Referendum: Submission of an issue of public importance to the direct vote of the electorate (originally chiefly in reference to Switzerland).
I was in Greece visiting my friends Chris and Isabelle, who live there. Isabelle was opening her mail. We were discussing direct citizen democracy in ancient Athens, the popular assemblies springing up in Spain, the face-to-face decision-making process in the Occupy camps.
"Oh," said Isabelle, who remains a Swiss citizen, "here are the referendums I have to vote on next month."
What referendums? I asked, though by then I was supposed to be hip deep in forms of democratic innovation. All I could recall was that Switzerland once voted to ban construction of new minarets, even though none were planned.
Like all Swiss, she said, she's eligible to vote on various issues, several times a year. She gets the questions in advance, with pro and con information. "We call that direct democracy," she said.
It wasn't the kind of direct I had in mind in my search for forms of democratic renewal, and there was nothing new about it. Besides, I tend to associate voting with elections, but this was a different kind of voting.
It turns out referendums aren't just an aspect of Swiss democracy, they're its most distinctive, beloved element. On a national level they're usually held four times a year, with multiple items each time. On cantonal (provincial) or local levels, they're even more common.
Issues range from tax rates to constitutional changes.
Switzerland is the world capital of referendums. Between 1960 and 2003, there were 321. In Canada nationally we've had three, total, none binding. They're very popular among the Swiss; the type of political change they endorse is more referendums.
It's rooted in an ancient Swiss sense of autonomy, for the nation and its separate districts. As the country moved toward unification in the 19th century, it turned toward referendums as part of the process, because they let local bodies retain an effective veto. It worked: each canton still has its own constitution. Some use parliaments; others, citizens' assemblies.
Voter turnout for referendums and elections hovers around 45-55 per cent, comparable to our own elections -- but there, voting happens constantly. Not just voting, but weighing and debating. "The whole society is in a constant state of discussion," says Nik Nuspliger, North American correspondent for Zurich's Neue Zürcher Zeitung.
It's built into Swiss life, like the legal system itself. Every law passed by parliament that affects the constitution must go to a referendum. Laws not affecting the constitution can also be sent to a referendum if 50,000 people sign a petition -- out of population of 8 million. Votes can be based on "popular initiatives" if they're supported by 100,000 names. That's how minarets got on.
Parliament then debates and formulates a question and it can also put its own alternative on the ballot. Foreign treaties automatically get referendums. There are provisions for double majorities -- both nationally and in cantons -- in some cases, and time limits depending on issues. This is the sign of deep integration into normal political life: loads of rules.
Since they're at the heart of Swiss politics, referendums affect everything. Elected reps and parties are aware in formulating laws that they're subject to a referendum and often build in compromises in advance. When popular initiatives reach parliament, there's usually an attempt to get their supporters to accept changes so voters won't face a choice.
The process has a moderating rather than radicalizing influence, leading to what's called a negotiation or consensus democracy, since all laws live in "the shadow of the referendum." Constitutional changes must pass the "hurdle of the referendum." It "hangs like a sword of Damocles" over the parliamentary process. It effectively limits the power of the state vis-a-vis society, say Swiss academics Hanspeter Kriesi and Alexander Trechsel, because citizens get the last word.
This makes for "slow but inclusive" decision-making. Switzerland only joined the UN in 2002. It still hasn't joined the EU. I have no idea if that's bad or good, but it sounds democratic.
It also affects and limits the role of parties. For 50 years, the government has consisted of a council of seven ministers selected from among the four main parties, with the presidency rotating yearly. That's very different from the style that's evolved in Canada and elsewhere, and from more polarized party politics.
Switzerland doesn't lack those currents. But the referendum system continues to exert an influence, pressuring parties to work together and compromise in what remains"a culture of co-operation," Nuspliger says.
In some ways it may have held Switzerland back from "progressing" -- women didn't get the vote federally until 1971. On the other hand, Switzerland is the only country to introduce gay marriage by popular vote. The left used a referendum to win consumer protection; the right, to incarcerate sex offenders. Doctors for managed care gave their patients petitions to sign. Greens used it to campaign against nuclear energy. It is, in other words, as unpredictable as you'd like to think true democracy is. And it shows that voting is a tool adaptable to more than just electing parties or representatives.
It's also interesting that referendums -- unlike, say, popular assemblies -- aren't a particularly left-wing preference in the marketplace for democratic renewal. When I googled the Swiss system, the two most recent books I found were by right-wing U.S. political figures, including the Kansas's secretary of state, who helped create anti-immigration laws in Arizona and Alabama. This speaks for the wide appeal of the referendum as a democratizing device.
In Canada its main advocate was Preston Manning's right-wing Reform party during its rise, though that all vanished under its successor: the Harper Conservatives. Manning's entry onto the national political stage happened before he entered parliament, it was during the 1993 Charlottetown referendum on constitutional reform.
