Let's imitate the Swiss on referendums
In democracies the world over, citizens complain about politicians. Behind closed doors, politicians complain about voters, how they're not always realistic.
In response to this tussle, some academics suggest mandatory voting. They assume that encourages a more informed citizenry.
Others propose a complicated change to how we elect politicians. A simpler remedy: Ask citizens what they want through the occasional referendum.
Here in Alberta, the rise of the United Conservative Party means its members have a chance to hammer down some policy planks. My suggestion: start with binding, citizen-initiated referendums as plank one.
Why would more direct democracy be useful? Referendums allow for issues to be debated and decided upon if the political class, intentionally or not, ignore a critical matter.
Referendums can also supplement elections, obviously necessary, but which at best are about one idea (free trade in the 1988 federal election), personalities or about "throwing the bums out." Referendums allow for more issues and policies to be discussed in a potentially more substantive way. They also give citizens an incentive to inform themselves on matters they might otherwise ignore.
Absent a vote on a specific issue, why think about tax, or debt policy or some other issue - especially if you cannot affect the law? People have more pressing demands such as children and work.
Referendums allow for more issues and policies to be discussed in a potentially more substantive way. They also give citizens an incentive to inform themselves on matters they might otherwise ignore. Absent a vote on a specific issue, why think about tax, or debt policy or some other issue - especially if you cannot affect the law? People have more pressing demands such as children and work.
A positive example of how referendums promote engaged citizens: In 1992, in the lead-up to the national referendum on proposed constitutional changes (the Charlottetown Accord) many friends normally uninterested in the finer points of constitution-making read the proposed amendments.
That included whether Quebec should have special status and other consequential matters.
My friends educated themselves because the referendum offered a chance to design a critical part of our national fabric.
In that sense, referendums are helpful to voters who can directly decide on tough struggles. But referendums also help politicians who argue that some voters are unrealistic.
Space does not permit a detailed description but binding referendums can be initiated by a legislature or by citizens via a petition process. The Swiss political system, for example, offers both options.
Switzerland is a good example of how referendums organically promote a more engaged public. The Swiss have voted on matters ranging from EU membership to minimum wages to abolishing the army. Voters there regularly engage in robust debates on those and other broad-stroke policy issues. It's a useful way to ensure a permanent feedback loop between politicians and the public. That avoids disruptive populist eruptions.
The Swiss model also demonstrates the beneficial effect of direct democracy.
In 2001, after concerns that existing legislation was not effective enough in stopping the growth of government debt, 85 per cent of Swiss voters endorsed a "debt brake."
As one Swiss writer described the law, "Its basic principle is simple: Expenditures must not exceed revenues during the course of a single business cycle."
After 2003, when the law took effect, annual spending grew at just 2.6 per cent annually versus 4.3 per cent before the debt brake was applied. The new approach helped save Switzerland from the public finance problems encountered in other European countries in the 2008/09 financial crisis.
As for the constitutionality of referendums in Canada, political scientists Rainer Knopf and Ted Morton have argued on another matter (property rights), that examples of sole province-federal changes to the Constitution exist. Their legal and constitutional logic can extend to constitutionalizing referendums.
One last suggestion for the UCP: Besides a platform plank, make support for one the acid test for any would-be party leader. Whether they see it or not, direct democracy benefits politicians and voters alike.
August 5, 2017, A8