REFERENDUMS IN CANADA:
THE EFFECT OF POPULIST DECISION-MAKING
ON REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY
Political and Social Affairs Division
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Federal Referendum Legislation
Provincial Referendum Legislation
AND AGAINST REFERENDUMS
Issues of Transcending National Importance
Education, Participation and Special Interests
Canadian Identity and Unity
A MIXED SYSTEM APPROACH
REFERENDUMS IN CANADA:
THE EFFECT OF POPULIST DECISION-MAKING
ON REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY
After a brief discussion of representative democracy,
this paper explains why Canada's political culture has changed, and how
this has led to the increasing interest in political instruments such
as recall, popular initiatives, and referendums. The paper goes on to
examine these instruments and the various arguments both for and against
their use in the context of Canadian politics. The impact of populist
political instruments on representative democracy in Canada is reviewed,
especially since they are more in line with the tenets of direct, rather
than representative, democracy.
has said that perhaps the best definition of Canadian representative democracy
comes from John Stuart Mill, for whom representative democracy meant:
that the whole people, or some numerous portion of
them, exercise through deputies periodically elected by themselves
the ultimate controlling power, which, in every constitution, must
Thus, representative democracy is based on a transfer
of authority from the people to representatives, a form of indirect rule
necessary for governing a large population. Direct democracy, on the other
hand, is based on the notion that the people should govern themselves.
Since this can only happen in a country that is small in both territory
and population, most states must resort to a representative system for
the sake of efficiency. If the system is to be democratic, it must incorporate
principles of political equality and government by consent.(3)
Constituents must be accorded equal representation in Parliament
and representatives must be accountable to the electorate through periodic
The theory of representative democracy consistent with
the provisions of parliamentary government rests on the belief that Parliament
is a supreme assembly of representatives from all regions of the province
or country freely debating and determining public policy.(4)
Representatives elected by the people must be free to exercise their personal
judgment and not be bound by constituency or group interests. Indeed,
the Canada Elections Act makes it illegal for candidates to sign
a document that would prevent them from exercising freedom of action in
Parliament, and illegal for them to resign if called upon to do so by
any person, or association.(5)
Representatives in a parliamentary system of government
are elected on their merits and must act according to what they believe
to be in the national interest; they must be leaders and educators, not
simply delegates bound by particular interests. Further, representatives,
unlike the average citizen, possess or will acquire the skills and knowledge
to enable them to handle the complexity of decision-making in government.
Representatives are better qualified to make such decisions because they
are paid to dedicate their time to the functions of government, not necessarily
because they are more intelligent or public-spirited than others.(6)
The main role of citizens in a representative democracy
based on a parliamentary system of government is to legitimize the system
by electing members to Parliament. The people have the power to elect
their representatives; if these representatives do not perform satisfactorily,
the people have the power to replace them in the next election. Thus,
the underlying theme of representative democracy is clear--power ultimately
resides with the people; while not physically present in the governing
body, they should be considered as present by proxy.(7)
At one time, Canadian political culture was
based on ordered and acquiescent public attitudes toward political authority,
with individuals having little interest in influencing the political system.(8)
This political culture allowed for processes such as elite accommodation
and executive federalism, where governments and elites could work out
policies without much interference from the public. This is no longer
true of Canadian political culture today.
