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'A device for dictators and demagogues': Jason Kenney should heed Margaret Thatcher's observation about referenda

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Margaret Thatcher in York, England, in 1987. Image: christopher hogg/Flickr

Referenda, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once observed, "are a device for dictators and demagogues."

I mention this in light of Alberta's new referendum legislation -- Bill 26, the Constitutional Referendum Amendment Act -- which our province's United Conservative Party government introduced yesterday.

Thatcher, normally a hero to the UCP, wasn't right about much, but she was right about referenda. It is certain her assessment of referenda was more accurate than Premier Jason Kenney's claim in the Alberta government's press release Tuesday that "this legislation will help us strengthen democracy and increase accountability."

Au contraire.

Britain's Conservative prime minister from 1979 to 1990, who did an awful lot of damage during her rule, was actually riffing off a much sharper observation by Clement Attlee, who was Labour PM from 1945 to 1951 when the memory of the Second World War was still very, very fresh in the minds of Britons.

"I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and fascism," Attlee coolly observed.

Unlike Thatcher's silly line about the problem with socialism, which was intended to obfuscate the way economies really work, don't expect to hear UCP supporters endlessly repeating her quite accurate assessment of referenda in their internet memes.

That goes double for Attlee's observation, since it would also require a trigger warning to protect the tender sensibilities of modern conservatives because of the blunt language used by the creator of the National Health Service, which Thatcher and her successors have endeavoured mightily to destroy.

It goes without saying that Kenney's UCP is not opposed to introducing alien concepts into Alberta's faltering democracy. He will do the same for Canada if he ever gets a chance. That is what the Republicanized Canadian conservative movement lives to do. The only thing is that Alberta's Conservatives are less stealthy about it than most.

Despite their superficial appearance of direct democracy, it is not difficult to understand why referenda have an anti-democratic effect.

They reduce complicated questions to simple yes-no equations. They allow elected representatives to avoid doing their jobs -- or at least taking responsibility for how they do them. They are intended to be divisive -- polarization is the name of the game. They are far easier to manipulate than ordinary electoral politics in a representative democracy, even without the wide-open spending the UCP plans to allow. They encourage authoritarian governments to brush aside constitutional protections for minorities and introduce convenient tyrannies of the majority.

This is what Attlee was talking about when he mentioned two of the totalitarian movements of the first half of the 20th century in connection with referendum politics.

But this had been understood for a long time. It was no accident that in November 1804, 99.93 per cent of the votes cast in France were in favour of crowning Napoleon Bonaparte Emperor of the French. The Duke of Wellington wrote finis on that experiment on June 22, 1815, near Waterloo, in Belgium.

The undemocratic nature of referenda is, of course, counterintuitive. What could be more democratic than a vote? This is a point the UCP can be counted on to make repeatedly, and effectively, in response to the obvious criticism of their scheme.

Indeed, they are already making it.

As Kenney or one of his digital surrogates tweeted yesterday afternoon: "The most significant democratic reform in decades will give Albertans a chance to vote in public referenda. Guess who wants to stand in the way? The New 'Democratic' Party. Opposing more democracy. You can't make this up."

"According to the NDP, referendums are an anti-democratic power grab," tweeted Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer earlier in the day. "Let that sink in for a minute. You can't make this stuff up."

Bill 26 is structured to allow cabinet to determine which issues can go to referendum -- no grassroots democracy for these guys. It also allows them to control where and when the referenda are held, a huge advantage to the governing party during provincial or municipal elections when they need to whip up their base.

The bill will also allow well-heeled third-party advertisers to spend up to half a million dollars, and since they will only have to file audited financial statements if they spend more than $350,000 and can set up myriad unauditable front groups, there are essentially no controls on election spending. So much for taking the big money out of politics.

As Jim Storrie of Progress Alberta put it in a newsletter to the group's supporters yesterday, this will allow "an absolute free-for-all for rich donors."

Referring to the UCP's plan to hold a referendum on Canada's constitutional equalization program, which is habitually misrepresented by Conservative politicians on the Prairies, Storrie commented: "That's public money being spent to court conservative voters for a phoney stunt that even the government's own panel admits won't achieve a thing.”

He concluded: "Cooking up an illusionary issue to manipulate the electorate, sneak big money into politics, and divert public funds to campaigning for conservatives: there's really nothing to call it but corruption."

Well, at least Kenney isn't asking us to endorse crowning him Emperor of the Albertans … yet.

Such criticism won't deter the UCP, of course. They have a majority and intend to use it.

I am not at all confident Bill 26 would be found unconstitutional by a Canadian court. Still, our Constitution does begin by stating that our Dominion will have "a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom." And as Attlee observed, government by referendum is alien to British tradition. So I suppose some bright lawyer could try to make a case that this is so.

Of course, much of what Kenney is trying to implement in Alberta -- and by extension Canada -- is alien to our Canadian traditions of democracy, respect and moderation, not to mention the promise of peace, order and good government that has been in our constitutional documents since 1867.

Dictatorship and demagoguery? I reckon that if we follow Kenney down the Republicanized road trod by Canada's conservative movement, we can have it all.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: christopher hogg/Flickr

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