This article was originally published in the April 1997 Common Ground Magazine, Vancouver, BC
When Brian Mulroney, now the most despised Prime Minister in Canadian history, came onto the political scene, he won a huge majority in a landslide victory for his party through the power of PR and the media.
This little-known, but very well-promoted PM then led a most undemocratic administration, which forced many unpopular measures on the citizens of Canada.
For example, the GST. The people of Canada did not want the GST. We protested, signed petitions, and organized against this regressive tax believing that our politicians would listen to the will of the people. The government of the day turned a deaf ear to us. So, when another politician came along and promised to get rid of the GST, we listened to him.
But when he was elected (in another landslide victory) he didn't dump the hated tax, but just pretended he hadn't really promised to get rid of it. So we continued to protest the GST, we signed more petitions, but what did we get? The GST.
The people of Canada do not have the ultimate political power. If we did, we would not now have the GST. During the years of Brian Mulroney's reign, other ideas we did not want were forced into law. Recently, the few times the people of Canada had the opportunity to vote directly on a referendum, such as the Charlottetown Accord, the politicians were shown to be completely out of touch with the wishes of Canadians.
In addition, the last federal election was more a resounding no for Brian Mulroney, than a yes for Jean Chrétien. Jean looked like a trustworthy small town guy. He talked like a commoner, but he has turned out to act like a corporatist who is more interested in the rich few than the Canadian public. Teflon Chrétien has replaced Teflon Mulroney.
Notice the pattern? It's much like the game of "fetch the stick" you play with a dog. The politicians toss the stick (the election), and we, the dog, fetch the stick (the vote), only to have it tossed again for us to retrieve.
It's a rigged game. We can't win even if the party we vote for wins, because once they are in power, they stop pretending to listen to us and push ahead with their real agenda (which they didn't mention during the courtship period running up to the election), whether it is the GST, banning herbs, increasing our debt, or globalization.
The GST is just one example of the undemocratic nature of our present political system. The problem for democracy is not the so-called leaders; the problem lies squarely with the process itself, loosely referred to as "the political system". Why is the will of the people opposed and thwarted year after year, administration after administration, government after government, with representative democracy?
Because our system only represents democracy, but it is not itself truly democratic.
Democracy is a process. If it is not becoming more democratic, it is sliding downhill. In Canada, it has degenerated from a participatory sport into a spectator sport. Our current system breeds apathy and disempowers the citizen. Voting in a new bunch of bosses is not going to change it. Even if the people continue to fight the little political battles, we will still lose the war unless the people are the ultimate direct political authority. Our present political system is outdated. We, the people of Canada, are the power.
Now is the time to start exercising our authority, not just by voting in another government, but by creating a process which establishes the people of Canada as the participants and authors of democracy.
There is not just a crisis in leadership, there is a crisis in the process. Until the process improves, there will be no marked improvement in democracy. Presently, politicians have no major incentive to become more accountable to, or directly responsible to, the citizens of Canada. Therefore, the initiative for change will have to come from the people themselves. It will be up to each of us to understand and act in a constructive, nonviolent way to build a more directly democratic country.
Direct Democracy, through a well-organized referendum process, makes sure the government is accountable, because the final authority lies with the majority of people, not with just a small minority of representatives.
By definition, government of the people, for the people, and by the people means that the final power resides with the people themselves. When the people lead, the politicians follow, and with Direct Democracy the politicians pay attention.
So, what is Direct Democracy? The Swiss have it, Canadians don't.
The Swiss can call their politicians to order at any time. They can challenge any policy or law simply by gathering the signatures of 1% of the registered voters on a petition.
This forces the government to hold a referendum, and the vote is binding on the government. If the people vote against the law, the law has to go. If they vote against a policy, the policy is scrapped.
If the people feel a new law is needed, all they need to do is to gather the signatures of 2% of the registered voters, and the proposed new law must be put on the ballot. If the majority vote in favour of the proposed law, it becomes the law of the land.
