Pro Rep: Infinity War; or, In Defence of Endless Referendums

File:Guelph Rally on Electoral Reform - National Day of Action for Electoral Reform - 11 Feb 2017 - 02.jpg

Winston Churchill (apocryphally, as it turns out) is believed to have said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” In light of British Columbia’s referendum on electoral reform this past fall, one is tempted to agree. But let’s not let the media, politicians, and third-party campaigners off the hook.

Regardless of where you come down on proportional representation, the referendum was a shameless exercise in fearmongering and misinformation. Confusion was ramped up at every opportunity. Minor quibbles over process were inflated into frothing conspiracy theories. A rigged vote was proclaimed, an NDP/Green Party power grab in the offing. Nazis lurked around every corner. And the inclusion of not one but two ballot questions? The horror!

While the NDP government campaigned for reform, it rarely did the “Yes” side any favours. Premier John Horgan performed abysmally in his televised debate with Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson (who, to be clear, was no better). If only the government had fleshed out a few more details in advance, some of the “No” side’s deliberate mischaracterizations might have been more easily debunked.

Referendums are poor vehicles for nuanced policy discussion. Some electoral reform advocates even take the position that a fair voting system is a civil rights issue — something no less crucial to our democracy than the universality of the franchise — and thus ought to be above the fickle whims of majority rule. Should we really be holding votes on whether to make every vote count?

And yet, valid though this perspective might be, it is hard to shake the idea that choosing an electoral system is the rightful prerogative of the electorate, that leaving the whole thing up to politicians is a fundamental conflict of interest. Referendums are flawed, yes, but elected governments acting on their own initiative, even if guided by ostensible public consultations, face insurmountable incentives simply to preserve their own power. Indeed, how else to explain the perseverance of first-past-the-post?

Hence a proposal that I suspect will be found equally distasteful both by pro rep evangelists and by guardians of the status quo: perhaps the problem isn’t too much voting, but too little.

What if we held regularly scheduled electoral reform referendums every four years? What if, as a matter of course, the task of choosing next election’s voting system was taken up by this election’s voters? Pairing the ballot question with a general election would help to keep the former’s costs down. Plus, serendipitously, the mechanics of voting would already be on the public’s mind. A permanent, repeated exercise of this nature, if properly executed, could infuse our democracy with a spirit of innovation, experimentation, and open-minded inquiry.

So who would be responsible for writing the referendum question? Which variant or variants of reform (plurality, majoritarian, proportional, or otherwise) would make it on the ballot? In order to prevent governments from gaming the system, these matters would have to be determined at arm’s length — perhaps by citizens’ assemblies or by citizen-initiated petitions. The threshold for victory would be a simple majority — anything more rigorous would serve only to stack the deck in favour of the status quo. And lest this idea be perceived as nothing but an underhanded attempt to lock in proportional representation by fluke and throw away the key, a necessary feature for this running proposition would be its permanence. For the sake of fairness, switching back to first-past-the-post would have to be just as easy as abandoning it.

Is there any public appetite for such an exercise? Maybe, maybe not. Here in British Columbia, fresh off the conclusion of our third electoral reform referendum in just over 13 years, many voters are exhausted. But, to put it bluntly, anyone who doesn’t want to vote doesn’t have to. One person’s experience of voting system fatigue should not prevent another from having their say.

Furthermore, the idea of a perpetual ballot question is not wholly without precedent. The City of Vancouver includes capital plan borrowing proposals on every municipal election ballot, which nobody seems to mind (or, for that matter, notice).

Is there something special about electoral reform that makes it uniquely divisive, that wounds our body politic more widely and deeply with each new iteration? It’s hard to say. Voting systems are a wonky and technical subject matter, not what one expects to ignite the public’s imagination. That something so objectively boring would inspire fierce passions on all sides of the debate is not to be feared. On the contrary, this sense of polarization might even signal something positive. The state of public discourse can probably withstand a little extra strain.

