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If Referendum Decides Electoral Reform, It Must Be Done Right

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In a recent opinion editorial, Conservative Party Interim Leader Rona Ambrose said that we cannot have electoral reform without a referendum.

A genuine claim to the use of a referendum cannot strictly appeal to convention or populism that demands the consent of "the people." The relationship between referendums and democracy is a contingent one. In some cases referendums are explicitly used for political gains. In other cases they are actively used as part of a broader process of public participation. In the end, the bigger picture is about implementing a substantive framework of public engagement, with multiple, ongoing points of entry into political decision-making structures.

Experts have been debating in witness hearings about whether or not we can have electoral reform by legislative fiat. Given that particular areas of the British North America Act imply the electoral system can be altered by the party in power, it calls in to question why the Conservatives when given the chance didn't jump at the opportunity. Perhaps the greater force of their argument is that politics has played into electoral reform historically; changing or not changing the model is often more about political maneuvering than a genuine desire for a fairer electoral system.

Months into public debate and yet we are left without a serious discussion of what a good referendum process looks like.

Detractors, whether or not they are reluctant to see proportional or alternative representation in place, have been very vocal about making sure we have a referendum to decide its fate. This includes the debate about the precedent set by other provinces using the referendum to determine electoral reform, and the moral imperative to have it because it satisfies a preamble of democracy. In the latter camp, referendums are considered the direct will of the people. Rather than have politicians determine if electoral reform should move forward, people should.

Months into public debate and yet we are left without a serious discussion of what a good referendum process looks like. In the instance that a referendum is selected to determine the outcome of national electoral reform, it may be too late to ensure it is less about making the outcome more palatable to partisans rather than a truly substantive deliberative exercise.

The present debate has failed to go beyond the simple statement that we need a referendum because other countries have done it. What a 'good' referendum process consists of, not simply that we need one, is a far more nuanced topic that even academics in the public eye have yet to address.

rona ambrose
Interim Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill. (Photo: REUTERS/Chris Wattie)

The quality of a referendum is discerned by how inclusive it is of a wide range of actors coming together at various stages of negotiation. This means that simply having a referendum as a vessel to solicit particular support for a desired outcome -- "Yes" or "No" -- places an inappropriate emphasis on the final vote, rather than preparatory phases leading up to it.

Comparative literature indicates that referendums may enhance the democratic quality of electoral and legislative institutions. For example, compelling aspects of the processes applied in Swiss Cantons and federally, offer citizens the recurring opportunity to initiate a referendum, including agenda-setting control mechanisms. This is part of a broader attempt to provide citizens with the right to challenge political elites on unpopular legislation, as Adrian Vatter points out in "Consensus and Direct Democracy: Conceptual and Empirical Linkages."

Countries that reduce hurdles have a better chance of seeing referendums evolve into routine practice. Even then, referendums alone are not guaranteed to enhance democratic processes, and they do not automatically lead to increased and informed engagement, according to Silvano Moeckli's "Direct Democracy and Political Participation from a Cross-National Perspective."

It becomes paradoxical to claim "the people" have spoken when sizeable portions of the populace have not participated.

There must be measures in place to ensure that the process does not end up like many other referendums where the public is unaware. It becomes paradoxical to claim "the people" have spoken when sizeable portions of the populace have not participated. There will need to be public inclusion in the formulation of ground rules (like preventing arbitrary qualifications), ensuring the referendum question is worded appropriately, guaranteeing adequate time for public deliberation, as well as providing sufficient resources for a national educational campaign.

Advocates have been alluding to the necessity of both informing and including public deliberation on the topic. The reference point is our very own Citizens' Assemblies. While the BCCA and OCA had the potential for meaningful change, and in many ways they did within the Assemblies, there was still the need for a broader education strategy on electoral systems. The issue of course is the scaling up from small forums to the general public where partisan actors and the media actively seek to manipulate the process to their advantage, as Dennis Pilon wrote in his 2009 and 2010 investigations of Canadian voting systems. Without entrenchment of some form of referendum process design, there is little recourse against political interference.

Ultimately, if a referendum is deemed worthy by the Party of the day, it should be in tune with an earnest attempt to invigorate participatory democracy in Canada. This may be ironic given that referendums are best used in countries that value power-sharing, the very principle that proportionally representative electoral systems entail.

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