Update: CBC’s The Current interviewed some experts on the subject of referendums in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. They cover all of the same territory. You can hear the episode here.
There’s a certain logic to the idea that the issue of electoral reform should be settled by a referendum. After all, if we’re deciding how to best empower the people as they choose a government, why not empower them to choose the method of doing so? It seems un-democratic to change a democratic system without asking the people.
But all of that is wrong, and a referendum is possibly the worst way to decide the issue of electoral reform. Here’s why.
1.The Nature of a Referendum
A referendum is an excellent tool in the right circumstances, but outside of those circumstances it’s a terrible tool. This is because it can only really work with a very simple question on a matter of deep conviction that only has two possible answers: yes or no. If you had a referendum with three or more possible answers, the likelihood of getting a clear decision is slim. This is actually one of the reasons electoral reform makes sense in a multi-party system like ours: most of the time in our elections, large numbers of people vote for one of three major parties, with many others voting for other smaller parties, and true majority governments are very rare. Since we only use a referendum when we need a clear decision, it has to be boiled down to two options. That’s difficult to do in this case, because there are many possible options for how our electoral system could work, and then there’s always the option of not changing it at all. The options cannot easily be reduced to a yes/no question unless someone else already does all of the work of choosing which type is best for us and then gives us the ability to approve a change or not – but then we’re left with the same question, namely, how can it be democratic if someone else has chosen it for us? Which brings us to the next point:
- The Nature of the Electorate
The electorate (you and I) are busy people, and most of us do not hold degrees in political science, so the idea that we can make an informed decision about something as complex as electoral reform is a bit daunting. People in general tend to be resistant to change, first of all, so we have an automatic bias in favour of the status quo even when there are better options. Further, most of us will not find the time to attend informational meetings or do extensive research on the issue in the lead-up to a referendum, and even if we do, we’re going to find a lot of conflicting information and opinions that will be difficult to navigate. That’s because of the nature of a campaign.
- The Nature of a Campaign
Elections and referendums both have campaigns. A campaign is supposed to be a chance for the different sides of the issues to present their case and win over as much of the electorate as possible. Unfortunately, most campaigns end up utilizing a lot of social psychology to manipulate people rather than giving them the facts and letting them decide for themselves. Referendums are usually the worst for this, as politicians play on the fear of change and attempt to demonize the other side. This is the kind of thing that has made our political system so toxic, and a big reason why I believe that electoral reform is only one step toward a healthier system; we also need campaign reform in a big way.
- The Nature of Canadian Democratic Representation
Thankfully, we’ve already had an election: we elected a new Liberal government last year, and one of the big planks in their platform was democratic reform. It was also a big plank in the platforms of the Green Party and the NDP, so we should have a general sense that this is an issue that most of the electorate can get behind. But the reason that we even had an election last year was to choose people who can do the legwork for us, who have access to the best experts and can make decisions on our behalf. The role of an MP is to keep their constituents informed, ask their opinions, and then choose on their behalf. Resorting to a referendum cuts out the MPs and all of their resources, putting the important decision on the shoulders of average folks who have little time to consider these options and cut through the political rhetoric.
- The Nature of the Electoral System
A big point about electoral reform is that it is not actually a matter of opinion. The goal of electoral reform is to create a system that actually serves the values and aims of our democratic society – that is, we need a system that accurately reflects the votes of the people in the makeup of Parliament. We’re not deciding on whether or not to be a democracy; that would be a good question for a referendum, because it’s asking what we want. But we already know that we want to live in a democracy; what’s at stake here is whether or not the current system is doing a good job of serving that democracy. It’s not a matter of opinion: First Past the Post is a voting system that does not result in a Parliament that accurately represents the votes that were cast. Choosing between the options to replace FPTP is also not a matter of opinion; every other system represents the choices of the people better than the current system, but they vary in the way that they do so, and it will take a panel of experts to determine which will result in the makeup of Parliament most accurately reflecting the votes cast. This is a matter of political science, not one of the will of the people.