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Vancouver Sun Letter

LetterI have a letter in today’s Vancouver Sun, not so much supporting proportional representation (although I do support proportional representation) as addressing what I consider to be baseless objections to the current electoral reform referendum. My letter is second from the top, under the (perhaps regrettable) heading “Complexity isn’t a real concern.”

Remember to vote and mail your ballots in before November 30!

The Case for ‘Yes’ in Metro Vancouver’s Transit Referendum

File:Vancouver Transit.jpgWell, anybody could have called this one.

According to a new survey by Insights West, 53 per cent of residents plan to vote No in the upcoming 2015 Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit Plebiscite. Only 38 per cent say they will vote Yes to the proposed half-percentage-point sales tax increase to help fund more buses, new rapid transit lines, improved walking and cycling networks, road and bridge upgrades, and more.

The once mighty Yes campaign’s decline is a regrettable development, but no one can honestly claim to be surprised. Though referendums can be useful exercises, they are out of place on matters such as public transit where the impacts of present-day decisions are borne in large part by future generations. Voters risk falling victim to the myopic lullabies of anti-tax zealots and their assorted useful idiots. Provincial and municipal representatives would have done well simply to sit down together and hammer out a fair cost-sharing arrangement.

But it’s too late for that now. For better or for worse, the provincial Liberals made a cheap pledge during an election which everyone expected them to lose, and we’re stuck with this plebiscite as a result. Mail-in ballots are on their way next month. It is therefore crucial, for reasons of social and environmental justice, that we do all we can to beat the odds and secure a win for the Yes side.

Is TransLink the problem?

So why, one might ask, is the delightfully named “Metro Vancouver Congestion Improvement Tax” proving so unpopular? Apart from the reflexive mantra of “we hate taxes,” two primary reasons come to the fore. The first is the reputed wastefulness and unaccountability of TransLink, Metro Vancouver’s regional transportation authority.

It is true that the organization suffers a democratic deficit, a convoluted governance structure, and bewildering levels of executive compensation. Moreover, the roll-out of the new Compass fare card system has been disastrous, and recent high-profile service shutdowns on the SkyTrain have not made matters any easier.

It is a mystery, however, why anyone would believe that voting No could solve these problems. High-level decision-makers and bureaucrats are not “punished” when denied the ability to implement sensible policies. They are neither fired nor forced to take pay cuts. On the contrary, the only effect is to punish the general public by worsening our transit system’s dysfunctionality in a time of rapid population growth. The poor in particular would suffer through this act of sabotage to one of the cheapest means of getting around. All this in addition to further increases in air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and traffic congestion.

It is also worth noting that while any waste is indefensible — public bodies must always strive to improve their efficiency — the items commonly cited as examples of TransLink’s storied wastefulness add up to a mere fraction of one per cent of its annual expenditures. In other words, the vast majority of the organization’s budget goes to the vital public services we rely upon it to provide. So let’s keep matters in perspective, shall we?

Are sales taxes the problem?

A second concern for some segments of the No team is the kind of taxation being considered. Sales taxes, they argue, are regressive, in that they disproportionately impact people with low incomes. If we are to expand public transit services, we should try to do so by means of more progressive alternatives.

So far so good. Indeed, the options are limitless if we allow our imaginations to run wild.

In place of a regional sales tax, perhaps transfers from higher levels of government, which are already anticipated to defray the bulk of the costs, could cover every last dime of transit funding. Personal and corporate income taxes could be raised. So too could the provincial carbon tax, for although it is just as regressive as a sales tax (all else being equal), it at least adheres to the polluter pays principle.

The problem is that not one of these idyllic alternatives is on the table, nor will they magically become so if residents vote No. We are not faced with a choice between several different mechanisms by which to pay for needed transit investments; we are faced with a choice between making those investments and not making them.

A sales tax boost may not be perfect, but as far as tax hikes go, 0.5 per cent is fairly small — amounting to an average of 35 cents per household per day, according to the Yes campaign (or about twice that by the No side’s reckoning). And unlike other sales tax proposals, such as our dearly departed HST, this one is earmarked almost entirely towards public transit, an indisputably progressive cause which benefits people with low incomes and helps to prevent climate destruction.

