Direct Democracy (CDD)
A Referendum Advocacy Group
Let the People Decide!
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REFERENDUM HAS NO PLACE IN THE NISGA'A DECISIONDouglas Todd
Religion and Ethics
Vancouver Sun Saturday January 23rd 1999, page C2
Exercises in "direct democracy" have tended to favour the rich,
well-connected few at the expense of the common good.
Let's make it clear up front: A referendum on the Nisga'a treaty is a bad
"Direct democracy" is a seductive battle cry - as we were reminded by this
week's Prince George people's poll that, to no surprise, came out strongly
against the Nisga'a deal.
There are good reasons to cool referendum passion, however. Such ballot-box
initiatives can lead to the triumph of individualism over communitarianism,
rise of corporatism over government and the tyranny of the majority over
Those theories sound high and mighty. But a look at what's happened to
California in the past twenty years provides a harsh illustration of how
these theories actually strike societies consumed by the so-called
"people's right to choose."
A host of referendums (or "plebiscites") in California, many for property
tax cuts, have gutted social services. Don't move to sunny California
looking for a good public education for your children, plentiful parks,
well-stocked libraries, decent transit or reliable sewage systems.
Education Week journal says of California schools, "a once world class
system is now third rate." Previously well above the national average in
spending on teaching children, building infrastructure and providing social
services, California is now in the bottom half of American states on such
The ascendance of near sighted self-interest over the common good - and
common sense - is summed up by the California woman who complained in a
letter-to-the-editor about "the methodical pillaging and plundering of the
taxpayer, forcing those who have no kids to pay through the nose for
Superficially, in B.C., it also doesn't seem to serve taxpayers'
self-interest to give the Nisga'a land and money. But a treaty will rid us
of the odiously expensive Indian Act and resolve economy-crushing
uncertainty over land claims - not to mention atone for past injustices -
ultimately to the benefit of all.
Even the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, which zealously protects
individual rights, supports the Nisga'a treaty and rejects Liberal leader
Gordon Campbell's call for a referendum as, at best, impractical.
As for the victory of corporatism over government, it's worth reminding
ourselves that referendums are backed often by those who are rabidly,
thoughtlessly anti government.
Rage against government and taxes has become the stock in trade of phone-in
shows, banal common place that ignores how corporations, as much as
legislatures, determine our lives by setting wages and benefits, car and
meat prices and insurance and mortgage rates.
And it's naive to believe grassroots groups fuel the hundreds of
plebiscites launched in California and other parts of the US. Investigative
journalists have uncovered corporations and wealthy individuals behind many
With enough money it isn't difficult to hype, spin and obfuscate an issue
to sway an increasingly misinformed public, which is spending less time
reading serious newspapers, voting or attending public meetings on
complicated issues - like treaties, which can't be summed up with a simple
"yes" or "no" on a ballot.
The biggest knock against referendums though, may be how nasty they can be
In California, Caucasians are the most enthusiastic backers of plebiscites,
using them to fight taxes and legislation that, they perceive, favour
Hispanics and blacks. A vote on the Nisga'a treaty could feed into a
similar populist fervor.
For what it's worth to Canadians, the so-called founding fathers who wrote
the U.S. constitution feared the majority tendency to become totalitarian.
Such wariness led Canadian, British and U.S. constitutional authors to
favour representative government, where we vote every few years for people
we more-or-less trust to make responsible, informed decisions on a host of
things, including minority issues.
As Canadian political philosopher Charles Taylor says, everyone belongs to
some vulnerable minority. You could be a Jew, a female in a corporate
office, a member of the hard political left, wealthy by inheritance or
If you were in such a minority, would you want a referendum on how you
should be treated? You'd probably want someone who tries to balance your
interest with competing interests, which is the art and wisdom of
If Canada had succumbed to referendum mania early in its history, would we
have seen women (let alone native Indians) get the vote? Unemployment
insurance? Court sentencing that balances punishment with rehabilitation?
Or human rights protections for homosexuals?
In short, the decisions that have made our country civilized, which now
include an honourable treaty with the Nisga'a, may not have had a chance if
the country had been held captive by "direct democracy."
The following letter was published in an abbreviated form in the Vancouver Sun of Saturday, January 30th, 1999, page C3
Re: "Referendum has no place in the Nisga'a Decision"
We at CDD are appalled by the half-truths, innuendoes, uncorroborated assertions, and lack of research in Douglas Todd's: Referendum has no place in the Nisga'a Decision
As the only non-partisan Direct Democracy (DD) group in BC:
We are opposed to a referendum on the Nisga'a Treaty -- the accumulated wrongs wrought by our Governments over the past 200 years cannot be corrected by one simple referendum.
We are also opposed to Recall.
Todd appears to be ignorant of the basic purpose of DD, which is to make governments at all levels ACCOUNTABLE to the people through a "PROCESS of citizen-initiated referenda".
Todd gets carried away with his mechanistic concept of DD as an inflexible tool, manufactured and patented in California, that must be wielded by Canadians as if they have the mindset and culture of Californians. In practice the variations and nuances of DD allow it to be tailored to fit our local, regional, or national needs.
In the 130 year history of DD in Switzerland, the Swiss have not persecuted their minorities, they have used referenda to stay out of the European Union despite the wishes of the Swiss Elite, and they have generally used initiatives wisely.
Rossland BC, has used DD responsibly since 1991; the nine-citizen North Vancouver Task Force has just completed a nine-month-long study which unequivocally recommends DD; and citizens in Langley, Abbottsford, Port Moody, Pitt Meadows, Sechelt, etc. are demanding accountability from their Councils. Even the province of BC has an (unworkable) Initiatives Act of 1995.
On the rare occasions that Canadians have been permitted to use the referendum tool, they have shown more common sense than their Elite -- Charlottetown was a prime example, where Canadians rejected an Accord that was touted by all political parties and monied minorities.
So we urge the usually scholarly Douglas Todd to study Pope's 1711 essay to critics:
"A little learning is a dangerous thing,
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring"
Some of that learning can be found at our website at http://www.npsnet.com/cdd/
Canadians for Direct Democracy