Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Steve Baron: What is direct democracy?

Direct democracy is a concept that a growing number of citizens and states around the world are exploring and embracing. There are 190 million people in Switzerland, Italy, Liechtenstein and 24 States in the USA who now embrace the referendum system. 70% of the US population now live in a state that gives them the right to vote on initiatives and referendums.

To many people, direct democracy can mean different things. Some picture the classical/pre-modern (Athens) style of direct democracy where citizens meet in the town square and decide on important issues. Others see it as an opportunity to rid the world of devious self-serving politicians, where we can all sit at home and make all necessary political decisions via our laptops. Whatever it means to you, direct democracy has certainly become a much discussed topic over the last twenty or so years even though it has had numerous critics.

Direct democracy would appear to offer citizens more control over controversial and polarizing issues that directly affect their lives. That is not to say that direct democracy is a replacement for representative democracy, only that it can be an adjunct to it. One definition has direct democracy as, “A form of state in which the sovereign power is held by the People, i.e., national sovereignty belongs directly to the People. The People also exercise their sovereignty directly, for example by means of popular legislation.”. My own definition would be: the right of citizens to initiate referendums on any issue, to veto legislation, and for these decisions to be binding on parliament.

 There are a number of parts to direct democracy: general elections, citizens' initiatives, referendums, recalls, and plebiscites. A lot of misunderstanding and confusion could be avoided if these issues were all clearly distinguished from one another, along with their procedures. Of course, there are also many forms of election systems but these will not be discussed here.

The Citizens’ Initiated referendum allows for one or more citizens to put their own proposal on the political agenda once the required number of signatures have been collected to trigger the citizens’ initiative. It is interesting to note here that only about 10% of citizens' initiatives actually pass in Switzerland, the birthplace of direct democracy. The signature requirement range is from as low as 2% and sometimes as high as 15%.
An Obligatory referendum is triggered automatically by law, usually by a constitution which requires that certain issues must be put before the voters for approval or rejection.
A Veto referendum (Facultative or optional referendum in Switzerland) is when new laws, or changes to laws which have been passed by parliament, can be subject to a referendum if the required number of citizens demand it. The new law becomes effective if the majority of the votes were in favour of it. It is worth noting that of the more than 2,200 laws passed by the Swiss parliament since 1874, only 7% have been subjected to a Veto referendum.
A Recall referendum can be launched to remove corrupt elected officials, or to remove elected representatives whose policies and performance are found wanting. A high profile example of this was when Governor Grey of California was replaced in a recall by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The recall operates in a similar fashion to the citizens' initiative where citizens collect the required amount of signatures, and once this has been achieved, a referendum is held to decide if a certain elected official will retain their position. The recall has two components, a 'yes' or 'no' vote for recall and the names of the replacement candidates. The recall measure is successful if it passes by a simple majority. In that case, the replacement candidate with the largest vote wins the office. If the recall measure fails, the replacement candidate votes are ignored.
Referendums are often referred to as Plebiscites. However, Plebiscites really are quite different to referendums and are controlled by authorities; they are not referendums or initiatives and therefore arguably are not part of direct democracy. A plebiscite is a public consultation controlled from above by those in power (e.g., President, Prime Minister, and Parliament) who decide when and on what subject the people will be asked to vote or give their opinion. They are a way for those in power to manipulate citizens and have power over them. They are used to give some form of legitimacy for decisions that those in power have already taken. In Switzerland, for example, it is quite different from Nazi Germany during 1933-1945, where there were three manipulated plebiscites.
In Switzerland, direct democracy means that a referendum process takes place either because a group of voters demands it, or because it is stipulated in the constitution, but the government cannot call the referendum, so therefore Switzerland does not have plebiscites and direct democracy in Switzerland cannot be controlled by the government.
With citizens protesting around the world about corporate greed, a lack of government direction, poor fiscal management and party political agendas, along with the lack of trust citizens appear to have in their political representatives, one might expect the discussion about direct democracy to snowball even further. It might be expected that citizens around the world will eventually demand this political tool to reign in their political masters. New Zealand has toyed with direct democracy since 1993, but to date, governments here have mostly ignored the will of the people in the referendums that have been held.


Anonymous said...

I would strongly suggest that we do need Direct Democracy in New Zealand and the Swiss people have shown how it can be done.

The reality is that we cannot trust our politicians to properly represent the people on sensitive or controversial issues. The anti smacking law and the Marine and Coastal Areas Act are two cases in point.