National surveys conducted from the mid-'60s to the early
'80s reveal that, overall, Canadians had a low level of political trust
(as measured by questions on politics and politicians).(9)
Although no major studies of this nature were performed in the '50s and
'60s, it is doubtful that Canadians overall possessed such attitudes in
that period of unprecedented economic growth, which saw the expansion
of the welfare state, greater disposable income, and relative political
stability and peace. As suggested by Clarke, political distrust is a phenomenon
of the '70s and can likely be explained in part by the events, issues
and personalities of that period. One reason cited as abetting an overall
cynical attitude towards the political system and politicians was that
the decade of the seventies was dominated by major
social and economic problems for which our political leaders were
not able to provide solutions.(10)
The 1980s began in an atmosphere of citizen disengagement
from the political process and dissatisfaction with the political authorities.(11)
The attitude revealed in the studies of the mid-'70s
has continued and may have actually grown in recent years. In a March
1992 Gallup poll, fewer than 1 in 10 Canadians reported having a great
deal of respect for and confidence in political parties; in a subsequent
poll, only 11% of Canadians said they believed that Members of Parliament
have very high or high honesty and ethical standards.(12)
Indeed, the public's dissatisfaction with the constitutional
process in Canada illustrates a growing distrust of the entire political
class. As one observer suggested:
There's been an extraordinary decline of respect
for authority in our country... Today, you ask people how they feel
about politicians and they give you very negative comments. You see
someone in power and anything goes. People in power have become objects,
targets for abuse. The accumulated effect of this is to diminish,
every day, more and more, the authority of those in power.(13)
Surveys and opinion polls indicate that Canadians believe
that elected officials represent not the people but a combination of constituency,
regional, national, and party interests, and in some cases fringe parties
and special interest groups.(14) Canadians' interest in correcting
this by greater citizen empowerment through use of populist political
instruments has put the legitimacy of the political system in question.
When a political system experiences a crisis of legitimacy, further demands
for changes to the system will naturally arise, especially when an issue
as important as the Constitution is being examined.(15)
It is clear that the attitudes of Canadians have changed
and, as one observer put it:
This might prove to be the beginning of what will
become a dominant strain in our political culture, or it might be
a passing malady that will disappear as mysteriously as it appeared.(16)
The current political system and its established processes
may not be suited for the current political culture and may have to be
adapted to allow more direct involvement of the people in decision-making,
perhaps through the use of populist instruments such as referendums.(17)
However, Canada's parliamentary tradition assumes that the collective
will of the people is expressed through a legislature composed of representatives.
A direct appeal to the people in the form of a referendum
embodies an important principle that can conflict
with the theory and practice of representative government as we are
familiar with in most mature parliamentary democracies.(18)
Since the 1980s, there has been increasing pressure
for the introduction of populist political instruments such as recall,
popular initiatives, and referendums.(19)
The Citizens' Forum on Canada's Future reported that for the most part,
people do not find the present political system to be responsive to their
needs and fundamental values, and thus many are prepared to
advocate and support substantial changes to the political
system if these would result in responsive and responsible political
leaders ... [The] desire for these changes is related to a loss of
faith, on their part, that the existing political system will make
decisions which reflect their values and aspirations for the country.
To the extent that reforms can be made which would restore this faith,
participants' demands for direct participation in decision-making
would be less.(20)
Recall is a procedure whereby constituents have
the power to remove a Member of Parliament or a provincial legislature
before his or her term has expired. It is a system "wherein voters
can in effect de-elect their representatives in the legislature."
