats in a general election, regardless of the size of their party's popular vote, they have a mandate to deal with any issue that comes up during the life of that Parliament.

Most political scientists and media commentators operate within this accepted view, and have, along with many compliant politicians, reinforced its popularity by their teachings, commentaries, and behaviour.

While this doctrine makes sense as a practical approach to the many details and issues that could never have been aired and debated or even anticipated in an election campaign, it nevertheless enshrines a bold fiction.

Because of the attitudes and practices that have come to cluster around the mandate doctrine, it has become one of the major factors in the loss of credibility suffered by Canadian governments and has led to a general disrespect for Canadian legislatures, shared even by many of us who are members of them.

This chapter seeks to look with fresh eyes at the parliamentary dimension of "the people's mandate" ...


Brokerage Politics

Brokerage politicians "put party loyalty ahead of doctrinal purity or devotion to abstract principles" - "pledges first, principles afterwards".

Even the NDP has increasingly been co-opted into the system of brokerage politics, softening its doctrine, developing election platforms based on opinion polling, .... , and moderating its positions as it seeks greater support in the so-called political mainstream. As socialists, they have become "backsliders".

By virtue of an "iron triangle" involving politicians, bureaucrats, and special interest groups, our political parties no longer serve as neutral brokers of all legitimate interests. Instead they "arrange compromises among long-established elite groups" Forbes suggests, neglecting the interests of the masses".

Certainly this may help explain the continuing preoccupation by our political parties and the political elites in Canada with the Constitution.


Meighen: "at least 98%" of measures brought before Parliament have received no mandate for action from the people at all.

[CS - This is not necessarily a bad thing (though it demonstrates how far we are from having a "pure" democracy), but what is bad is that NONE of the important measures are specifically approved by Referendum. In Switzerland, the people actually vote by referendum on a small number of measures, but the measures they do vote on are amongst the most important ones.]


On July 21, 1988, I rose in the house of Commons to introduce a private member's bill, the Canada Referendum and Plebiscite Act. "On a morning when there is controversy in Parliament and the country over whether a specific question such as free trade ought to be submitted to a general election ..., I said,

"I am happy to be able to introduce for first reading a Bill that would point to a third way." Others at the time were urging this common sense alternative too, including several newspaper editorialists and columnists.

... In 1911, as in 1988 Canadians elected their representatives to Parliament, having been told by their leaders ... that in doing so they would be approving the government's policy on trade with the United States. Many leaders, in the name of democracy and in the process of serving their political ends, proclaimed these elections to be "plebiscites" or "referendums", as did a number of commentators.


Rick Salutin, writing in "Toronto Life" in February 1989 said:

"Sometimes [the campaign] seemed like a referendum on an issue - free trade - attempting to break out of the framework of an election. People were trying to marry the one with the other and finding it difficult. Other times, it seemed that something more radical was trying to get out ... a radical participatory democracy, in place of the usual shallow choice between similar candidates who are then left to do as they wish for another four years ... It seemed that many people would have preferred to disconnect from the party and electoral systems and have an all-in, all-out debate on the kind of society we want." ... "... the exhilaration? I'm still not sure, but it has something to do with having had a foretaste of a whole different kind of public life"


At a more populist level the National Citizen's Coalition (NCC) launched a campaign on February 13, 1991 to promote the use of citizen-initiated referendums ant both the provincial and federal .levels of government. ...


On October 21, 1991, the British Columbia Referendum Office distributed background information to help voters make up their minds on the "initiative question" on the ballot. ...

[CS - presumably now part of BC Elections office at 1-800-661-8683]


California, Oregon, and Washington are the three most active states as far as citizen-minded plebiscites are concerned, and the Oregon and Washington numbers are far more moderate than California'a. ... two California direct-vote consultants warned that the initiative process could become a vast and costly growth industry here. Pointing out that the referendum process in California is "no longer a mom and pop ... spontaneous reaction to legislative inactivity, "but a sophisticated, expensive, and lengthy process that involves polling, fundraising, coalition-building, and advertising, ..."


Recently [~1991?] the producers of CTV's program "W5", sparked by interest in the BC referendum on "initiatives", decided to do a  story on the topic. ...

When Susan Ormiston, a producer and reporter for "W5" spoke with me for background information, I stressed that a more authentic story would be about our own Canadian experience to date with initiatives and gave her several examples, ... However nothing I said had quite the appeal of going to California to prepare for Canadian audiences a story on propositions and initiatives. The resulting program was broadcast October 27, 1991.


