ANOTHER VIEW

Wanted: politicians with courage

Referendums are signs that the system is not working But the system is fine—it is the elected officials who are not working.

CHARLES GORDON April 22 1991
ANOTHER VIEW

Wanted: politicians with courage

Referendums are signs that the system is not working But the system is fine—it is the elected officials who are not working.

CHARLES GORDON April 22 1991

Wanted: politicians with courage

Referendums are signs that the system is not working But the system is fine—it is the elected officials who are not working.

ANOTHER VIEW

CHARLES GORDON

The Prime Minister was not scared by the Bélanger-Campeau commission’s call for a sovereignty referendum in 1992. “I’m not frightened,” said Brian Mulroney. “Threats don’t work.” Referendums don’t work either. Maybe Mulroney will realize that before our country disappears completely into a fog of good intentions and bad ideas. When it comes to harebrained schemes, those who want to save Canada are just as guilty as those who want to destroy it. Lunatic proposals swirl around us, clouding the mind, and each of them ignores the obvious solution to our national woes, which is to let our elected officials do the jobs they were elected to do.

The referendum idea has been around for a while now—who can forget those thrilling days of 1980?—but it is enjoying a new vogue, driven by a compelling, even seductive, slogan: Let the people decide.

Bélanger and Campeau like the idea for Quebec, and a number of English-Canadian leaders have, at various times, expressed interest in it as well. Frank McKenna, the premier of New Brunswick, has promoted the notion of a national referendum on the Constitution. Clyde Wells of Newfoundland suggested the idea around Meech Lake time last year, and the Saskatchewan government of Grant Devine has pushed legislation enabling the province to hold referendums or plebiscites on a variety of issues, including constitutional ones.

The notion has been put to the Prime Minister, who does not seem to like it very much, but desperate men will try desperate things. At some stage, he could come to the conclusion that it is better to have the people deciding in a national referendum than deciding in a federal election. After all, who can oppose letting the people decide, and wouldn’t the leader who allows them to decide be a bit of a hero?

Perhaps. But there is always the danger that when you let the people decide, they will decide

Charles Gordon is a columnist with The Ottawa Citizen.

what you don’t want them to decide. That’s one reason political leaders have not, historically, offered voters a simple yes-or-no question in a referendum. There’s too much chance—5050, some might say—of the result going the wrong way. The lesson was not lost on René Lévesque, trying to be a national hero in 1980. Lévesque gave his electorate a question consisting of 108 words and three semicolons. After reading the question, the dazed voters, if they wanted to express positive feelings about Quebec remaining in Canada, had to answer “no.” Somehow, Lévesque managed to lose that referendum, on the question of sovereignty-association, and, as we can see, the matter has never troubled us since.

Which brings us to another point—that a referendum is not a final answer. As the Quebec experience shows, nothing is settled once and for all by a referendum. It can be overtaken by events, by new laws, by another referendum. The losers of the referendum don’t give up; from all indications, the main lesson they learn is that they should have phrased the question differently.

Paradoxically, that may be the only good thing about referendums—that they are not forever. What is wrong with the referendum is

not its impermanence, but the fact that it becomes a substitute for political action, and for political courage.

When our system of parliamentary democracy works—as it doesn’t—the politicians go to the people with programs and policies, the people elect the politicians for periods of about four years, the politicians act and the people decide whether to keep them in or throw them out. The people do, in fact, decide.

The system founders—has foundered— when politicians running for office lack the courage to tell the people what they will do. Elections then become meaningless exercises in image-making and television advertising. Once elected, the politicians lack the courage to make decisions. Then the cry goes up, “Let the people decide,” and the politicians are only too glad to pretend to let them.

It may seem democratic, but the referendum campaign is like any other political campaign— based on a confusing question, surrounded by the usual demagoguery, the participation of party machines, the potentially warping influence of the media and the pollsters. It can never be a pure “yes” or “no.” Ask Mikhail Gorbachev, who, probably not inspired by Lévesque, went to his voters with a question containing only 34 words and no semicolons and managed to confuse them to no end. “Do you consider it necessary,” he asked them, “to preserve the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal, sovereign republics in which human rights and freedoms of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?” The question passed, but not by much, and the cry of “Let the people decide” is still being heard in the Soviet Union.

It is not as if the people had no way of making their voices heard between elections. There are byelections. And, heaven knows, there are polls, incessantly reported in the media, even more incessantly taken by politicians. Like it or not, that fact will never change, and it should work in our favor. A prime minister or premier, in an ideal political world, would look at what the polls say, weigh it against his or her convictions, and decide what to do. Deciding what to do would mean deciding to live with the consequences, one of them being the possibility of being tossed out on his or her ear in the next election, or even, in the most extreme case, being tossed out in a nonconfidence vote.

The cry of “Let the people decide” is a sign that the system isn’t working. But there is nothing wrong with the system. It is the politicians who aren’t working. It may be that we are seeing the consequence of image politics, a world in which men and women muffle their convictions in order to offend the fewest voters and are elected without the voters having much of an idea of what they stand for. After a few years in office, such politicians forget that they ever had convictions at all. The idea of sloughing off the tough questions in referendums is just ducky with them.

Instead of demanding referendums, constituent assemblies, constitutional conventions and whatnot, instead of demanding a better system, we should be demanding better politicians.