Through an electoral procedure,
this power of removal, constitutionally, is either
granted to or reserved by the people, depending on the theory of government
and sovereignty in the country in question.(21)
Recall is an instrument of direct democracy, reflecting
the theory that representatives are merely the delegates of electors,
morally bound by the preferences of constituents.(22)
With recall, the security of a representative's position is subject to
In the United States, recall was born of the populist
movement in the mid-west and has since been established in a number of
states.(23) Canadian farmers' organizations in the Prairie
provinces were sympathetic to the populist movement, and, mainly because
of its influence, each of the western provinces began initiating "direct
legislation" laws, most of which did not receive Royal Assent or
The only Canadian attempt to recall a member was made
in the province of Alberta in 1937. The member was Premier William Aberhart,
who in the 1935 election campaign had pledged that he would introduce
recall legislation. In 1936, the Recall Act was passed by the provincial
legislature. When, however, Aberhart himself became the first politician
to be subjected to recall, the Act was repealed retroactive to the day
it had received Royal Assent, and all pending proceedings in connection
with the recall of any member were declared null and void. Subsequently,
the principle of the recall mechanism disappeared from Alberta and from
Canadian politics altogether.(25)
Recently, there has been growing support for the use
of recall, since many Canadians find that too many constraints prevent
their elected representatives from being responsive to the wishes of their
constituents. Although many have suggested that more free votes and more
relaxed party discipline might help to overcome this problem, such a result
cannot be guaranteed. Therefore, as the Citizens' Forum reported, many
Canadians would opt for
ways to discipline them [their elected representatives]
more frequently than every four or five years ... a mechanism by which
an MP can be recalled following a petition signed by an adequate number
of his or her constituents.(26)
Recall seems to correspond to the prevailing attitudes
in Canada's present political culture. In British Columbia, voters in
the October 1991 provincial election approved the adoption of a statutory
recall device. Although it remains to be seen whether this device will
actually become law, it is clear that, given that the vast majority (82%)
of the British Columbia voters who cast ballots were in favour of recall,
the popularity of the measure is not in question. The Reform Party of
Canada also has recall as part of its political agenda, and recall legislation
was recently introduced in Parliament through a Private Member's bill.(27)
It is worth noting that as an instrument of direct democracy,
the recall mechanism may pose a threat to representative democracy. Indeed,
as the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform concluded:
In Canada, the particular vulnerability of the prime
minister and cabinet ministers to the use and abuse of the recall
would make this instrument of direct democracy especially detrimental
to our system of representative democracy.(28)
Another mechanism associated with direct democracy
is the popular initiative, a process whereby a specific number of voters
initiate a bill or demand that a law be amended or repealed.(29)
In the United States, 23 states authorize a number of types of popular
initiatives, and in some the state Constitution may be amended through
In Canada, popular initiatives are not institutionalized
at the provincial or federal level, though they are found in numerous
municipalities.(31) Usually established through the
use of a petition, popular initiatives allow voters the opportunity to
be direct players in the law-making process. The prospects for the establishment
of such a device at higher levels of government in Canada are unclear.
However, in October 1991, 83% of British Columbia voters on the question
approved implementation of popular initiatives.(32)
Signs point to an increasing trend towards the
use of instruments of direct democracy in Canada. In particular, the concept
of the referendum has figured prominently. The federal government recently
called a national vote on constitutional amendments, while a number of
provinces have enacted referendum legislation. Although the term "referendum"
has been variously interpreted and defined, it may be said to constitute
a method of referring a question or set of questions
to the people directly as opposed to allowing them to be settled by
the people's representatives in the legislature.(33)
The term "plebiscite" is generally taken to
mean the same as a "referendum."(34)
Political scientists often use the term "referendum" for cases
where the government is obliged to act according to the expressed will
of the majority of the electorate. They use the term "plebiscite"
an expression of opinion by the people on a general
course of action proposed by the government. The vote is not legally
binding, although there may be a political and moral obligation to
respect the result.(35)
In Canada, "referendum" is now the term in
general use for both binding and non-binding national votes and will be
used in this sense in this paper.(36)
There have been no binding referendums in Canada;
however, there have been three that were non-binding. In 1898, a national
vote was conducted on the prohibition of alcohol sales, an issue that
had become controversial and not easily resolvable.(37)
The 1942 vote on conscription, whose results and debates have been well
documented, was even more controversial.(38) It is significant that on both
occasions, Quebec and English Canada voted on opposite sides. The conscription
issue, in particular, divided the "two solitudes," while the
outcome of the vote confirmed and even exacerbated the division.
