Sunday, April 22, 2012

How a referendum can be anti-democratic

Winston Churchill is quoted as saying that 

…democracy is the worst form of government - except for all the others that have been tried.

And democracy can indeed be frustrating. It’s difficult sometimes to understand why the majority cannot see things your way and vote in the candidates that you think will serve us best in parliament. 

Referenda are, or at least should be, the ultimate item in the toolbox for the pursuit of true democracy. The Rolls Royce in the exercise of the right of every adult citizen of a country to have his or her say on the outcome of a proposal that will effect everybody. 

We are facing an important referendum in Ireland on May 31st next, on whether or not we will sign up to the European Union Fiscal Treaty provisions. 

While the idea of a referendum if attractive to anyone who is in favour of democracy, this one, and others in the past, have brought forward at least the suspicion that in practice such plebiscites can fall more than a little short of the democratic ideal. This has been discussed here before: Democracy and a referendum on fiscal union in Ireland. Here it was argued that as, on occasion, less than half the people who are eligible to vote in referenda actually do so, the majority are in fact saying they not want referenda at all and are happy to let others make these decisions. Unfortunately this can open the door for well organised groups that have separate agendas.

I now believe this situation has the potential to get even worse. The coming referendum is shaping up to be positively anti-democratic. This situation will arise because of two things: strong evidence from opinion polls that nearly half the voters are prepared to admit that they do not understand the treaty provisions, and the decision of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions to instruct its members how to vote on the question. The admitted lack of understanding feeds into the idea that people are prepared to let others make the decision on their behalf - if not they would do whatever it takes to gain sufficient knowledge of the issues. The trade union involvement is more insidious. It suggests that, if enough of the people who vote are both trade union members and among those who do not understand the treaty provisions, the outcome could depend on the attitude to the treaty of policy makers in the trade union movement. 

The problem is that these people do not have a mandate from the public at large. They have not put themselves up for election in front of anyone other than their own members. To put it another way - what’s the difference between abrogating, in practice if not in theory, a national decision to the leaders of trade unions on the one hand, and allowing the democratically elected members of Dail Eireann to bring forward a result after a full and transparent debate on the matter in the parliament of the country, on the other? Could the answer have something to do with the subverting of democracy?

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