So what exactly is the problem, Metro Vancouver? Will we succumb, as suggested by the latest poll, to the cynical panderings of “starve the beast” fanatics? Or will we defy the prognosticators and rise to the occasion?

This blogger is not optimistic, but he hopes to be proven wrong.

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Referendums on Pipelines?

Northern GatewayThe longstanding “will they or won’t they” dynamic existing between BC premier Christy Clark and Alberta premier Alison Redford took a turn for the depressing recently when they announced they had come to a framework agreement on pipelines. While short on specifics and not making any firm pledges, the deal appears intended to bring Enbridge’s controversial Northern Gateway project, which seeks to transport diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sands to BC’s North Coast for export, one step closer to fruition.

With Enbridge and its prospective pipeline gaining momentum, opposition to the plan is not far behind, and proposals abound for how best to defeat this and other fossil fuel-related developments. Political commentator Rafe Mair, for instance, in two recent columns in The Tyee, has challenged the BC government to hold a referendum asking voters the simple question: “Are you in favour of oil pipelines and oil tankers in British Columbia?”

Mair has been a passionate defender of the environment for many years, taking on such foes as salmon farming and private power production (more than making up, in my opinion, for his participation in the Social Credit governments of old), so when he speaks up, it is worth listening to what he has to say.

Yet I cannot help but feel a little ambivalence — a tinge of skepticism even — towards this particular proposal. If the government could be convinced to go down the referendum route, the major advantage — and it’s a big one — would be that Enbridge would probably lose. Fossil fuel boosters may have the ability to outspend environmentalists, but public opinion polls in BC have consistently shown more people opposed to the pipeline than in favour. And it is a truism in politics that negative emotions are more motivating than positive ones, meaning that all else being equal, pipeline opponents would be more likely to show up and vote than supporters.

However, though probable, victory is far from assured. As a general rule, one should not support a referendum unless willing to accept its results when things don’t go according to plan. No electoral majority would be large enough to make me comfortable with the Enbridge project, and I suspect others feel the same way. To say this is not to give in to dogmatism or reject democratic decision-making, but simply to acknowledge that the referendum, though it has its uses, is not the ideal tool for resolving environmental issues. After all, most of the relevant stakeholders — including future generations and non-human animals — cannot possibly be part of any electorate. Then there is the question Indigenous rights, a constitutionally enshrined principle which ought never to be subject to this or that majority whim. Environmental governance by referendum sets a dangerous precedent.

For these reasons, my instinct is to say no to a referendum on Northern Gateway. The sad truth, however, is that pipeline opponents have the odds stacked against them and are not exactly spoiled for choice with respect to winning strategies. Rafe Mair (along with the Dogwood Initiative which, I understand, is considering a similar proposal) is to be commended for contributing to an important debate. A Northern Gateway pipeline would threaten the rights of First Nations communities, risk oil spills on land and at sea, and bring us closer to the edge of runaway global warming. (In the words of Mark Jaccard, “the impacts of climate change are local — everywhere!”)

Concerned citizens would do well to inform themselves and make their voices heard. A series of events under the banner of “Defend Our Climate” (including an anti-Enbridge rally in Vancouver) will be held across the country this Saturday.

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Quebec, Referendums, and Formulas for Secession

A percent signNational unity is back in the news after the NDP tabled a private member’s bill yesterday, a bill that would repeal the Clarity Act and set the bar for Quebec sovereignty negotiations at a mere 50 percent plus one in a clearly worded referendum.

We all know what that means. The NDP, it will be claimed over the coming days and weeks, is “in bed with the separatists” and willing to “tear our country apart” for partisan advantage. There is nothing those treacherous socialists won’t do to preserve the Faustian bargain that won them Quebec in 2011!

Never mind that one can with perfect consistency oppose Quebec separatism while at the same time supporting Quebec’s right to separate if that is what its residents choose (so far they haven’t). And never mind the disingenuousness of those who scream and rage at the prospect of a 50 percent plus one threshold for “destroying the country” while not uttering a peep about the routine formation of majority governments with less than 40 percent of the vote.