The latest national referendum, held on 26 October 1992,
dealt with a number of proposed constitutional amendments commonly referred
to as the Charlottetown Accord. The Accord was defeated in all but four
provinces.(39) The Accord was
defeated in both Quebec and English Canada, but for different reasons
in each case. Many Quebeckers voted no because they thought the Accord
offered them too little, many English Canadians voted no because they
thought Quebec was offered too much.(40)
Thus far, national referendums in Canada have only served to confirm that
there is, and perhaps always will be, a wide divergence of views on many
subjects between Quebec and English Canada.
Federal Referendum Legislation
At the national level, no general law governs
the use of referendums, but there have been various unsuccessful attempts
to introduce such legislation: Bill C-40 and Bill C-9 in 1978; Bill
C-311 in 1988; and Bill C-287 in 1991. In June 1992, the federal government
adopted a limited referendum Act entitled An Act to Provide for Referendums
on the Constitution of Canada (Bill C-81).(41) This Act does not require the
federal government to hold a referendum for amendments to the Constitution;
rather, it provides the legal and administrative framework for conducting
such a national referendum if the federal government decides to hold one.
Provincial Referendum Legislation
Many consultative referendums have been held
at the provincial level, but mandatory referendums will very likely be
held in the future as some provinces have recently enacted legislation
making adoption of constitutional amendments subject to the outcome of
a provincial vote.(42) In the
October 1991 Saskatchewan election, the electorate voted in favour of
holding a provincial referendum to ratify constitutional agreements. Thus,
Saskatchewan adopted referendum legislation, the Referendum and Plebiscite
Act, which stipulates that the results of a referendum will be binding
on government if 50% of the electorate vote 60% to support, or 60% to
reject the referendum question(s). British Columbia recently passed the
Constitutional Approval Amendment Act, under which the government
of the province is obliged to hold a referendum for any amendment to the
Canadian Constitution before it is put to a vote in the provincial assembly.
In Alberta, the Constitutional Referendum Act requires that constitutional
amendments be subject to a provincial referendum.(43) All provinces except Nova Scotia,
Ontario and Manitoba have a provision for the enactment of a plebiscite.
Most of these provisions take the form of a statute stating:
whenever it appears that an expression of opinion
of the voters is desirable on any matter of public concern, the Lieutenant-Governor
in Council may direct that a plebiscite be held to obtain that expression
While plebiscites have been used at all levels of government
in Canada, such use, especially at the national level, has been infrequent.
Yet, given the referendum requirements for constitutional change in some
provinces, it is highly unlikely that future attempts at constitutional
change will go forward without a national vote.(45) Some commentators have concluded
that the 26 October 1992 national plebiscite set a binding precedent making
the future use of such national votes inevitable, and that it will be
all but impossible politically for the provinces to rescind referendum
legislation now in place.(46)
AND AGAINST REFERENDUMS
The increasing popularity of recall, popular
initiatives and referendums is a testament to the change in Canadian political
culture and the increasing demand for citizen political involvement that
goes beyond simple ballot box participation. Will these mechanisms enhance
our system of government?
Claims of problems in Canada's political system
abound. Specifically, it has been suggested that
our procedures for defining and resolving public
issues are obviously out of sync with the outlook and imperatives
of most Canadians. A responsible citizen cannot observe all of this
without also inquiring into the way in which the political system
might be reformed.(47)
Demands for political reform today have similarities
with the early 20th century populist movements in both Canada and the
United States, whose underlying principle was "the cure for ills
of democracy is more democracy." It was believed that instruments
of direct democracy would have the effect of cleansing and enriching the
political process.(48) Based
upon popular belief in the freedom of individuals and the undesirability
of intermediary organizations, the basic reasoning of the populist movement
if the fear of being bypassed by popular initiatives
or overridden by popular referendums was enough to force public officials
to behave honestly and responsively, well and good; if not, the people
themselves would simply take over.(49)
According to one current observer, what ails the Canadian
body politic is a combination of political realities such as executive
federalism, party discipline, lobbyists, and single issue groups.(50)
In other words, the democratic system is not responding adequately to
the needs and desires of the people and referendums are necessary to correct
Although there is little doubt that the aforementioned
political realities have contributed to current criticisms of our political
system, it must be asked whether they are solely responsible. Surely,
factors such as unpopular political personalities, a series of bitterly
contested government policies and the process of constitutional amendment
handed down by the Fathers of Confederation have also soured the public
mood. If so, while the greater use of referendums and plebiscites might
make the system more responsive, it would not be a cure-all, since problems
with personalities, policies and process would continue.
