by Andrew McCredie, Editor, North Shore News, North Vancouver, B.C.
This article appeared in North Shore News on November 8th and 11th 1998
A letter to the Editor from Canadians for Direct Democracy appears at the end of this article
WHAT is direct democracy?
The latest awkward name for the latest awkward political party? A new cable channel televising the House of Parliament? A new vote-by-mail scheme? For a growing number of Canadians, direct democracy represents a much-needed evolutionary - some say revolutionary - step for our political system.
Its advocates contend direct democracy is an opportunity for citizens to truly participate in the democratic process by voting on major issues of the day. They also believe it would correct a major flaw in our democratic system: the issues we elect someone on are sometimes quite different from the issues that elected representative will face while in government.
Direct democracy goes by many names and forms. Those cheaply made Washington State television commercials begging for your "NO ON 64" vote come election day?
Direct democracy in action.
That 51%-49% Quebec vote a few years back?
Direct democracy in action.
Last Tuesday 's elections in the United States featured a record 239 state ballot initiatives, including casino gambling, banning billboards, allowing seriously ill people to smoke marijuana, and protecting wolves from being snared. In Washington State citizens voted to ban affirmative action race and gender preferences in university admissions and government contracting and hiring.
Call it proposition, call it referenda, call it a ballot initiative, whatever you call it, the basic concept of direct democracy is simple. All that's needed is a few people, a big issue they all agree on, and dogged determination. If they can get a pre-determined number of signatures on a petition, the issue becomes part of an election ticket. North Vancouver is home to one to the strongest, and arguably most powerful, direct democracy proponents in the country: North Vancouver MP Ted White.
Direct democracy 's White knight
White sees it all the time. Voter apathy. People call him with their concerns - sometimes solutions - and he tells them to write so-and-so minister.
"They inevitably say they couldn't be bothered, that one letter won 't do a thing," the MP says. "They say they doubt the minister would even actually read it."
While his West Vancouver counterpart, John Reynolds, climbs party ranks - he currently holds the high profile immigration critic position - White found himself passionately involved in the concept of direct democracy. As Reform 's democratic reform critic, White made referendum and recall legislation his passion. That passion has produced two bills.
"It took me two-and-a-half years of research to put this together; it's really my reason for being here (in Ottawa)," White says, holding Bill C-229 and Bill C-371 in his hands.
"If I allow this bill to be debated in the House, there will be three speakers, 20 minutes each, and that's it. Gone. Two-and-a-half years of work down the tubes. There 's nothing democratic at all, or representative at all, about what happens in that place (the House)."
White's home country, New Zealand, introduced the Citizens Initiated Referendum Law in 1993, and the MP says it 's high time Canada passed similar legislation. But he 's not holding his breath.
"The politicians are usually afraid of this type of legislation because they 're scared that the extremes of society will get control of an issue," he says.
In practice however, that is not borne out. White cites a 1994 New Zealand case where a group calling itself "The Friends of Democracy" launched petitions calling for free health care and free education.
"I talked with the speaker of the house in New Zealand and he was terrified these people would get the signatures," White said. "In a year the group was incapable of getting half the signatures required because the average person knew that these things weren't free.
"In other words, politicians underestimate the sense and knowledge of the average voter.
"The small town of Rossland, B.C. has had direct democracy for years and contrary to the predictions of naysayers, the people there have voted themselves tax increases on at least three occasions," White says. "Once to improve the water supply; once to pave the main street; and once for a better sewage system."
What is so intriguing about direct democracy, White says, is how it affects special interest groups. The grassroots origins of special interest groups often make them seem homey and harmless, but in fact these vocal and well-organized groups set a great part of the political agenda. Taking the above concept of direct democracy to heart, one would expect these media-savvy militaries to set even more of the agenda. It's only signatures they need, right? Right, but you 'd be surprised how few special interest groups have their say under direct democracy.
As White has experienced first hand, vocal, in-your-face groups are all bark and no bite. Especially when it comes to representing a majority of voters. His best example of this came from a confrontation with a group over a proposed Women's National Monument at Capilano College.
The group was outraged when White questioned why federal funds should be used on this project.
"They told me they 'd were going to get me thrown out of office," White recalls. "I told them if they could get 15% of the voters in this riding to sign a petition that I do not represent the majority will, I will resign. "They swore that they 'd have me out of office in no time."
White never heard from them again. The Reform MP says the biggest hurdle facing direct democracy is convincing Canadians that it will not bring chaos to our system.
"One hundred percent direct democracy works perfectly well in Switzerland," he says of the European nation that has had direct democracy for over 130 years.
"Nobody would argue they don't live in comfort or have a high standard of living. They have low inflation, a strong currency. They're civilized. It works."
Asked if direct democracy was unlikely to find favor because as a rule Canadians are reluctant to change, White says it is more due to the fact "politicians are the ones who don't want the change."