Direct Democracy has worked for 130 years in Switzerland, where the four different ethnic groups, German, French, Italian, and Romance, coexist. There are no separatist movements in Switzerland. When tensions arise, the referendum process is used to diffuse them.
The Swiss have maintained their historic policy of neutrality through two world wars; Swiss industry is owned by the Swiss people as opposed to Germans, French, Japanese or Americans; Switzerland decided not to join the European Union, against the advice of their business establishment and most of their politicians.
These tough decisions have been made directly by the people themselves, not by the politicians.
In Canada, we do not have Direct Democracy. Canadians elect their MPs and MLAs for terms of four to five years, during which these approximately 1,000 people make all the decisions, while the rest of the population is permitted to nod in irrelevant approval or growl in frustrated disagreement. At best, this is part-time democracy; at worst, a dictatorship. We exercise brief moments of spurious democracy, during which we can "throw the bums out," elect a new bunch, and then watch powerlessly as history repeats itself. This system is no longer working effectively for democracy. It is time for a new way.
The present system of allowing only elected representatives to make decisions in government has created a very unhealthy set of dynamics in our political system.
Look at the recent televised town hall meeting with our present Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien. Look at Brian, our ex-Prime Minister, threatening to sue the people of Canada for $50 million in damages when it should have been the other way around. And our current Federal Government caved in and settled out of court.
We, the people, are being poorly represented. I would go so far as to say the present system of government is abusive and dysfunctional. It is time to recover our political responsibility and powers through changing the system to Direct Democracy.
A change in rulers (i.e. old-style politicians) will not, despite their promises, empower the political process and give the citizens of Canada what they long for - government that is honestly committed to the best interests of the people.
One big fear we have to overcome is the fear that it would be more dangerous to trust common citizens than political specialists. This fear comes from a lack of political self esteem. It's as if citizens have been hypnotized to not trust themselves or their peers, such that only the arrogant and rich dare grab the reins of political power.
It works well for the political illuminati, keeping them in unquestioned control of the process so that they, or their few wealthy friends, get the kind of legislation that protects and furthers their investments. Equality may at times threaten their equity, a situation they may disdain, but sometimes the objectives of very big business are not necessarily in the best interests of the public or of the environment.
In the same way that the Protestant Reformation reacted against the absolute power of the central church, and the corruption that absolute power brings, so now do we, the citizens of Canada, need to stand up for our rights to govern ourselves. And that means to govern ourselves directly through direct government.
A number of discussion groups have started in British Columbia, simply with the working title, Direct Democracy Canada. The objective is to improve the Canadian democratic process.
How to get involved
You can form a discussion group in your home, or at a local cafe, with a handful of people. Let each person speak their mind, listen, and watch the consensus form.
Locate the December 21st, 1996 issue of The Economist at your local library, and read the article titled "Full Democracy" by Brian Beedham for background on 130 years of Swiss experience with Direct Democracy.
Referendums Around the World, Ed. David Butler;
A Swiss Democracy, Wolf Linder;
The New Challenge of Direct Democracy, Ian Budge.
Reimar Kroecher is an economics instructor at Langara College.
Joseph Roberts is publisher of Common Ground magazine, and also organized the first Walk for Peace in Vancouver in 1982.
Direct Democracy seems like an incredible idea whose time has come.
Let the other 1/4 million Common Ground readers know your thoughts on Direct Democracy by writing a letter to:
Letters to the Editor, Common Ground, Suite 201-3091 W. Broadway, Vancouver, BC, Canada V6K 2G9.
Arguments FOR and AGAINST Direct Democracy
The Case for Direct Democracy
- Direct Democracy provides a more accurate expression of the will of the people than other forms of democracy. It gets people involved in the political process and people know that political decisions are those that the majority really want.
Direct democracy overcomes a problem with representative democracy that critical decisions are made by MPs, MLAs and cabinet ministers in the capital city, a long way from voters, both geographically and psychologically.
- Voters vote for or against specific policies they want or do not want. With representative democracy, voters are often forced to vote for a package deal, some policies they want and some they don't want.
- Direct Democracy prevents policies that the majority of voters clearly do not want (e.g. the GST in Canada).
