Oxygen For Democracy

Oxygen For Democracy

Posted on October 26 by J. Patrick Boyer in Non-fiction
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Why do some think decision-making by referendums, although intrinsic to our country’s political evolution since before Confederation, is un-Canadian? That voting by citizens undermines parliamentary democracy? That we’ve gained no insights from our own vast experience with “direct democracy,” so need alleged lessons from abroad?

Around the world today there’s plenty of referendum news: Kurds in northern Iraq and Catalonians in Spain have voted on self-determination, Columbians on a peace accord, Britons on leaving the European Union, Italians on constitutional change, Australians on ending the monarchy and same-sex marriage, and millions of Americans on thousands of local and state issues.

Law professor Antoni Abat Ninet of Catalonia, an expert on referendums, and Patrick Boyer discuss the gravity of his region’s referendum on independence from Spain, just days before the controversial October 1 vote that Madrid battled to suppress.

Law professor Antoni Abat Ninet of Catalonia, an expert on referendums, and Patrick Boyer discuss the gravity of his region’s referendum on independence from Spain, just days before the controversial October 1 vote that Madrid battled to suppress.

In Canada, meanwhile, we’ve hardly been idle, with recent ballot questions about updating the electoral system. British Columbians and New Brunswickers face upcoming votes on this subject, and Prince Edward Islanders had a referendum last year. Also in 2016, national debate raged about whether a ballot question was needed for the Trudeau Government’s plan to “make 2015 Canada’s last unfair election.” That, of course, was before the PM broke his promise on electoral reform, leaving nothing to vote on. Revamping the outdated electoral system also triggered an Ontario referendum, and prior votes in other provinces, as well.

However, our Canadian range of issues has been far wider than this: votes for women, separation of Quebec, the Charlottetown Accord constitutional changes, military conscription in wartime, prohibition of alcohol, use of automobiles, use of daylight saving time, marketing of agricultural products, funding of municipal infrastructure, land claim treaties and aboriginal peoples’ governance, and dozens more.

Executive Director of Fair Vote Canada Kelly Carmichael, Patrick Boyer, and University of Toronto’s law and politics professor Yasmin Dawood discuss Forcing Choice and British Columbia’s upcoming 2018 referendum on electoral reform.

Executive Director of Fair Vote Canada Kelly Carmichael, Patrick Boyer, and University of Toronto’s law and politics professor Yasmin Dawood discuss Forcing Choice and British Columbia’s upcoming 2018 referendum on electoral reform.

Too often the vital, though limited function, referendums play in Canada is embarrassingly misunderstood — and worse, intentionally misconstrued. Critics allege that referendums create divisions, oversimplify issues, stir emotions, and are beyond the ability of ordinary people to understand. By that standard, we should have abolished elections long ago. Unlike the complexity, divisiveness, emotions, and issue-simplification of a general election, answering a single ballot question after weeks of educational focus through debate on pros and cons is like an open-book exam when you already know the question.

I am not a gung-ho advocate for referendums. Voting on a ballot question is just one instrument among many in Canada’s democratic toolbox. There are rewards when referendums are used skillfully, and risks if conducted under poorly crafted laws or by inexperienced leaders. In Canada’s overly controlled political system, the referendum gives breathing space for democracy and supplies needed oxygen to the sovereign citizens.

That’s why Forcing Choice highlights our rich experience with ballot questions — and Canadian lessons learned — at the national, provincial, territorial, First Nations, and municipal levels. History shows referendums are integral to the working of our political democracy. They play a unique role in democratic decision-making. And on issues of transcendent importance, citizens’ deliberately marked ballots provide a clear and rational process for a mature democracy.

Patrick Boyer, making a serious point at an international symposium on referendums at University of Toronto’s faculty of law, holds the attention of distinguished political scientist Peter Russell. In his foreword to Forcing Choice, Russell calls Boyer “without doubt the doyen of referendum scholars in Canada.”

Patrick Boyer, making a serious point at an international symposium on referendums at University of Toronto’s faculty of law, holds the attention of distinguished political scientist Peter Russell. In his foreword to Forcing Choice, Russell calls Boyer “without doubt the doyen of referendum scholars in Canada.”

J. Patrick Boyer

Posted by Dundurn Guest on October 21, 2014
J. Patrick Boyer photo

J. Patrick Boyer

J. Patrick Boyer studied law at the International Court of Justice in The Netherlands, served as Canada’s Parliamentary Secretary for External Affairs, and works for democratic development overseas. The author of twenty-three books on Canadian history, law, politics, and governance, Patrick lives with wife, Elise, in Muskoka and Toronto.