When the time came for the final votes on these issues did the MPs represent the views of their constituents? No, they voted according to the directives of their Party Bosses.

Not good enough! Not good enough! Our politicians might like a blank cheque and the freedom to impose unmandated and unwanted legislation but I suggest that their obligation to truly represent the people takes precedence. And when they can't or they won't then the people should be able to directly represent themselves.

Between Elections the people need the power to block unwanted legislation and to initiate binding referendums. A responsible government endeavouring to carry out its mandated policies can be left to get on with the job.

To anyone interested in Direct Democracy I recommend the report "Direct Democracy in Switzerland and Beyond" which can be downloaded from the internet.

So citizens, let's organize a real democracy as opposed to the current pretend democracy that reminds me of the Eastern Bloc communist "democracies" before the Wall came down. I suppose the only favourable difference is that in New Zealand men in cars won't come in the night to take me away for criticising those in power. That's something I suppose!
Denis McCarthy

Anonymous said...

Direct democracy has some merit, but it is important that those voting are fully aware of the ramifications of their decisions. A referendum will ascertain the current popular view on an issue, but what is popular is not always what is right. It is not clear ex post that at the time of its implementation, the abolition of slavery was electorally popular (given that the right to vote at the time - and presumably that associated with any hypothetical referendum - was confined to landowners).

In the 'wiki world' where anyone is eligible to voice an opinion, we increasingly see that what 'wins' is what is currently popular. True innovations come about because they challenge the current paradigms - those jurisdictions that adopt the 'right' ones early gain the relative advantages compared to late adopters. For some issues, if we wait for them to become popular mainstream views, we may miss out on that advantage. The Catholic Church's high profile excommunication of Galileo for expressing the view that the Sun and not the Earth lay at the centre of the universe had profound effects upon the evolution of science in those countries where Catholicism was the state-sponsored religion relative to those countries adopting a more tolerant protestant view. But even in protestant countries, popularly-held Christian views restricted the expression of scientific discoveries (think of Newton and Darwin). A contemporary referendum on (for example) a policy on patronage of the Royal Society in respect of supporting the work of either Newton or Darwin would undoubtedly have been soundly defeated.

Referenda are powerful tools and should be used sparingly - and only on those issues where the people really are more informed than those parliamentary agents elected to carry out the task of running the country on behalf of the people (for example, issues of morality). In our increasingly complex world, our 120 elected 'agents' are paid to become more informed on those issues on which they pass judgement. The rest of us do not have the time or the luxury to become informed on all issues (e.g. the complex international economic environment). On some we have to trust that they know more than we do - but in the ambit of a system that holds them to account when they fail to exercise that judgement correctly.

Anonymous said...

The recent CIRs which were passed by thousands of citizens were ignored by the political leaders.The constituency MPs who were elected to represent the people failed to stand up for them.

I dispute the suggestion that our MPs have to be wiser or more knowledgeable than the citizens out there who have university qualifications, skilled trades, who run businesses and raise families.

In any case we have no way of knowing just how much time and study they have put into analysing complex issues and whether or not they are voting according to their best judgement or just (as usual) voting as directed by the Party Bosses.

An example of this is the ETS scam. Reputable scientists question its necessity but where is the debate in Parliament? Did any of our MPs actually study the various points of view before agreeing to what is in essence an additional tax?

Just because an issue is complex does not mean that a Plain English outline cannot be presented to the voters. Both sides of the debate could be given equal media time to present their points of view.

In any event a blocking or Citizens' Initiated Referendum cannot be entered into lightly. To bring one to pass requires commitment and organization from a large number of people.
Citizens who understand the importance of true citizen participation will not sign up for a referendum which they see as trivial or unnecessary and, if it does come to a vote, they will vote it down.

As I've said before we cannot trust our politicians to properly represent us and so we should demand and take on board the power to intervene and represent ourselves if necessary.

We're not alone in this. In Australia the Labour government is imposing a carbon dioxide tax in spite of their Prime Minister clearly promising before the Election that she wouldn't do so.

In Britain the people are seeing EU laws and directives overruling their own laws and customs. The British people were taken into the EU without a referendum or a mandate from the people. Is this a case of the politicians knowing best?
Denis McCarthy

Steve Baron said...

For me personally, I would trust the collective wisdom of 4 million voters over the collective wisdom of 121 MPs on any issue.