Consider the example of energy and climate: scientists know that the oil industry is directly contributing to anthropogenic climate change which results in natural disasters of enormous scale, ongoing mass extinctions, and the destabilization of global climate which will ultimately result in the destabilization of the global economy; and yet we continually make it a political issue, and in politics short-term concerns almost always outweigh facts and projections. If it were up to the people who actually know what is happening to the climate we would leave the oil in the ground and transition as quickly as possible to renewable energy, even at great economic cost, knowing that doing so would save lives and jobs in the long run. Instead it is an issue that has divided the country, and we’ve seen no action from politicians for fear of the political and economic backlash. Like climate change, electoral reform is not an issue that should be left solely up to the people OR solely up to politicians – which is why it is important that there is a transparent committee process.
- The Nature of Committees
Maryam Monsef, the Minister for Democratic Institutions, has proposed that this issue be decided by a non-partisan committee that includes members from all five parties that currently have members in Parliament. Representation on the committee is roughly analogous to the makeup of the House of Commons, with most of the committee being Liberal MPs, then Conservatives, then NDP, and with token representatives for the Bloc and Green Party (who are unable to vote, presumably because they have so few members in the House; I’m thankful they’re included at all). This committee is tasked with weighing the options and deciding which is best. Let’s be clear: they are not just going to chat about it over coffee. The process must include extensive consultation, both with the public (so we get a chance to have our say) and with experts on the issue. While the committee will make the final call on it, they must take the word of experts into account. If the process is transparent, then we will all know if they have ignored the testimony of experts.
A quick note on the way that committees worked under the last government. There were numerous situations in which the Harper government sent issues to committees who engaged in the consultation process and then ignored the facts and ideas presented by the experts in order to institute what the government wanted in the first place. This is how we got our new anti-terrorism laws, for example. The government has the power to ignore the consultation process, but they don’t have the power to hide that they’ve done so. If the process isn’t transparent, call your MP. If the advice of experts is ignored, call your MP. The consultation and committee process is not perfect, but it is the best and most accountable system we can get for making a solid decision on this issue, especially if we take steps to hold our MPs to account.
- We’ve been here before.
BC and Ontario have both had referendums on democratic reform. I was living in BC when they had their referendum, but I wasn’t even aware that it was going on. I know I wasn’t the only one who didn’t participate, or even know that it was going on: 50% of Ontario residents polled just a few months before the referendum didn’t even know it was happening. Just days before the 2005 BC referendum, “two-thirds of British Columbians admitted to knowing ‘nothing/very little’ about the proposed STV system.” We know that people in both places were largely confused about the voting system, but “they were strongly inclined towards proportionality, choice among multiple parties, and even coalition governments,” all things that are made more difficult or even impossible in a First Past the Post system. Yet they voted down any changes to the electoral system in both provinces, twice in BC with a second referendum in 2009 resulting in a 60% No vote.
Recent history shows that even though we want a democratic system that represents us proportionately and encourages cooperation in a multi-party Parliament, we will still vote against reforms that would make that system better when they are presented to us in a referendum. The very system of a referendum makes it very difficult to enact any change, whether because of our status-quo bias, political fear campaigns, confusion because complex issues have been reduced to a too-simple question, voter apathy, etc. With all of those influences stacked in the “No” column, it’s difficult to tell if people are voting “No” to change because they actually think our current system is serving them well. And no matter which way a referendum goes, that kind of uncertainty will allow politicians from both sides of the issue to continue to make hay about it well beyond the next election. Which is why referendums tend to come around more than once.
For all of those reasons, a referendum is exactly the wrong mechanism to decide on democratic reform. The important decision of whether or not to be a democracy has already been decided; let’s leave the mechanism that best serves that system up to the experts, and keep tabs on our MPs to make sure they do too.