No, never mind any of that. The real issue comes down to the following question: is a simple majority of votes in a referendum enough to bestow legitimacy upon Quebec’s decision to secede? The answer, as is so often the case, is “yes and no.” It’s complicated.

The common federalist demand for a “clear majority” before agreeing to entertain the notion of secession (while rarely defining the threshold at which numbers become sufficiently clear) is understandable. If 51 percent of Quebeckers vote to separate, what happens if they change their minds after a year or two, as marginal majorities are wont to do? Would their new sovereign government offer them another referendum? Would the winning percentage still be 50 plus one? Would the rest of Canada even want them back? Such a low bar for secession could make things messy and unpredictable.

On the other hand, in the case of a virtually split province, why should the system be biased in favour federalism rather than separatism? Why must the supermajoritarian burden rest solely on the shoulders of sovereigntists? Simple majority rule has its faults, but surely minority rule is even worse.

There are no easy answers to this problem. What is needed is some kind of compromise, something that will satisfy both federalists and sovereigntists. I would like to humbly submit, as a possible candidate for such a compromise, what with characteristic appellative inspiration I call the “three-referendum rule.”

What I propose is that the Quebec provincial government, should it see fit to do so, hold a series of three referendums over the span of a decade — one every five years. All three referendums would, in the same unambiguous language, ask Quebec voters if they wish to form a separate country. Fifty percent plus one would be the necessary threshold for victory. If a majority votes “yes” in the first referendum, Quebec would remain a part of the Canadian federation for the time being, but would receive greater autonomy therein. If a majority votes “yes” a second time, Quebec’s autonomy would increase still further. And with a third “yes” vote, ten years after the first, Quebec would finally achieve the status of independent nation-state. If, however, any of the three referendums fails to produce the requisite simple majority of “yes” votes, the whole procedure would be sent back to square one.

While I believe this three-referendum rule to be the fairest secession formula on offer, there are undoubtedly some difficulties involved as well. It would almost certainly require a constitutional amendment in order to be put into effective use, and the nature of the stages of Quebec autonomy within the Canadian federation would need to be spelled out in detail. Furthermore, this secession formula must not be imposed unilaterally by one party on another. There has to be broad agreement by everyone involved — federal and provincial, federalist and sovereigntist — before the three-referendum rule can be put into practice.

And what if there is no such broad agreement? Then we must fall back on imperfect solutions. Even in the absence of three referendums held in five-year increments, approximations can be made. The principle of self-determination requires that decision makers glean whatever information they can to determine the will of the people of Quebec.

And a referendum, even just one, in which a simple majority of Quebec voters sends a message to the rest of Canada — well, that’s a pretty strong expression of the people’s will.

An Open Letter to Stephen Harper Regarding Senate Reform

Senate Foyer Ceiling

Dear Prime Minister Stephen Harper:

I am writing today in response to reports that you will seek a Supreme Court reference on the constitutionality of your proposals for Senate reform. In a way, I can understand this. You would like clarity on a politically tricky issue, one that would otherwise almost inevitably face judicial challenge.

Personally, I do not believe the court will fully endorse all features of your plan, as the Constitution Act, 1982 is quite clear regarding the constitutional amendment requirements for such fundamental changes to the upper house. But either way, both you and I know that pursuing Senate reform by statute is not a long-term solution. Any future government will be able to repeal your legislation without difficulty.

What Canada really needs, to settle the decades-long debate once and for all, is a national referendum. Not one in which the issue of Senate reform is muddied by other matters, as in the Charlottetown Accord, but a single stand-alone nationwide vote on the future of the Red Chamber. Voters should be given a choice between three possibilities: 1) an appointed Senate, 2) an elected Senate, and — my personal favourite (see here and here for my reasoning) — 3) abolition of the Senate. The ballot would also need to be preferential to make sure the winner has majority support.

