Opinion

Ignore the Elites: You Have a Right to Vote

Post-Brexit, some pundits call the referendum 'anti-democratic.' Don't buy it.

By Bill Tieleman 5 Jul 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

"We decide not to have referendums for a good reason -- these are bloody complicated issues... It's anti-democratic." -- Mel Cappe, former Canadian deputy minister, on the Brexit vote

You heard that correctly -- giving Canadians a referendum vote on important issues is "anti-democratic," because our elites think you're too stupid to make the right decision.

Those Canadian elites don't want you to ever make decisions through direct democracy -- instead they demand that only politicians get to vote. And that, of course, means the party with a Parliamentary majority actually decides.

Unfortunately, the elites have become even further entrenched in that "we know better than you" attitude with the recent narrow decision by United Kingdom voters to leave the European Union in the tumultuous Brexit situation.

And there is an obvious Canadian example where both the federal Liberal government and most of the country's elites are in lockstep -- denying voters a referendum to decide on which electoral system we will use to choose our governments.

As Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef disingenuously put it: "To reduce this national conversation to a simple 'Yes' or 'No' is taking a short cut and doing a great disservice to Canadians and to this incredible opportunity we have here to engage Canadians."

In other words, engage but without giving Canadians a vote. That attitude is condescending, insulting and outrageous.

And 73 per cent of Canadians in a recent poll disagreed with Monsef, saying a referendum is needed.

They understand that the most fundamental, unequivocal heart of a democracy is that the voters have the right to be in charge -- not the politicians they elect to run government on their behalf.

And on major issues like changing the electoral system or the constitution, the people must decide through a fair democratic vote.

The Brexit vote results may be terrible or tremendous, depending on your point of view, but it is undeniably democratic -- and must be respected as such.

With a 72 per cent turnout -- far higher than recent Canadian elections -- and 33.5 million voting, you would think no one could deny the legitimacy of the exercise.

But never underestimate the arrogance of the elites.

A great BC initiative

Fortunately, in British Columbia, ordinary citizens can petition to demand a vote on any issue.

And though our Initiative legislation is woefully weak because it doesn't create a binding vote and is extremely difficult to trigger -- requiring the valid signatures of 10 per cent of voters in every one of B.C.'s 85 ridings be collected within 90 days -- it does exist.

And in 2010, Fight HST -- where I was strategist under leader Bill Vander Zalm, the former B.C. premier -- surprised by doing just that for the first time ever.

That Citizens Initiative collected over 557,000 valid signatures, forced a vote on the harmonized sales tax that was later made binding, and finally British Columbians voted in 2011 to extinguish the HST.

B.C. also held two democratic referenda on the proposed Single Transferable Vote electoral system, in 2005 and 2009, rejecting it both times.

But the elites don't like referenda -- and they make it very clear.

Mel Cappe is not only a former federal clerk to the Privy Council, Head of the Public Service and federal deputy minister in several ministries -- he also served as Canada's High Commissioner to the U.K. for four years. He is now a professor of public policy at the University of Toronto.

In other words, Cappe is, well -- even in the words of CBC TV's The National host Peter Mansbridge -- "elite."

And Cappe doesn't mince words about how you don't want a vote on critical issues.

"Because we have representative democracy for a reason... We don't want and the public doesn't want to actually take responsibility -- as we're seeing the remorse after the vote... they want their representatives to deal with the complexity of this," Cappe said.


"There's a special place in hell for leaders who put the existential future of their country at risk," he added, referring to former British Prime Minister David Cameron, who had the nerve to promise a referendum on EU membership and kept that pledge.

But Cappe is hardly alone. On the same edition of The National were not one but four holders of the Order of Canada, the distinctive pin signifying it clearly visible on each lapel.

In addition to Cappe, Mansbridge and panel guests Janice Stein and Samantha Nutt also are members of the Order of Canada. And -- surprise -- they don't disagree with Cappe at all.

"I think Mel's right, Peter -- because one of the differences between a Parliament and referendums is that Parliament protects minorities, referendums don't," Stein said.

"But this sounds, elitist, if you don't mind," said Mansbridge with a wry smile, perhaps sensing that maybe viewers were not convinced. But Stein certainly was.

"That's why we have protections for minorities and referendums don't do that. They actually divide, they take complex problems and they say yes or no. They play passions. They're a very dangerous tool. I'm glad we don't do more of them," Stein replied.

Nutt also denounced the Brexit vote.

"It's the kind of populism and demagoguery that over time has had disastrous for civilians around the world," Nutt said.

Actually, what's disastrous for people all around the world is not democratic referenda on important issues -- it's the appalling lack of democracy in countries run by dictatorships, backed by the military, who suppress, torture and kill those who simply demand a vote.

From China to Syria to Zimbabwe to Saudi Arabia, the world has 50 dictatorships where its people are denied democracy in even the most basic form.

That is the big issue, not whether voters in any western democracy should be denied a referendum vote because they might not make the correct decision according to the elites.

'Populist suicide'?

But it's not just in Canada that elites want referenda banned.

In the United States, The New Republic magazine's Alex Shephard takes the same elitist view of Brexit as Cappe:

"Referendums are bad. There are many takeaways from Great Britain's decision to leave the European Union, but one of the simplest is that referendums are bad and, ironically, anti-democratic," Shephard wrote in late June.

"Referendums are, by definition, simple yes-or-no answers to problems that are enormously complicated, or that have enormously complicated ramifications that voters may not entirely understand," he says.

And in Europe, the same effete elitist attitude persists.

Top French trade lawyer Laurent Cohen-Tanugi called direct democracy "populist suicide" in a Le Monde article, adding that a referendum to determine policy like Brexit is "contrary to the dignity of public office" and "opportunistic and demagogic."

What merde. In the face of democratic votes on important issues, the elites are revolting.

But here in Canada, it's still possible to defend the concept that ordinary citizens have every right to have their voices heard on fundamental questions -- like changing our federal electoral system.

Don't let the elites take your vote away.  [Tyee]

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