- With Direct Democracy all laws are made under the threat of referendum. Laws will reflect more clearly the will of the majority, even those laws that are not challenged by referendum.
(Indeed in Switzerland the great majority of the laws made are not challenged by referendum).
- All issues are faced, even the hard and divisive ones e.g. the future relationship between Canada and Quebec.
Against the opposition of the Catholic Church, Italians decided by referendum to introduce legal divorce.
- Direct Democracy reduces the degree of polarization. Direct Democracy cuts across party lines and leads to changing alliances of voters voting for or against specific issues.
- Direct Democracy reduces the power of special interest groups and political bosses. It is much easier to buy or bribe politicians than to buy or bribe the electorate as a whole.
- Direct Democracy encourages people to educate themselves on issues and the affairs of state.
- Direct Democracy reduces the level of cynicism and increases the respect of people for politicians. Law and policies reflect more accurately the will of the people and if anything goes wrong, people know where to put the blame.
- There are many possible forms of Direct Democracy. In Canada the phrase "Proportional Representation" is possibly better known and has more support at this time.
The Case against Direct Democracy
- Direct Democracy weakens the power of elected representatives. Depending on one's point of view, one could argue that this is an argument in favour of Direct Democracy.
- Direct Democracy encourages a government to duck its responsibility and then face judgment by the people for its overall performance at a later date
(Some would say that it gives a government an effective method of tackling the hard and divisive issues).
- Some say that ordinary citizens lack the time, intelligence, and wisdom to make good decisions.
(This is really an anti-democracy argument.)
- Direct Democracy is expensive. Referendums cost money.
- Direct Democracy means that decisions are made in an adversarial climate. You are either for or against. Good decisions require give and take, a willingness to listen to your opponents, and a spirit of compromise.
- Under a system of Direct Democracy the voters may not be prepared to be generous and tolerant toward the less fortunate members of society: the low income earners, the single parents, the minorities, etc
(The Swiss underclass does not seem to be worse off than underclasses in other countries)
- With Direct Democracy, the urban majority can steamroller the rural minority.
(The Swiss require a double majority for most referendum decisions - a majority of all Swiss voters and a majority of voters in 14 or more of the 26 cantons)
- Direct Democracy works in a small homogeneous country like Switzerland, but may not work in a large heterogeneous country like Canada.
(Although the Swiss are not homogeneous.)
The Swiss can challenge any policy or law by gathering the signatures of 1% of the registered voters on a petition. This forces the government to hold a referendum, and the vote is binding on the government.
If the people feel a new law is needed, they need only gather the signatures of 2% of the registered voters, and the proposed new law must be put on the ballot. If the people vote in favour, it becomes law.
The Swiss have had Direct Democracy for 130 years. They successfully stayed out of two World Wars.
Their four ethnic groups, German, French, Italian, and Romance co-exist peacefully. When ethnic tensions arise, the referendum process is used to diffuse them. There are no separatist movements in Switzerland.
The Swiss are masters of their own house. Swiss industry is owned by the Swiss, not by foreigners.
The Swiss have decided not to join the European Union, against the advice of their business establishment and most of their politicians.
"Australia, Italy, Denmark, and New Zealand have some forms of Direct Democracy, although Switzerland is the best example."
"Nine-tenths of the new legislation proposed by the signature-collection process has been turned down by the voters. When parliament has put up a counter-proposal, it is accepted two times out of three."
"The (Swiss) people want to have the big decisions in their hands, but they do not want to spend so much time on fiddling ones."
"The bigger part of the argument (for Direct Democracy) consists of pointing out that the world has changed hugely since the other version of democracy, the representative sort, first came into use in the 19th century. These changes make the vote-every-few-years brand look increasingly unworkable, and strengthen the claim to workability of the emerging alternative."
"The soil will generally be readiest in countries where economic and educational equalization has made a special class of politicians largely unnecessary: which means, at first, chiefly in the countries around the North Atlantic.
Quotations are taken from Brian Beedham's twelve-page December 21st, 1996 article in the Economist entitled "Full Democracy"
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