As one observer has suggested, major policy initiatives
developed without public consultation may have contributed to the current
level of political disenchantment.(51)
It is difficult to imagine, however, that public consultation alone would
be enough to overcome this disenchantment. Major issues are, by their
very nature, controversial, and thus resist consensus; for example, despite
best efforts at public consultation, the Charlottetown Accord initiative
failed, and disenchantment continues. Referendums that make irreconcilable
differences more apparent can surely not benefit the political system,
let alone Canadian unity.
Issues of Transcending National Importance
It has been suggested that if referendums were
held on issues of transcending national importance, the health of our
democratic system and the effectiveness of our process of self-government
would improve.(52) One problem, however, is determining the criteria
for choosing these issues. To some, taxation is of transcending national
importance; others consider free trade or electoral reform to be so. In
the spirit of direct democracy, the people would have to help determine
the issues on which to vote; it would be unthinkable for only governments
to decide on them. With the potential for such public involvement, however,
the likelihood of disagreement increases dramatically.
Education, Participation and Special Interests
There is no doubt that the use of referendums
can be educational, bringing people closer to the issues and familiarizing
them with public policies. Voters who know they will have a direct effect
on the future of a policy initiative will probably make a concerted effort
to study the problems, and subsequently feel less alienated from the system.
As Patrick Boyer suggests, the process would change Canadians from "passive
spectators into active participant."(53) Further, it has been suggested that legislation
ratified by citizens enhances public confidence in the democratic process.(54)
In the mass public debate over the Charlottetown Accord,
many Canadians learned a great deal about their Constitution and became
active in the decision-making process; however, this was not true of all
the electorate. Some may have voted against the Charlottetown Accord simply
because they did not like the politicians who supported it or because
they did not like government policies such as taxation or free trade.(55) Some voters may have dismissed
the Accord out of hand as a massive transfer of powers in order to appease
Quebec, even though the Accord was designed to meet the demands and desires
of all Canadians. At the same time, it is reasonable to assume that many
voters in Quebec rejected the Accord because they considered Canadian
unity not to be in their best interests.(56)
It is claimed that referendums give citizens the power
to override the significant political clout of special interest groups
and a greater degree of knowledge about the political system. In the referendum
on the Charlottetown Accord, however, advertisements, speeches and other
campaign tactics were short on substance, and even at times biased and
misleading. Further, the role of special interest groups was significant.
Indeed, the Accord may have failed in large part because it attempted
to court too many interest groups and in so doing provided other groups
with reasons to object. Further, many Canadians may have felt obliged
to reject the whole Accord because of one aspect that directly affected
them; the Accord was perhaps too all-encompassing to be answered by a
single yes or no.
In summary, referendums may be of limited educational
value if they are subject to misleading interpretations and easily manipulated
by special interest groups. Further, referendums involving numerous and
complex proposals may undermine the people's ability to comprehend what
they are voting for.
Canadian Identity and Unity
It has been suggested that the use of referendums
would serve to strengthen Canadian identity because it would lead to Canadians'
greater interaction with, participation in, and responsibility for the
type of nation they desire. Opponents of referendums might argue the opposite.
