The following three articles and a letter indicate differing viewpoints on Direct Democracy.
Direct Democracy Is Fraught With The Perils Of Mob Rule
Some populists want more referendums and plebiscites, but they ignore the tyrannies that await.
From the Vancouver Sun Tuesday, December 29th, 1998
Parliamentary democracy is in crisis we are told. "Ordinary" Canadians are frustrated and angry with a political establishment that is increasingly seen as elitist, indecisive and arrogant.
Direct democracy is prescribed as the panacea that will cure our political system of its ailments. Referendums, plebiscites, and citizen initiatives are the rallying cries of the day and they promise a future government "of the people, by the people, and for the people." Who can argue with such notions of majority rule, popular sovereignty and giving ordinary citizens a direct involvement in politics?
Yet recent experience suggests that plebiscitarian democracy may be even more unrepresentative, unresponsive and unaccountable than the system it seeks to replace. The cure may be worse than the disease.
Direct democracy is not necessarily representative democracy. It especially does not work when the rights, claims and obligations of relatively powerless groups are determined by popular vote. Most minorities, almost by definition, suffer from a relative lack of power and resources. They are unlikely to find a level playing field in the referendum game.
Uncompromising and intolerant national or provincial majorities could easily use their superior numbers and resources to thwart the inherent needs and rights of minorities or other equity-seeking groups. Majority rule, in the guise of populism, could be used to justify regressive measures aimed at members of any vulnerable group.
It could be used against francophone, anglophone or allophone minorities. It could be used against First Nations peoples. It could be used against persons with disabilities. It could be used against those whose sexual orientations are different. Religious minorities. Children and youth.
It may be democratic, but is it legitimate? In these situations, majority rule could easily become a tyranny of the majority.
Direct democracy is not necessarily responsive democracy. Instead of making it easier to promote meaningful change, direct democracy may poke sticks in the wheels of change. In the past, prior to being implemented, the federal and/or provincial cabinet(s), legislative majorities, the representatives of any parties to the agreement, and (usually) the superior courts had to examine and endorse it. Under the emerging direct democracy regime, in order to be considered legitimate, any initiative of national significance has to be further ratified by federal and/or provincial majorities in national or provincial referendums.
The requirement that concurrent governmental, legislative, (usually) judicial, provincial and national majorities ratify changes creates new veto opportunities. Political institutions and processes could become even more unresponsive. Referendums could easily become neverendums.
Ironically, most citizen initiatives appear to head in the same direction - more maintaining the status quo or restoring the status quo - more negatives than initiatives. Those so-called populists who wish to delay or oppose socioeconomic change could exploit this new form of democracy to protect, promote or restore their privileged status.
Direct democracy is not accountable. Complex issues are reduced to a simplistic yeah or nay and the passions of the day. Once the "people" have spoken there is no room for sober second thought the day after - no checks or balances against mob rule.
There is no question that our institutions and processes of representative and responsible government need to be reformed. However, we do not wish to wrest power from an arrogant and distant political elite only to transfer it to an even more unrepresentative, unresponsive, and unaccountable social elite.
Replacing men in suits with men in plaid may not be the answer. We need to think more carefully about the conditions under which direct democracy thrives and the risk it poses to the Canadian political tradition and the needs of a diverse and dynamic society.
Leonard Preyra teaches political science at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.
Can Direct Democracy Save Us?
Most politicians and some academics fear to cede power to the majority!
Colin Stark, Doug Porter, and Reimar Kroecher
Canadians for Direct Democracy
This article was submitted to the Vancouver Sun, but was not published
Why are more people talking about Direct Democracy (DD) as a solution to our political problems?
Perhaps because our politicians are out-of-touch with the majority of the people both at election time (Clark and Chretien governments both got less than 50% of the popular vote), and on major issues (from Health Care and Education, to Employment Insurance and Tax Relief).
But why do most politicians and some academics seem to equate DD with Mob Rule?
Canadians for Direct Democracy, a non-profit, non-partisan organization, define DD as:
"a system of citizen-initiated binding referendums whereby voters can directly amend, introduce and remove policies and laws"
The Popular Veto - when a percentage (often 5%) of the voters challenges a law or policy by petitioning government, a binding referendum vote (local, regional, provincial or national) must be held. If the referendum passes, the law is struck down. This process happens only about four times a year in Switzerland.
The Popular Initiative - similar to Popular Veto, but giving citizens the power to initiate laws.
Strict spending controls - prevent one side from "buying" the vote.
Proportional Representation - in its pure form gives each party the number of seats in parliament proportional to the percentage of votes the party receives.
For a more detailed exploration of direct democracy see website at http://www.npsnet.com/cdd/.
