Roy Green: Power to the people Roy Green discusses direct democracy


British Columbia voters flexed their muscles, turned on a sitting government, tossed aside the federal-provincial Harmonized Sales Tax negotiated by Ottawa and Victoria and in the process crushed a sitting premier’s career.

Not pretty, but highly effective, and, setting aside the question of whether the HST was or was not ultimately to the economic benefit of the province and its citizens, a laudable example of limited direct democracy.

In fact, British Columbia voters may engage limited direct democracy through two pieces of provincial law: The Referendum Act and the Recall and Initiative Act.

The former permits questions be placed before voters directly, the latter empowering citizens to recall a sitting Member of the Legislative Assembly at any time.

Additionally the general public is permitted to initiate a question which, with sufficient support, will lead to a referendum, as was the case with the HST.

Former B.C. Premier Bill Vander Zalm was the architect of the Referendum Act in 1990. One year later, his Social Credit party (with Vander Zalm no longer at the helm) made use of the act, going to the people with the question of whether they would approve of additional direct democracy. British Columbia voters concurred and enthusiastically supported recall and initiative legislation, which in turn became law in 1995.

For 15 years, the Recall and Initiative Act lay dormant before being engaged in the anti-HST battle with Bill Vander Zalm as the public voice and face of the campaign.

British Columbia voters who despised the HST and wished its demise, unlike others in international jurisdictions where direct democracy exists, faced significant initial challenges in moving their agenda forward. The Recall and Initiative Act requires the signatures of 10 per cent of all voters who registered in the previous provincial election and in each B.C. riding.  This, it was said at the time of introduction of the law, was required in order to reduce the likelihood of emotional voter action.

Opponents of direct democracy worry about that possibility. They consider absolute voter freedom to effectively introduce and pass new legislation, overturn existing law and/or deny sitting governments the option to pass proposed initiatives as a formula for chaos. Direct democracy naysayers will point to California and other U.S. states where citizens possess low threshold opportunity to create referenda by a simple majority as failures. 

The need for voter recall

Isn’t the most fundamental of all referenda an election campaign? Aren’t the citizens of Canada entrusted with emplacing governments both federal and provincial from a list of political parties which spend many weeks seeking voter favour?

Should those governments then fail to meet expectations, live up to commitments and be found to have effectively lied to the populace during an election (the federal Liberal promise to eliminate the GST may come to mind), why shouldn’t voters have the final say on whether such a government survives until the next campaign and what laws and policies should either see the light day or be removed?

Switzerland is a clear example of direct democracy which has served effectively for generations. In Switzerland the people, not the government, have the final say on legislation and policy and through constitutionally binding multiple annual referenda.

Any Swiss citizen may introduce a legislative initiative and if such an initiative receives 100,000 supportive signatures the question is then included nationally as part of one of the scheduled referenda. Should majority support be achieved at this stage of the process, the Swiss parliament becomes obliged to consider the initiative and offer either its unqualified support or amend the proposal and return it to the people for final determination in a subsequent referendum, though the government must in all cases ultimately submit to the will of the populace.

Swiss Ambassador to Canada Werner Baumann told me on air of several such Swiss initiatives. One was a call for the work week to be reduced from 40 to 36 hours, with pay not affected. Voters declined to support the initiative.

The Swiss people have in recent years made decisions on unemployment benefits, biometric passports, liberalization of cannabis possession law and temporarily increasing a Value Added Tax (GST). 

While Canada’s Parliament was engaged in a row over the purchase of the F-35 strike fighter aircraft, the decision to upgrade the Swiss Air Force through a similar acquisition engaged not only politicians in debate, but also the people. It was the people who by referendum made the decision to place the issue on hold until 2015.

And please no jokes about a Swiss Navy

The Swiss military has real teeth, is among the best armed military forces in Europe and capable of placing close to 500,000 troops into action within days, providing the small nation of 6 million with one of the largest and best trained fighting forces in the world. Several hundred air fields are at all times ready to serve the Swiss Air Force which, as Canada, currently employs the F-18 Hornet as its front line fighter aircraft. 

Ambassador Baumann agreed enthusiastically when I suggested that considering the people have ultimate power over government in Switzerland that governments in turn are much less likely to introduce intrusive and unpopular legislative initiatives.

Canada has had flirtations with direct democracy of course. Various provinces have engaged such initiatives over the years, most to see them eventually disappear. In 1978, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government introduced the Canada Referendum Act with the intent to permit national plebiscites on constitutional matters. The effort proceeded no further.

The Charlottetown Accord and two Quebec sovereignty campaigns ended with government approved referenda and in 1942, the people of Canada voted on the then highly divisive issue of conscription during the Second World War.

When we have discussed the matter of direct democracy on air, listeners have enthusiastically supported calls for increased voter over government decision-making options. The question then becomes, wouldn’t borrowing from the Swiss, while drawing on our own experience with direct democracy and just weeks ago in British Columbia, suggest we agree to a common sense decision to at least engage on a national discussion on enshrining constitutionally binding and regularly held referenda?  

The direction charted for Canada would then be one accomplished through mutual negotiation between citizen and government. 

Roy Green is a contributor to the National Post and the host of the Roy Green Show, a national program weekends on the Corus radio network.