Canadians for

 Direct Democracy (CDD)      

A Referendum Advocacy Group

Let the People Decide!

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The Effect of Direct Democracy on Party Politics

by Colin Stark and Linda Bagga
Canadians for Direct Democracy (CDD), November 1997

Canadians for Direct Democracy (CDD) is a non-partisan, registered non-profit society whose aim is "to improve the democratic process in Canada through citizen-initiated binding referendums whereby voters can directly amend, introduce and remove policies and laws."

(This article was written for the Green Party News of B.C. and later edited to its present form)

Direct Democracy in B.C.

When we questioned politicians during the 1997 federal election campaign, at public meetings and in individual conversations, we found that even in this well-informed group, few have mastered the distinctions between representative democracy, proportional representation, and direct democracy. Most politicians support the status quo of representative democracy, and few support proportional representation or direct democracy, mainly because they do not understand the advantages that each system would bring to the political scene.

Direct democracy is an infant in Canadian politics. A form of direct democracy has thrived in Rossland, B.C. for the past seven years, has recently been introduced in Pitt Meadows, and is under consideration in Sechelt and North Vancouver. Other than these isolated but significant examples, direct democracy in Canada does not exist.

Direct Democracy and the Green Party

Both CDD and the Green Party fully support proportional representation, because it would distribute seats fairly amongst the competing parties and thus be a better system of electing a government -- more particularly for the smaller parties and the parties with broadly-based, rather than regional support. But proportional representation alone will not radically change our flawed electoral process -- it does not make the government accountable to the people: e.g. our current NDP government in B.C. was elected with only 39% of the popular vote, while the Liberals polled 42%. Proportional representation would only have created a minority government, headed by the Liberals, with the Premier and the leader of the NDP Party sharing power -- the government would still not have been accountable to the people.

At the B.C. Green Party Annual General Meeting in October 1997, the mandate of The Proportional Representation Committee was expanded to include the whole realm of electoral reform and renamed "The Electoral Reform Committee". The Committee further resolved: "to introduce a system of binding referendums whereby citizens can introduce popular initiative and popular veto, subject to the double majority." This resolution was not adopted at the plenary session due to lack of time for full debate. However this statement brings the Green Party and CDD into agreement on direct democracy.

    Principles of Direct Democracy

    1. The Popular Veto - when 1% of the voters challenges a law or policy by petitioning government, a binding referendum vote (local, regional, provincial or national) must be held. If it passes, the law is struck down.
    2. The Popular Initiative - when 2% of the voters demands a new law or policy by petitioning government, a binding referendum vote must be held. If it passes, it becomes the law.
    3. The Double Majority - this means that a referendum must get more than 50% of the total votes; it must also get more than 50% of the votes in more than half of the designated regions.
    4. Strict spending controls - prevent one side from "buying" the vote. Quebec already has such controls in place.
    5. Proportional Representation - in its pure form gives each party the number of seats in parliament proportional to the percentage of votes the party receives.

      as proposed by CDD

 

The Case for Direct Democracy

  Direct democracy is one of the best-kept secrets in Canada, and possibly in the world, despite the fact that it has flourished in Switzerland for 130 years, where the will of the people has ruled on such issues as:

These decisions are not in themselves necessarily correct. But the fact that the decisions were made contrary to conventional wisdom is one of the great strengths of direct democracy. In sharp contrast, Canadian governments have brought in NAFTA and the GST, have radically altered our social insurance and health systems, and are now poised to sign MAI (Multi-lateral Agreement on Investment) -- and all without receiving specific mandates from the Canadian people.

We believe that direct democracy will bring some revolutionary changes to the Canadian political scene. It will:

Questions about Direct Democracy

Q. Will the majority tyrannize weak minorities?
A. No. This has not happened in Switzerland.

Q. Will the cost be too high?
A. No. Referendums can be held on voting day at minimal expense, and referendums would cost much less than the non-elected Senate.