The Cradle of a Revolution
(The following is the second in a two-part series on Direct Democracy. The first part appeared on Sunday, Nov. 8th)
A year ago this month North Van District launched a task force which could change the way the municipality is governed.
The Direct Democracy Task Force's mandate is to examine the possibility of adapting a referendum-like approach to deciding big issues that face the district. In other words, citizens could circulate petitions on issues and if they get enough district voter signatures the issue will go to a district-wide vote. The task force, made up of district citizens and academics, will release its findings in February.
According to North Van District mayor Don Bell, the task force is set up more to answer questions than craft legislation.
"Questions that must be addressed include the kinds of topics eligible, the minimum signatures for an eligible petition, the role and responsibility of the elected Council, and if the referendum process will result in unnecessary costs, delays and bureaucracy in dealing with any issue," Bell stated. "The potential costs for a referendum range from $30,000 to $80,000 depending on whether it is held in conjunction with a regular local election."
Last November, Canadians for Direct Democracy, a then three-month-old North Vancouver-based advocacy group dedicated to changing the way our governments operate, approached district council with the idea for the task force. Reimar Kroecher is a founding member and president of the group. When he retired last year from a 30-year career as an economics professor at Langara College last year, Kroecher turned his energy and time to the concept of direct democracy.
Asked why he is so taken by the idea, he recounts the most important lesson he ever learned at university:
"The professor asked the class which day they would like an exam, next Monday or the following Friday," the North Vancouver man remembered. A show of hands revealed all but a few students voted for the Friday.
"The professor then said, 'Right, the exam is set for Monday'," Kroecher continued. "I put my hand up and asked why he had even asked our opinion if he was going to side with the small minority.
"He said, 'You may think you live in a democracy, but the important decisions are made by one person. The exam is Monday."
Kroecher smiles at the memory: "Most important thing I learned at school." That lesson still hits home for Kroecher.
"Over the years I have become more and more disillusioned with the Canadian system," the fit 60-something year-old says (For the last 15 years he rode his bike from North Van to Langara College. A faded sticker proclaiming "One less car" is proudly pasted to his helmet.)
Over the past few years two municipalities in B.C. - Rossland and Pitt Meadows - have adapted aspects of direct democracy to the way they govern themselves. Only Rossland continues to do so. According to Pitt Meadows director of administrative services Alberto De-Feo, the first test of the city's referendum law, passed in 1997, proved a learning experience for direct democracy supporters.
Last summer a private golf course in Pitt Meadows sought to build a hotel and 450 residences on its property. Citizens were alarmed and a petition was circulated. Over 40% of Pitt Meadows' voters signed the petition - only 15% was needed to take the issue to referendum. However, the developer threatened legal action, claiming the referendum was illegal. Turns out it was.
"The (referendum) bylaw didn't take into account some laws," De-Feo said, citing the Municipal Act as the biggest stumbling block. According to the act, an elected council can not be bound by a referendum decision. He added that although Pitt Meadows has for now stricken the referendum bylaw from its books, council has adopted a resolution to lobby Union of B.C. Municipalities to change the Municipal Act so that councils can legally enact direct democracy bylaws.
"We'll urge (NV District) council to do the same," North Vancouver MP Ted White, a member-at-large of the North van District Task Force, said. As for Kroecher, he still thinks the most compelling argument for direct democracy this fact:
"In Canada, the people have a voice only one day every 1460 days - on voting day."
Movers Talking about an Evolution
THE following comments are in response to the question:
"What are your thoughts on a direct democracy approach to deciding the big issues of the day?"
DON BELL, NORTH VANCOUVER DISTRICT MAYORAndrew McCredie <firstname.lastname@example.org>
"An important aspect in any consideration of direct democracy is the potential for added cost and delays compared with the existing elected council role and responsibility, and council's policy of extensive public involvement in local government decisions. Proponents of direct democracy seem to be focused more on a lack of meaningful public input indecision-making at the federal and provincial levels rather than with council."
See letter of comment from CDD
PATRICIA BONAME, WEST VANCOUVER MAYOR
"I have been through two referenda in my 12 years on West Vancouver council and understand the difficulty in providing the best background information possible for the electorate. However, on matters of major importance a referendum could be worth the time and effort but should be used sparingly."
GORDON CAMPBELL, B.C. LIBERAL PARTY LEADER
"B.C. Liberals strongly support direct democracy. British Columbians want and deserve a greater say in the critical issues that their elected representatives deal with. That is why B.C. Liberals support more free votes in the Legislature, greater use of referenda, workable recall legislation, fixed election dates and a set legislative calendar."
JEREMY DALTON, WEST VAN-CAPILANO MLA:
"Who determines what the 'big' issues of the day? The press? The elected representative? A political party? This is very open-ended. An elected official cannot seek constituent opinion on many issues, big or otherwise. I believe the best one can do, except in cases where time allows, is take the temperature through calls and street-corner discussion. When legislation hit the floor of the House there is seldom time to do otherwise. A 'big' issue would be the Nisga'a (Treaty). I have invited my constituents to give me their views on the treaty."
