In our system of representative democracy, government is carried out through legislators elected by the people. The role of the people goes no further than selecting representatives to govern them. The representatives don’t have to implement or even ascertain their electors’ will on current issues. British parliamentarian Edmund Burke famously told his constituents in 1774 that he owed them his judgment and need not sacrifice it to their opinion.
Yet in the years since Burke spoke, the iron grip which the party system has gained over legislators has many representatives instead sacrificing their judgment to the will of party bosses. The only recourse of the people when they don’t like the way this is working out is to vote out the existing government at the next election and hope for better from a new one. This threat has promoted a reality that legislators hoping to be re-elected cannot routinely ignore the will of the people on the issues of the day.
Burke spoke when the 193 kilometres from Bristol to London required several days journey by horseback or coach and there was no faster communication for messages. It is now easier to keep current on the will of the people. Pollsters have long been trolling for public attitudes, and since the growth of the Internet we have become bombarded with peoples’ opinions. Instead of seeing a greater respect for peoples’ attitudes, we are encountering the intensification of government efforts to mould and shape them. Our governors sit hopeful of re-election in the expectation they are carrying out the will of the people since the government’s spin-doctors have shaped it. It’s too neat and it doesn’t always work.
There has long existed a system for directly ascertaining the will of the people — votes variously called referendums or plebiscites. While the terminology varies, the real issue is whether the result of the vote is binding. In Canada such referrals have normally been used on fundamental or divisive issues where a government does not wish to proceed without an assurance that the majority of voters approve. Since Confederation there have been three such federal referrals: in 1898 approving prohibition, in 1942 approving conscription and in 1992 rejecting the Charlottetown Accord.
Alberta has used plebiscites three times to establish the public’s attitude on liquor issues. The 1995 Quebec sovereignty referendum reflected a flaw in the referral system — governments attempting to influence the result. The weasel-worded question the separatist government devised to put to voters doubtless was intended to produce a yes vote and only narrowly failed. In recent years American states have been seeing a greater resort to popular votes on legislative issues. In the United States elections are routine and regularly timed, and putting a referral question to the electorate often need not invoke an expensive separate campaign and balloting day.
This increasing usage reflects a rankling sense that elected representatives too often ignore the public’s will. We have entered an era in which electronic communications simplify obtaining a person’s formal decision on an issue. Expect to see more pressure for this to be incorporated into increased use of the referendum and plebiscite model of democracy.
St. Albert resident David Haas frequently comments on political matters.