Certainly, the use of referendums in Canada in the past may have done
more to exacerbate the differences in our society than enhance Canadian
identity; moreover, it has provided governments with a convenient mechanism
for backing out of commitments while shifting responsibility to the electorate.(57)
Referendums necessarily result in a forced decision,
rather than one based on consensus. Further, referendums are based on
an unrealistic assumption that there is a simple yes or no answer to complex
questions, and set up confrontation between their supporters and opponents.(58)
Some commentators have suggested that the ultimate goal of the democratic
process is not identification of differences of opinion, rather,
consensus, a sense of the meeting, a general agreement
that a particular course of action is the best way of promoting the
interests of all citizens. The ideal solution can only be realized
by discussions among people who know and respect each other and who
seek the truth, not forensic triumphs over their neighbours.(59)
Referendums do not allow for defining the best way of
dealing with a problem or for continuing discussion on alternative solutions
or methods of reaching a compromise.(60)
Referendums also pose a danger to minorities. If issues
lend themselves to being settled on a majority-minority basis, as was
the case during the conscription crisis in Canada, minorities will always
lose out. Governing by referendum would in effect constitute a system
of majority rule, in which the only possible position for the minority
was complete submission. A system of government by consent and compromise,
on the other hand, allows for a more equitable balancing of interests.
Certainly where a nation is divided along minority-majority lines, be
these ethnic, religious or linguistic, referendums are not in the best
interests of the minority.
Proponents of referendums claim that submitting
an issue of national importance directly to the electorate does not constitute
an abdication of leadership.(61)
Not many would disagree, if referendums were used only occasionally. Again,
the crucial point would be determining the issues on which the electorate
would vote. If referendums became commonplace, with most issues being
considered of transcending national importance, then there would be no
Further, since granting one referendum may lead to demands
for others, the power of elected officials over the long term might be
usurped.(62) In a referendum, final decisions take place in
the privacy of voting booths and are not made by elected representatives.
The electorate is completely unaccountable to others for its preferences
and biases and its commitment to a consistent and fair course of conduct
can be neither measured nor questioned.(63) Frequent use of referendums may result in representatives
without responsibility or accountability. Thus, the responsibility and
accountability of our political leaders would be eroded at a time when
their expertise and statesmanship were needed to achieve consensus.(64)
After Canada's recent constitutional referendum, in which the consensus
reached by the first ministers was defeated, any future consensus will
probably have to be put to a referendum. The power of elected leaders
and their legislative assemblies to change the Constitution, rightly or
wrongly, has been usurped.
Referendums can have the effect of making governments
"reluctant decision-makers." In other words, when governments
are faced with difficult decisions, referendums are a convenient method
of allowing them to shirk their decision-making responsibility. As has
Rather than provide for direction or leadership on
controversial or volatile issues, governments may use referendums
to obfuscate or shun responsibility.(65)
To deny the value of referendums entirely is to lack
an understanding of basic democratic principles; however, we cannot merely
trust that referendums would be used intelligently. Proper rules would
have to be established for their use, in full awareness of their potential
According to proponents of referendums, their
costs, while significant, constitute a good argument for creating a permanent
voters' list, since the largest component of electoral costs is preparing
and revising a voters' list.(66) Furthermore, the cost of public
consultations such as the Spicer Commission, which hear from only a small
percentage of Canadians, could be better spent on a genuine dialogue through
a referendum, where all are consulted.(67)
Referendums might indeed offer a consultative exercise
in which all eligible voters could participate; however, the cost of a
permanent bureaucracy for maintaining a permanent voters' list would be
greater than the cost of our current system.(68) Furthermore, public consultations
tend to attract the active participation of those who are genuinely interested
in an issue, while participation in a referendum may not extend beyond
the ballot box. The permanent voters' list tried in Canada from 1934 to
1938 proved less satisfactory than our current system.