Once the dust from the referendum has settled and one of these three options has become legitimized by popular endorsement, it should then become easier to get seven provincial governments representing half the country’s population (as required by the Constitution Act, 1982) to, if necessary, back a constitutional amendment. Will the provinces inevitably put aside their differences and come to an agreement after such an exercise? There is no guarantee. But this at least represents a better shot at a permanent resolution to the Senate reform debate than your Supreme Court reference case.

And what if voters settle on something other than your preferred route of an elected Senate? Am I being naive in asking you to put your own preferred outcome at risk? Only you can answer that question, Mr. Harper. All I can do is urge you to recognize that what unites all proposals for Senate reform is the desire to deepen democracy in our country. So please, respect the people — theĀ demos — in their right to decide for themselves what institutions are most appropriate for the expression of their will. This is the only way of dealing with the Senate that truly embraces democracy.


David Taub Bancroft

Referendums: The Perils and the Possibilities


Direct democracy is to representative democracy what extra-virgin olive oil is to refined olive oil. The latter is more cost effective and, perhaps according to some, just as good. But to the connoisseur, there is no substitute for the real stuff.

In the fourth article of his ongoing series on democracy, Toronto Star columnist Rick Salutin examines the real stuff in the form of Swiss referendums. Several national referendums are held together four times per year in Switzerland on everything from tax policy to constitutional amendments to international treaties. Direct democracy advocates all around the world look on enviously, and it is easy to understand why. Whatever it is that makes representative democracy good — equality, civic engagement, rule by the people, etc. — surely makes direct democracy even better.

In his Patterns of Democracy, Dutch-American political scientist Arend Lijphart makes the somewhat counterintuitive argument that referendums, when initiated by citizens as they frequently are in Switzerland, can be used as a tool for consensus rather than blunt majoritarianism. Citizens’ initiatives allow a minority of the population (Switzerland requires a minimum of 50,000 to 100,000 signatories on such petitions) to make proposals or present challenges that would otherwise go unconsidered by elected lawmakers. More than 50 percent of voters must ultimately approve the initiative in the ensuing referendum in order for it to pass, but the key point is minorities now have a chance they would not otherwise have to persuade the majority. Salutin notes that Swiss laws live in “the shadow of the referendum,” and thus that lawmakers preemptively build broad-based compromises into their legislation in order to avoid challenge.

But does it always work out that way? How about the famous 2009 referendum in which the Swiss, apparently inspired by anti-Muslim xenophobia, voted to ban the construction of minarets? Far from consensus democracy, this seems more a case of that much condemned “tyranny of the majority.” Referendums, it is commonly warned, merely enable the violation of individual and minority rights.

Can this be guarded against? Is there any way to keep the good referendums while tossing out the bad ones? The most reliable protection against majoritarian tyranny is without doubt a strong written constitution backed up by judicial review, but the drafters of a constitution cannot possibly anticipate every future impingement upon individual and minority rights. What other options are there?

One source of inspiration is the Recall and Initiative Act here in British Columbia (the only Canadian province where such a law exists). Once the required number of signatures is gathered on an initiative, the proposed legislation is simply handed to the Legislature. By convention, it is commonly expected that a successful initiative will be put before the public in a referendum, but if they wish, lawmakers may simply choose to vote yea or nay on their own.

I personally believe that this procedure strikes the right balance, although not every other aspect of the law is reasonable. In giving canvassers only three months to gather the signatures of 10 percent of registered voters in every single riding, the bar is set way too high. It is no coincidence that since the Act came into effect in 1995, only one initiative out of seven attempts has passed the required threshold. For the initiative law to have a significant impact, the minimum number of signatures should be lowered or the amount of time set aside for gathering them should be increased. But the Legislature’s decision to retain a final say as a safeguard against abuse is a good idea (as are some of the campaign finance rules).

So let open-minded democrats the world over consider the advantages of Swiss-style direct democracy while remaining wary of the risks. In order to function properly, it requires careful institutional design and an informed and engaged citizenry. If these conditions are met, the reward is democracy as it was always meant to be.