One form of the initiative, for instance, involves a certain number of electors petitioning for a  referendum on legislation already enacted by parliament. This form of initiative, found in Italy and Switzerland, is a  form of what is commonly known as a "popular veto".

A second variant allows a specified number of electors to secure a referendum on whether a legislative proposal of their own ought to come into effect through a direct vote of the people. This is found in Switzerland and is called a "popular initiative" since it permits unelected citizens to initiate proceedings themselves that could lead to a law.


The Canada Referendum and Plebiscite Act, which I introduced in the Canadian House of Commons in 1988, includes the possibility of initiatives. ... the question must be one which is " a question of national and public importance within the jurisdiction of parliament" ... the petition to the prime minister is, moreover, not binding, so in the course of taking the initiative petition under advisement the cabinet could obtain an interpretation or legal opinion form the minister of justice as to the constitutional validity of  the question proposed by the petitioners, in advance of submitting the question to the country in a plebiscite. ...


... Use of the referendum in this constitutional amending process was one of the recommendations from the Beaudoin-Edwards Committee. In its report of June 1991, the committee, noting that the existing Canadian Constitution is silent on the subject of referendums, concluded that "since it is neither explicitly authorized nor explicitly forbidden, recourse to a referendum is thus left to the preference of our political leaders: it is optional."

p195 - 212

[CS - this is a detailed discussion of Boyer's attempt to have his private members bill passed in the House of Commons]


Given the statements of MPs involved in the Management Committee's work, it seemed the referendum bill would be made votable. After all, with so much discussion of the idea in the country and several political party leaders now calling for a referendum process, what committee of MPs would want to be responsible for deciding that a bill on referendums should not proceed to be debated and voted on in Parliament? Then, just hours before the committee made its decision, someone senior in the government interfered. The result? The committee decide in its in camera meeting that the Canada Referendum and Plebiscite Act would NOT be votable. It would get one hour's debate, and then disappear. The hour's debate took place on June 18, 1991, ...

[CS a detailed summary of the bill follows]


Yet after 7 years of trying to function within the Canadian party and parliamentary system, that smugness has completely evaporated. ...

In Canada, legislation, budgets, and other government programs are generally prepared in secret. The preconsultation is mostly secret. Bureaucrats behind closed doors fine-tune government measures, and in most cases, by the time measures are set and approved by the cabinet, virtually no change by a mere MP is possible.

Despite my being an elected member of Parliament, I have virtually no scope in the legislative process to alter even a phrase in the wording of government legislation, and then the party line is imposed on voting in the Commons to make the measure law.

We certainly lack a wide-open legislative process; we have one that is scarcely open at all.

Although we call our parliamentary system democratic, we have witnessed on a profound level the institutionalization of some very anti-democratic processes. ...

Eugene Forsey: "Why Canadians are so scared of referenda I don't know, especially since we whoop it up so incessantly about democracy."


"After 7 years, I have serious doubts about whether the role of an MP in Canada today is of much consequence. The reasons for this are many - and hard to admit. Hard because it means that for 39 years I may have been working on the wrong trajectory and that all those who have worked loyally to support me may have shared not a dream but an illusion. ...

"I also realize that if you want to go along with this system, it can be a fine life being an MP. If you care strongly about trying to make things happen through the system, however, frustration results and you conclude an MP really IS a nobody. ...

"I  now recognize many of the so-called parliamentary crises as tempests in a teapot. ... the urgent - or the illusion of what is urgent as portrayed by television - crowds out the important. ...


"The problem is that democratic theory is premised on the citizens' playing an active and informed role in the political system, but theory is not being met by opportunity. In part suggests Joseph F. Zimmerman, "the relative lack of of public participation can be attributed to the limited opportunities for playing a meaningful role in the governance process beyond voting in elections"


"The illusion has been that the strength of a country lies in its leaders. The reality is that it resides in its people. Too much history has been written from the perspective of kings and emperors and presidents and prime ministers - rather than from the view of the people themselves. The ideal, that forms the core of our democracy - and that must be chiselled free - is more than trust in the people by those who are in government, although that is an essential stage whose achievement will be welcome. Trust of the people in our system of government is the nobler vision. Mutual trust is the ideal for a democracy because it embraces the perspective, not only of those in government, but also of the people themselves. ...

Many Canadians now ARE questioning the gap between rhetoric and reality in our country's governmental operations. Critical thinking is more widespread in our society than ever before. While the language of our classical parliamentary arrangements continues to be used, a great many Canadians - I would now say a substantial majority - understand that the meaning has changed. What we now await is for the system itself to be transformed - into one based upon trust of the people.

End of notes

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