Monday, July 25, 2016

A Referendum if Necessary, But Not Necessarily a Referendum

Opinion is divided on the question of whether Canada should have a national referendum on electoral reform.  Supporters of the idea correctly suspect that the Liberal Government, and indeed all political parties, are inherently in a conflict of interest and should not be blindly trusted to design the rules by which they are elected.  The Liberals’ belated decision to relinquish its majority on the Commons Committee on Electoral Reform, and its commitment to having a free vote in the House of Commons on the final bill, go only part of the way toward alleviating this concern. 

 A free vote will still be based on the very distortion of representation that electoral reform is supposed to correct: for example, individual Liberal MPs will have 54% of the seats on the strength of 39.5% of the popular vote; and one Green MP will have 0.3% of the votes cast despite representing 3.4% of the electorate.  Secondly, even if these problems could be addressed adequately so as to assure fairness between political parties, there might still be a conflict of interest, since politicians as a class  will still frame the question and ultimately decide its answer, without due consideration of how much “non-Ottawashed” citizens may not wish to affirm or support political parties as the primary organizations that mediate the popular will.

Opponents of the referendum have an equally impressive  list of arguments.  It is clear is  that referendums polarize opinion instead of forging compromise, as both the Quebec referendum campaigns and the recent UK vote to leave the EU have shown. The value of representative democracy is that it can examine all sides of an issue and fashion solutions that serve the interests of the majority while still being acceptable to minorities.  The debate over Brexit showed how misinformation and errors of fact (concerning Turkey’s membership and the savings for the NHS, for example) could not be corrected in time for the vote, with incalculable consequences for the future of the UK and of Europe.

The ideal solution, therefore,  is one that fully addresses the problems of legitimacy and conflict-of-interest that  a referendum is  supposed to solve, while at the same time  avoiding if possible all the problems of polarization and prevarication that a referendum is prone to  create.  Such sound   deliberation, suitably scrubbed of partisan self-interest, was the both the purpose and the effect of Citizens’ Assemblies on Electoral Reform in British Columbia and Ontario and the Citizens’ Committee in Quebec.  

Where those processes went wrong (particularly in B.C. and in Ontario)  was in keeping those islands of deliberative democracy in splendid isolation from the voters, while letting legislatures completely off the hook for the decision. Referendum results reflected  both the electorates’ lack of familiarity with the Citizens Assemblies  and the ability of the ruling parties to tilt the playing field away from change.  Legislators relied too little on democratic persuasion and too much on 60% voter thresholds and inflexible “take-it-or leave-it” ground rules.

Provinces are supposed to be the laboratories for policy.  Applying the lessons learned from failed (or partially successful) provincial experiments to the current referendum debate, we should create a structure for institutional dialogue between a Citizens’ Committee on Electoral Reform and Parliament. Such a structure could force politicians to justify their rejection of, or amendments to, a citizens’ initiative, thereby improving the legitimacy and deliberative quality of the bill. The result would be to either reduce the felt need for a referendum (if the process went well and a double majority of politicians and informed citizens could reach consensus) or to better prepare and inform the electorate if a referendum were needed to adjudicate a fundamental disagreement  between parliamentarians and informed citizens.  Even many advocates of proportional representation, who fear that the rights of all to have their votes counted equally in Parliament will be trampled by a majority, would be more receptive to a referendum if it were needed to resolve such a conflict.

 The upshot is that  a referendum is necessary only as a last resort.   A Citizens’ Committee should be struck to conduct parallel deliberations with the House of Commons. If the House of Commons and the Citizens’ Committee  prove unable to agree, then that impasse can be resolved by a referendum.  But if they can agree, then a referendum should be deemed unnecessary.


Mark Crawford is an assistant professor of political science at Athabasca University, where he teaches courses in Canadian Government and Democratic Theory.