Some of the major advantages of Direct Democracy are that it:
-changes the PROCESS of governance so that the elected Representatives are encouraged to represent the people who elect them, rather than to represent their party leaders, so that government becomes ACCOUNTABLE to the people;
-allows the voice of the people to become the Law;
-helps people feel that their votes count, so that they take a keener interest;
-makes difficult issues more likely to be faced, since citizens can bring them to referendum;
-curbs the dictatorial tendencies of party leaders, the Premier and Cabinet, and top bureaucrats;
-forces lobbyists to try to influence all the people rather than just the elite who hold power;
-gives a fair allocation of seats to all parties through proportional representation.
The most strenuous objections to DD seem to come from politicians, who presumably do not want their grasp on power decreased.
Some academics seem to fear DD -- it is strange that they are content that the majority be ruled by a tiny minority who are elected by citizens-at-large, and yet they fear that same majority of citizens.
After 130 years of DD, the Swiss have not persecuted their minorities, indeed they are one of the more enlightened countries in Europe.
Do our academics think that intellectuals are smarter than the collective wisdom of the people?
Some small steps have been taken towards DD in BC:
-Rossland, BC, has been operating under DD since 1991.
-following a 1991 plebiscite, when 83% of BC citizens voted in favour of referenda, it took the Clark government until 1995 to enact the Recall and Initiatives Act. The Initiatives part of this act was carefully designed to fail, and indeed no petition has ever succeeded in calling a referendum in BC.
-in 1998 the BC government expanded the application of the counter-petition clause in the Municipal Act. The new Bill 31 was immediately used by the citizens of Langley to retard (although powerless to stop) privatization of their Community Ice Rinks.
-in the most promising of recent moves, an official Task Force is about to present its final report to the Council of the District of North Vancouver -- this report strongly urges Council to adopt a system of citizen-initiated referenda, and to put the proposal to referendum in November 1999, at the time of Municipal elections. Responsible politicians are following the North Vancouver progress closely.
In two years of intense study, including that of the 9-person North Vancouver Task Force, we at Canadians for Direct Democracy see no downside to DD that careful drafting of the legislation would not prevent.
The major blockage seems to be the reluctance of the politicians to cede power, and of the academics to think, study, and experiment.
Can Direct Democracy Save Us? Perhaps!
Although it is likely that other serious threats to Canada's democracy lie in the Plutocracy (government by the wealthy) of the United States and of the UK.
Colin Stark, Doug Porter, and Reimar Kroecher
Canadians for Direct Democracy is a non-profit, non-partisan organization.
The Elites Confuse Mob Rule With Direct Democracy
Giving more power to the people has proven worthy in other polities, so ignore academic scare-mongering.
Ted White, M.P. for North Vancouver
Mob rule will be the inevitable outcome, and minority rights will be trampled, say the political science professors, and our self-serving political leaders, whenever the topic of Direct Democracy comes up for discussion. Whilst conveniently overlooking the fact that the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides full protection for the rights of minorities, and the fact that there is no historical evidence whatsoever that the average Canadian would vote in a referendum to remove such rights, these critics desperately try to convince the rest of us that the tools of Direct Democracy would lead Canadians, like sheep, down the pathway to social disorder.
An investigation of the motives of those opposed to Direct Democracy however, almost always leads to the same conclusion - that the entire discussion is about POWER, and who wields it. Supporters of the present political system embrace it as the tool for enactment of their programs of social engineering, social justice, and special rights for the selected few. They know that whenever their party of choice is in power the will of the public is of little or no consequence for five, ten, or even more years at a time.
It does not matter that the majority of Canadians want significant changes to the Young Offenders Act, an end to our "porous borders" policy with respect to bogus refugee claimants, a tougher approach to crime control, a referendum on the Nisga'a Deal, or reductions in government spending.
These are only the desires of the teeming uneducated masses, who, after all, are too stupid to know what is best for them. Too bad that those same masses end up footing the bill for the programs of the political elites.
Direct Democracy, of course, provides taxpayers and voters, rather than the political elites, with most, or all, of the political power, but contrary to the arguments of the opposition, there is no evidence that enactment of Direct Democracy leads to social disorder. Yes, it definitely leads to many disappointments for academics and free-spending elected officials, but it does not lead to social disorder.
In Switzerland, a country which nobody could argue is uncivilized or in a state of social chaos, almost all of the decisions of government, at every level, are made by the people, in large numbers of referendums annually. The Swiss system represents one of complete empowerment for that country's citizens, but instead of producing an example of "mob rule" for the critics, it has produced a high standard of living, a strong currency, low unemployment, and a low crime rate. The ordinary people, it would seem, have plenty of common sense, and are quite capable of instructing their elected officials how to run the country.
Our nearest examples of the use of Direct Democracy lie with our neighbours to the South, especially in California, where the people have, amongst other things, voted to cap runaway state and municipal spending, to end affirmative action programs, to introduce a "Three Strikes and You're Out" law, and to significantly reduce programs which encourage welfare dependency. In response, predictions of the collapse of social services and a massive deterioration in the standard of living, have flowed from the portals of the political elites.
