When is a referendum the right way to go?

On the heels of the stunning “Brexit” vote in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, political scientists all over the world are debating the merits of using referendums to settle thorny political issues.

On the heels of the stunning “Brexit” vote in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, political scientists all over the world are debating the merits of using referendums to settle thorny political issues.

Proponents of the use of referendums have argued that they are the most pure and “direct” form of democracy and the only model appropriate for such big issues. But critics have questioned the idea that such an important, effectively irreversible, political decision could be taken by the narrowest of electoral majorities with varying degrees of misunderstanding of the repercussions.

When it comes to questions as nation-shaking as Brexit, Quebec separatism, or perhaps even Canadian electoral reform, some form of more engaged participatory democracy may be a reasonable alternative to the kind of crass, binary, information-starved referendum process we’re accustomed to.

Participatory democracy is a somewhat nebulous term meaning more active participation in politics by a more informed and engaged public. It essentially boils down to “if you make the time to come out to this town hall and listen to all the discussion for a few hours you can have vote at the end and have your say.”

In referendums so much depends on how particular issues are framed and understood. We know from the study of polling that respondents swing wildly depending on how you ask the question, and their answers are heavily dependent on what information and alternatives are presented.

“Do you want to raise taxes?” Of course not.

“Are you willing to raise taxes to pay for improved health care?” Ok, well yes.

“Are you willing to raise taxes to pay for more policy analysts and communications staff?” No way.

“Would you prefer if politicians look at ways to deliver health care services more efficiently before they raise my taxes?” Absolutely.

“If you had to choose between higher taxes, deficit spending or less health care spending which would you choose? Hmmm…

I suspect British voters have similarly complex, nuanced and conditional views about their country’s departure from the European Union. There may be a bare societal consensus that they prefer not to see decisions made by out-of-touch bureaucrats and politicians in Brussels but would they vote to leave if open markets with the continent are not on the table?

What if they knew that the consequence of a Leave vote was the breakup of the UK itself through the departure of Scotland or even Northern Ireland? Or what if they fully appreciated the potential erosion of London’s status as a great financial centre of the world?

It will be very interesting to see what the polls say about public opinion on the matter after the terms of Britain’s departure from the EU are negotiated and the full extent of the political and economic fallout are more clearly felt.

During Canada’s flirtation with dissolution, Quebec separatists made all sorts of promises to voters suggesting that it would be business as usual in most respects after the province left Canada. Meanwhile federalist politicians were telling them that the province would be cut off. The truth was probably somewhere in the middle, but how were voters really to know?

Unfortunately referendums are expensive and it is costly to go back to the people multiple times to confirm that they are sure of their intentions (“are you sure of that?”). Yet in our legislative bodies, each bill receives three different readings, and a review by one or more focused committees. Elected members have no choice to listen to the arguments of all sides and get multiple opportunities to change their minds before a final decision is made. But when we hold referendums it is typically seen as a one time, all or nothing, proposition.

So what is the answer? The referendum process is far from ideal, but excluding the public from such important decision making because they don’t understand the issues has an air of condescension and elitism.

I’ve always been skeptical of the merits of participatory democracy on all but the most fundamental and significant of issues. On anything less it has an inherently bias in favour of people with passionate views who have (or can make) the time to attend lengthy public hearings and town halls, and against those with busy lives and a more passive take on a particular matter.

On any issue that doesn’t engage the passions of a significant majority of a body politic, participatory democracy has the potential to produce results that are not necessarily representative of the broader population.

For example, while I have been critical of the Yukon Government’s handling of the Peel River watershed and think there are many good and ultimately persuasive arguments against development in the region, one line of argument employed against the government that I don’t buy is that its approach is “undemocratic.”

Some of the government’s critics contend that because the vast majority of people providing input on the plan during the planning supported leaving the area undeveloped that is somehow the will of the people. However, it simply cannot be assumed that the participants were representative of public opinion – informed or otherwise – given the relatively low profile of the issue at the time the processes took place (several years of court battles may definitely change public awareness.)

Issues that could change the national landscape are not issues on which we trust our political leaders to make unilateral decisions, and some degree of public participation and consent is necessary. But our sound bite political culture is not conducive to great mass decision making.

More engagement with voters may have changed last week’s result.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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