DANIEL JARVIS, NORTH VANCOUVER-SEYMOUR MLA:
I support free voting legislatures and referendums on larger issues. It is unfortunate that serious issues cannot go to referendums due to time constraints, but with modern technology constituents can access their representatives directly. I have used free vote privilege when constituents have made their opinions known to me.
JACK LOUCKS, NORTH VAN CITY MAYOR
"I believe that the direct democracy approach to deciding the big issues of the day should be used very sparingly and only with those issues where government considers it to be the most appropriate and best system for society to use to make a decision for them."
IAN MULGREW, VANCOUVER SUN COLUMNIST
"I hesitate to answer your question because 'Direct Democracy' is such an ambiguous concept. If you mean allowing every citizen a vote on important issues, it presumes each citizen has the time to stay abreast of those issues. In practical terms, I believe that's impossible. That is why we elect various people and delegate authority to them in specific areas - schools, city services, provincial concerns, federal responsibilities. I do not believe allowing 'the big issues of the day' to be decided directly via instruments such as referenda or ballot initiatives is a panacea to our governance problems."
TED NEBBELING, WEST VANCOUVER-GARIBALDI MLA:
"Community empowerment is a basic principle that I believe in. Replacing the Municipal Act with a community-charter that would allow communities the right to make their own decisions on local issues. This would effectively take the decision-making power out of the hands of the bureaucracy and return it to the individual communities."
JOHN REYNOLDS, WEST VAN-SUNSHINE COAST MP:
"As a member of the Reform Party Caucus, I believe that public policy in democratic societies should reflect the will of the majority of citizens as determined by free and fair elections and referenda. I believe in direct democracy and in the common sense of ordinary Canadians and in their right to be consulted on public policy matters before major decisions are made. Thus, I subscribe to the implementation of a statute guaranteeing the right of people to initiate binding referenda on new legislation and constitutional amendments or on the repeal of any existing laws."
TED WHITE, NORTH VANCOUVER MP:
"To illustrate my position I've modified a well-known quote from a very different type of MP of more than 200 years ago, Edmund Burke. My version reads:
"Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but also to alert you to the affairs of government which may affect you, so that you can become informed, and so that you can instruct him how to vote on your behalf."
KATHERINE WHITTRED, NORTH VAN-LONSDALE MLA
"I am in favor of direct democracy. Who wouldn't want to have a greater say in changes, especially irreversible ones, that affect us all? However, elected representatives must not shirk their responsibilities by passing the buck. This makes the question of deciding which issue is big enough to warrant a referendum the more difficult one."
North Shore News
1139 Lonsdale Ave.
North Vancouver, B.C.
(604) 985-2131 phone
(604) 985-2104 fax
Direct Democracy (CDD)
A Referendum Advocacy Group
To: Editor, North Shore News (email@example.com)
Re: Articles: "POWER to the people"
This lettter was published on December 16th, 1998
Congratulations on a fine pair of articles on Direct Democracy. I believe they give the most accurate and comprehensive coverage of any publication in B.C. during the past two years.
Act on Direct Democracy
The comments of various political figures indicate that there may be many different opinions and prejudices to contend with before the voice of the people of the District of North Vancouver is heard on this critically important matter.
Mayor Don Bell's comment that "proponents of DD seem to be focussed more on a lack of meaningful public input in decision-making at the federal and provincial government levels than with council" is somewhat misleading.
We "proponents" are deeply concerned about citizen decision-making at the municipal level. We will talk to anyone who will listen. Council listened, whereas "senior" levels of government do not. We observe that senior levels of government listen to Council little more than they listen to citizens. But we ask all levels of government not just to listen, but to act, when the majority of citizens speak through the voice of a referendum.
We at CDD are seeking public participation in council decision-making through a just, deliberated, petition-referendum system, not merely "public input in decision-making".
Issues at all levels of government need to be decided by referendum.
Local examples could include rental suites, zoning, casinos, and many others. The petition process allows citizens to decide which issues they wish to take to referendum.
At the Civic elections in November 1999, we hope the District will hold a Referendum to determine the will of the people with respect to citizen-initiated referenda. Since 83% of the population of B.C. voted in favour of citizen initiatives in a 1990 referendum, it will be interesting to see if this result is repeated, and if the District will bring forward legislation which is designed to work -- unlike the BC Initiatives Act of 1995, which purports to give citizens the right to citizen-initiated referendum at the provincial level, while in fact making it practically impossible.
To date, Mayor Bell and his Council deserve praise for their open approach to re-examining
democracy. We are confident that Council will continue to lead the way.
Congratulations to Andrew McCredie for giving this critical subject a fair and thorough treatment.
Canadians for Direct Democracy