In defiance of those predictions though, and more than a decade after its passage, the taxpayers of California have still never voted to reverse the spending curtailments of Proposition 13. The fact is, people really do understand complex issues and can make sensible decisions about those issues, even if the elites do not like the outcome of the vote.
And it is dishonest anyway for political scientists to claim that the elected officials have the monopoly on common sense, understanding, and compassion. In Canada, most MPs are nothing more than trained seals who vote according to the wishes of their leader, regardless of their personal beliefs or the logic behind the voting position.
Sadly, Canada is running way behind other comparable parliamentary democracies in terms of permitting taxpayers a greater say in the running of their country.
New Zealand has had a citizens initiated referendum law on the books since 1993, Australia has an elected Senate and a Single Transferable Ballot system for electing MPs, and even the British Parliament allows free votes by its MPs, with the British Government having to abandon its position in Parliament on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, we are stuck with a Federal Government wielding 100% of the power with just 38% of the popular vote, and a similar situation at the provincial level.
Far from being subjected to the tyranny of the majority, in Canada we have been consistently subjected to the tyranny of the minorities. It is hard to believe that the people as a whole could do any worse
Ted White, M.P. for North Vancouver
This letter was submitted to The Editor, Vancouver Sun, but was not published
Re: Direct Democracy Is Fraught With The Perils Of Mob Rule
January 1, 1999
André Carrel, Rossland, B.C.
An article with a fear-mongering heading such as this cannot be left unchallenged. The article by Leonard Preyra is stuffed with cheap slogans masquerading as morsels of wisdom. The "recent experience" hinted at by Preyra is not disclosed beyond the suggestion that "plebiscitarian democracy [whatever that is] may be even more unrepresentative, unresponsive and unaccountable than the system it seeks to replace".
It is both typical and predictable that those with status and power should reach for the fear button whenever the subject of citizen empowerment is raised. Preyra and his soul mates issue dire warnings about uncompromising and intolerant national and provincial majorities. They paint dark pictures of a future where these majorities will thwart the inherent needs and rights of minorities and equity-seeking groups.
Who is this monster-majority that Preyra fears? Is it not the same majority that elects governments? Who is that monster-majority if it is not we, the citizens of this country? And if it is we who are the problem, who does Preyra suggest should keep us under control?
Who forcefully relocated Canadian citizens born with Japanese-looking faces from the Pacific Coast to the B.C. Interior, and who confiscated their property?
Who kept generations of Canadian citizens with Indian-looking faces in utter poverty on reserves?
And who kidnapped their children and locked them in state schools, force-feeding them a foreign culture and beating their own heritage out of them?
Did all of these decisions result from referenda adopted by a majority of Canadian mob-citizens casting a simplistic vote?
Where would Québec and Canada be today, if it were not for the referendum?
Had René Lévesque not established the PQ referendum "tradition", what would have stopped Parizeau or Bouchard from declaring unilateral independence for Québec, embracing the precedent set by Ian Smith in Southern Rhodesia?
Another typical claim trumpeted by the citizen-mob-power-panic crowd is that referenda reduce complex issues to a simplistic yeah or nay and the passions of the day. Does Preyra believe the country to be immune from simplistic decision-making today?
What about the helicopter and Toronto airport promises made and kept by Prime Minister Chrétien prior to his first term?
Was the announcement of "zero helicopters" a carefully considered policy, or was it a simplistic vote-getting tactic!
And furthermore, how are decisions made in our parliament and legislatures? Do Honourable Members have an option to vote "somewhat", "perhaps", "up-to-a-point", "yes-and-no", "depends" and "let-me-think-about-that" in addition to the basic "yeah" or "nay"? Is it not closer to the truth that these Honourable Members vote in the way a pack of trained seals would, precisely as Trudeau had suggested?
What is the political life expectancy of a Liberal, Conservative, Reform or NDP Member in any legislative assembly in Canada, if that Member dares to dance to the tune of his constituents rather than doing the prescribed steps in the can-can line-up, as directed by the Party Whip?
The Professor labels those who would have the right to vote in referenda to be an unrepresentative, unresponsive and unaccountable social elite. The elite he refers to are the people: citizens - us! He also labels our governments as being an arrogant and distant political elite. If he is right on both counts, if we deny government power to both elite groups, citizens and politicians, who is left to take responsibility for governance in this country? Academicians perhaps? If, as Preyra concedes, our government institutions and processes need to be reformed, what are his suggestions?
I agree with Preyra on one point:
we need to think.
And that is what I expect from academicians, that they think, that they refrain from fear-mongering.
I expect academicians to nurture the sadly shriveled understanding of the meaning of citizenship and citizen responsibility in this country. I expect academicians to use language when they speak instead of dribbling mindless slogans.
"Those concerned with democracy and development should be building a more civic community, but they should lift their sights beyond instant results. Building social capital will not be easy, but it is the key to making democracy work."
Robert D. Putnam