Canadians for
 Direct Democracy (CDD)

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


 

Direct Democracy in Canada

This article was originally published in the June 1997 issue of Common Ground Magazine.

In a previous edition, we ran an article on Direct Democracy. There has been so much interest in this issue that Common Ground has decided to interview Reimar Kroecher, spokes-person for the newly founded group Canadians for Direct Democracy and an Economics instructor at Langara College.

COMMON GROUND: What exactly is Direct Democracy?

REIMAR: Direct Democracy is a system of government whereby the voters can directly repeal, amend or initiate policies and laws through binding referendums.

CG: Are there any countries that have Direct Democracy?

RK: Switzerland is the best example. The Swiss voters 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 the policy, it is then 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 that proposed new law must be put on the ballot. If the people vote in favour, it becomes the law of the land.

CG: What is wrong with our Canadian system? Why fix it if it isn't broken?

RK: Canadians elect their MPs and MLAs for four to five years and during this time period these approximately 1000 people do all the deciding while the remaining 30 million Canadians are expected to nod their heads in irrelevant approval or growl in frustrated disagreement. At best this is part-time democracy, at worst it is dictatorship; interspersed with brief moments of spurious democracy, during which the voters can "throw the bums out," elect a new bunch, and then watch powerlessly as history repeats itself.

CG: Are you sure you are not exaggerating? Surely there are some good features our Canadian system has.

RK: In fact I am understating my point. For three to four months each year, our federal parliament is not even in session, for eight to nine months each year our provincial parliament in Victoria is not in session. During that time, a handful of politicians governs by order-in-council. The elected representatives of the people are not even consulted. They might as well not even exist. What is more, even when parliament is in session, MP's and MLA's are expected to abide by party discipline. They are not allowed to vote according to their conscience or the wishes of their constituents. They have no power at all. If they defy party discipline they will be ostracized and not be nominated for the next election.

CG: How many referendums do the Swiss have per year?

RK: At the federal level approximately four. At the Canton level (Provincial) and local level many more.

CG: Is this not exorbitantly expensive? This must cost the Swiss taxpayers a fortune.

RK: As a percentage of total taxes paid by the Swiss, it is a minuscule amount. In California and Washington, referendums are decided at the same time that people vote anyway, including only an incremental cost.
Furthermore, referendums create employment. Governments spend all kinds of money on various job creation programs. What better way than to create jobs while making our system more democratic? Also with Direct Democracy the voters have a chance to put the brakes on some incredibly expensive short-sighted policies that come back to haunt the taxpayers.

A good example is the Alcan river diversion power generation project in northern BC. Our previous provincial and federal governments steamrolled this project through despite the fact that the great majority of British Columbians were clearly opposed, even exempting Alcan from an environmental review.
Under intense public pressure, the present BC government cancelled the project and is now being sued by Alcan for 500 million dollars in compensation.
You can have a lot of referendums for 500 million dollars.

The Pearson International Airport in Toronto, I believe, is a similar example. Under heavy public pressure the liberal government cancelled a privatization give-away made by the Mulroney government, and is now being sued for more than half a billion dollars. Voters would prevent stupid policies like these with binding referendums and save taxpayers a bundle.

CG: Are political parties and elected representatives still necessary with Direct Democracy?

RK: Yes, they are still needed to run the day-to-day affairs of government. But politicians govern under the threat of a referendum, if they get too far out of line with the wishes of voters, the people let them know who is in charge.

CG: Does Direct Democracy encourage a government to duck its responsibility and then face judgment by the people for its overall performance at a later date?

RK: I don't think so. Rather than duck its responsibilities, a government has an effective method of tackling the hard and divisive issues by letting the people decide.

CG: Do ordinary citizens have the time, intelligence and wisdom to make good decisions?

RK: If one believes people are stupid and unwise, then any kind of democracy is a poor system of government. In addition, Canadians are better educated than in the past. The media revolution puts an incredible amount of information at anyone's fingertips.

CG: Under a system of Direct Democracy, will the voters be prepared to be generous, kind and tolerant with the more unfortunate members of society, the low income earners, the single mothers, the minorities, the drop-outs, etc.?

RK: The Swiss underclass does not seem to fare any worse than underclasses in other countries. Voters are more likely to resent the bureaucratic wasteful ways in which governments assist the poor rather than the assistance itself.
Voters will understand that it costs five thousand dollars a year to keep a person on welfare, but seventy thousand dollars a year to keep a person in jail.

CG: With Direct Democracy, would not the urban majority be in a position to steamroller the rural minority?

RK: The Swiss have overcome this problem by requiring the Double Majority for most decisions. The majority of the Swiss people voting must favor the decision, and the majority of the people voting in 14 or more of the 26 Swiss cantons. A similar system could be developed in Canada, not only at federal, but also at the local, regional, and provincial, levels.

CG: Could it be that Direct Democracy works well in a small homogeneous country like Switzerland, but would never work in a large heterogeneous country like Canada?

RK: The Swiss are neither unique nor homogeneous. There are 6 million of them, 70% German speaking, 20% French speaking, 8% Italian speaking and 2% Romanche speaking. Some live in big cities, some live in tiny villages, some are Catholic, some are Protestant.

CG: In a nutshell can you summarize the main points in favour of Direct Democracy?

RK: Yes.

    Direct Democracy provides a more accurate expression of people's will than any other form of democracy. Direct Democracy overcomes the problem with representative democracy, namely that critical decisions are made by MPs, MLAs and ministers, in the capital city, a long distance away from voters, both geographically and psychologically.

    Voters vote for or against specific policies they want or do not want. With representative democracy, all too often voters are forced to vote for some kind of package deal, a few policies they want and many they don't want.

    Direct Democracy prevents policies that the majority of voters clearly do not want, for example the GST in Canada. Similarly, Direct Democracy prevents politicians from stonewalling policies the majority of people clearly want, for example an end to trophy hunting of bears.

    With Direct Democracy all laws are made under threat of referendum, laws will reflect more clearly the will of the majority, even those laws which 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 which politicians like to stay away from, such as the future relationship between Canada and Quebec. For example, 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 or to manage parliament than to buy or bribe and manage the electorate as a whole.

    Direct Democracy forces people to educate themselves on issues and the affairs of state.

    Direct Democracy reduces the level of cynicism and will increase people's respect for politicians. Laws and policies reflect more accurately the will of the people and if anything goes wrong, people know where to put the blame.

CG: If Direct Democracy has so many advantages, why don't more countries use it?

RK: Powerful vested interest groups are against Direct Democracy. They like the Canadian system just as it is. With the people out of the way for four or five years between elections, cabinet ministers, government mandarins, corporations and labour unions have a much better chance of getting what they want.


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