It's worth pausing over that, the last of Canada's three referendums. The first was in 1898, on prohibition. It won narrowly. Next was conscription, during World War II. It won handily everywhere but Quebec, where it lost, but it was never acted on. The third followed the crash of the Meech Lake Accord in 1990, which most Canadians saw as an attempt by elites to impose their will. When negotiations renewed, the same leaders knew they had to at least appear to consult "the people," so a national referendum was set.
When it was announced, pundits said it would draw a big public yawn due to "constitutional fatigue." They assumed it would pass since it was unanimously supported by all the people who mattered: every national and provincial leader, all opposition parties, all major media, all business and labour leaders. The only "prominent" opposers, who weren't very prominent, were Manning and feminist Judy Rebick.
Yet the country exploded in debate. Talk show callers raised points in the typical Canadian way: erudite but self-effacing, about clauses on senate reform or the strange inclusion of changes to the Bank of Canada's mandate that had no relation to the crisis ostensibly being addressed.
As the vote approached, involvement intensified. People on public transit held battling interpretations of the Accord in either hand, like a tennis match. Any lawyer was liable to hear from family, friends, or friends of friends searching for expertise. A cashier at the checkout read a copy of the Accord as she passed groceries through. People came to the polls undecided, sometimes weeping.
Why? Because it mattered so much to their country -- and they'd been given the power to decide.
The Accord failed badly; even those it was supposedly made for -- Quebecois and native peoples -- rejected it, to the disgust of their own leaders. It was the first referendum in 50 years but Canadians reacted as if they were born to it. As an experiment in citizen involvement it beats an elected senate hollow- Triple-E or not.
Imagine what might have been had the raucous free trade election of 1988 gone the referendum route, as it would have in Switzerland, where foreign treaties are subject to it. We'd have had a national debate focused solely on that fateful issue. The discussion would have been unmuddled by everything else that surfaces during elections: leaders' images, attack ads, local diversions.
As it was, the election of 1988 was the only modern one we've had in which a single issue dominated, but the majority opposing the trade deal split their vote between Liberals and NDP, the Tories won, and the deal passed.
Does that mean we should push reforms that include regular referendums? Not necessarily. I don't think change happens that way.
The epic experience of Charlottetown has vanished down the Canadian memory hole. You never hear it mentioned. I'm sure the losers -- premiers, pundits, CEOs -- are pleased to have it go away and never return, but that doesn't change the fact that we aren't Swiss.
They didn't acquire their system by having one good referendum. It began 160 years ago when national unification was on the menu. Referendums seemed a way to safeguard local autonomy in that context. For good measure, they were traced back to medieval origins. Whether that's historically accurate is irrelevant, it assured people they were keeping a familiar old practise rather than trying out something new and risky. In coming years, they found it useful as a brake on extremism. It proved itself and they grew attached to it.
That's how ideas become political realities. An idea alone isn't a political solution no matter how brilliant it is. Take a Canadian example. Retired politics professor Vaughan Lyon has written a fine book called Power Shift, which proposes "constituency democracy" as the answer to our democratic deficits.
It would mean creating little parliaments in each riding where people would debate serious issues in an ongoing way and discuss them with their MP, who'd have to represent their views rather than those of his party or anyone else.
It makes complete sense. But it has no chance of happening and it's delusional to think it could. Most political forms and practises come about through a complex set of circumstances in the real world that might or might not have led to them.
Lyon loathes party-based politics and reasonably blames it for many of our system's failings. In fact we even have Canadian models -- in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories -- of parliamentary systems without parties and their self-serving adversarial baggage.
But this all happens in communities that are overwhelmingly aboriginal, that have their own traditions and a consensual culture. Elders still play a central role. People wait to hear what they say or seek their opinions. (Elders doesn't mean old, it means worth listening to.) The rest of us can admire that approach, but it would be hard to import.
This also holds for the Spanish model of local assemblies, which I find hypnotically appealing. It wasn't anyone's bright idea. It happened to happen. When the great May 15 camp in the Puerta del Sol plaza came under police and other pressure to disband, the assembly voted to do so and someone suggested they continue the work in their neighbourhoods. This gradually became their focus, rather than the big, dramatic encampment downtown. It suited them and it felt familiar too. As Vicente Perez, the anti-eviction organizer, told me, popular assemblies have a long history in Spanish politics.
I don't know what the Canadian route to democratic renewal will be but I'd happily bet (if I weren't phobic about gambling) that it will emerge from some combination of haphazard present experimentation and historical experiences that people feel comfy with.
This is part four of a six-part series. This article was first published in the Toronto Star.
Photo: Benjamin Vander Steen/Flickr