Q. Will direct democracy weaken the power of governments?
A. Yes. Many Canadians would consider this desirable because our political system lacks accountability.

Q. Don't ordinary citizens lack the time, intelligence, and wisdom to make good decisions?
A. If this is true, then democracy of any kind is a poor system.

Q. Would referendums solve complex issues?
A. Experts agree that complex issues like sovereignty must be broken down into several simple questions before being put to the people. Putting the Charlottetown Accord to a vote in 1993 was not an appropriate use of the referendum process.

 

How Will Direct Democracy Affect Canadian Politics?

Contrary to the fears of some politicians, direct democracy will not reduce the power of the vast majority of politicians. Our politicians are already powerless. Only a few of the cabinet ministers, and a few top bureaucrats -- a mere handful of the elite -- hold any significant degree of power in our current system, and although proportional representation would be nice, it will do little to change the concentration of power at the top.

Our minority-party leaders and elected politicians-at-large ("trained seals", Trudeau called them) have less real power than the lobbyists of industry, trans-national corporations (TNCs), and other special interest groups. And of course the people -- who by definition should be the ultimate power in a democracy -- are virtually disenfranchised. All the people can do is throw out the elites every four or five years, and gnash their teeth in anger as a new group of elites takes its turn to systematically betray its election promises. Direct democracy will make the government accountable to the people.

And direct democracy will do much more than that. Even the nature of a politician's duties will change. When the power is in the hands of the people through the process of direct democracy, our elected representatives will have a fresh mandate -- to winnow out the facts from the masses of contradictory information; refine the facts into knowledge; add wisdom; and communicate their recommendations to their constituents. Everyone will be in a better position to make informed choices.

Our elected representatives will be liberated to serve the people who elect them. They will gain the status of truth-seekers. They will regain the dignity of a once-noble calling, and be able to perform the valuable service for which the people elected them -- to represent the common good and the will of the people.

And if the choice of the leaders does not accurately reflect the wishes of the people on any significant issue, then the people will have the power to decide that issue themselves in a referendum (in Switzerland this happens about 4 times a year). Government will thus be accountable to the people, and elected representatives will become the watchdogs of the people, not the "trained seals" of the party leaders.

 

What comes next?

How will we reach this Utopia? In truth, we see no clear path forward. Those who currently monopolize power still seem to be placing their own greed above the needs of the people, the country, and the planet. What is needed is a change of heart.

We in CDD will speak out, write, educate, persuade, argue, and take every step that we can think of. We ourselves will strive to become a functionally democratic community of "thoughtful committed citizens". We must answer the call for positive action. We will plan our work, tirelessly work our plan, and watch vigilantly for the opening that faith tells us will come some day. When that day comes, we must be ready. Will YOU join us?

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens
can change the world

Margaret Mead
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am for myself alone, what am I?
If not now, when?

Rabbi Hillel, circa 30 AD

Colin Stark and Linda Bagga
Canadians for Direct Democracy, Vancouver, B.C.
cdd@npsnet.com


References:

The following authors offer evidence that is relevant to direct democracy, and indicate what may lie beyond:

 

Raven, John. The New Wealth of Nations: The Sustainable Learning Arrangements Needed for a Sustainable Society, Royal Fireworks Press, NYC, NY, 1995.

"The central problem facing society is still to answer Adam Smith's question about how to empower widely dispersed, and mutually interdependent, bits of information so that they lead to a desirable future. This book outlines the institutional arrangements needed to do this. These will involve radical change in our concepts of democracy, bureaucracy, management, citizenship, science, and wealth."

Chapter 1 is on the web: http://www.npsnet.com/cdd/nwn.htm

 

Wilber, Ken. A Brief History of Everything. Shambhala, 1996.

"It brings the debate about consciousness, evolution, and our capacity for transformation to an entirely new level. More practically, it will save you many missteps and wrong turns on whatever wisdom path you choose to take."

Shambhala's "Ken Wilber Forum": http://www.shambhala.com/wilber

 

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