A MIXED SYSTEM APPROACH
The current mood of Canadians reflects a political
system that has not adapted quickly enough to the processes and policies
of a changing political culture. The judicious use of populist political
instruments may yet prove to be an effective means to lend the system
credibility by making it more responsive and decreasing Canadians' feeling
of alienation. One observer has termed this blending of principles of
direct democracy and representative democracy:
"the politics of engagement" -- where the
Canadian people themselves are engaged in the risk and the consequences
of deciding issues.(69)
This approach to government and politics would reap the
benefits of direct democracy, with people actively participating in the
political process, bearing responsibility and dealing with the consequences
of their actions; it would also recognize that political representation
is needed for the sake of efficiency. Proponents of such a mixed system
individuals should not be bound by law they did not
help make or participate in making. In other words, the individual,
all individuals, must be consulted in the making of laws which will
affect them. If they are not consulted, the law is invalid... This
is again an attempt to make the representative more responsive to
the wishes of constituents and, in a broader sense, to bring the whole
representative system more in line with the ideals of direct democracy.(70)
Yet, the so-called "politics of engagement"
may not, in the end, provide Canadians with better public policies. Further,
it has been suggested that, given the role of the media and the significant
weight accorded to public opinion in Canada, the people may already have
the power at least to narrow the range of choice for public policy. Indeed,
according to one observer:
There is much evidence to support the view that public
opinion, and perceptions of it by elected officials, guides and constrains
Furthermore, there is much legitimacy in concerns about
whether the proposed system would provide constitutional renewal. Mass
public consultations through the use of referendums now seem inevitable
for constitutional issues, yet, given the apparent irreconcilability of
Canadians' views, chances of constitutional renewal seem slim. Moreover,
some Canadians may vote against any constitutional referendum in order
to register their protest against the politicians who drafted it.(72) One observer noticed signs in Australia stating
"vote no to all constitutional referenda" and suggested that,
people are starting to vote negatively out of pique
at being manipulated.(73)
Evidence suggests that many Canadians voted no in the
recent constitutional referendum, not because of what the Accord contained,
but because they felt the exercise was not sincere. According to a recent
poll, a majority of Canadians felt that the referendum
was simply an attempt on the part of politicians
to push their own views on the public rather than ... a sincere attempt
to consult the Canadian people on their common future.(74)
The use of populist instruments may have some ramifications
for representative democracy. For example, although not strictly adhered
to in practice, constitutional convention regarding responsible government
dictates that a government must resign if it is defeated on a vote in
the House of Commons.(75) If
a law is ratified by Parliament but defeated in a referendum, what becomes
of this basic tenet of representative democracy? Moreover, if elected
officials are not accorded a significant degree of responsibility, the
incentive for holding public office will wane, as will the incentive for
political leaders to reach consensus on various issues.(76)
Would the use of recall encourage political opponents
to abuse the mechanism for their advantage? Would the use of popular initiatives
be hijacked by powerful groups to further their own interests?(77)
Such concerns are valid and practical and must be addressed.
To suggest that populist decision-making instruments
may pose a threat to the basic principles of representative democracy
does not imply that such mechanisms have no place in a parliamentary political
system. The question is how often can referendums, recall, and popular
initiatives be employed without superseding the traditional political
The apparent shift in Canada's political culture
and the deficiencies of our present political system have led to the blending
of two theories of government. Elements of direct democracy, particularly
referendums, are gaining credibility and have gained the force of law
in some parts of the country. While the effects remain to be seen, it
is important to establish a proper framework for the use of such instruments,
even if they are to be used only rarely.(78)
Canada can gain immeasurably from its own experience
with populist political instruments and from analyzing the advantages
and disadvantages of their use in other countries, bearing in mind the
particularities of Canadians, our system of government, and political
realities. Political parties must also be open to change; some suggest
that the entire political system has been adversely affected by the evolution
of the structure and workings of political parties.(79)
It is possible that the occasional use of referendums
on questions of transcending national importance, together with the use
of other instruments of direct democracy, could cure the ailments of today's
system. Much work remains to be done, however, on incorporating such innovations
without undermining a system which, at least for Canada's first hundred
years, has worked reasonably well. Some observers have concluded that
have often proved to be useful devices for solving
or setting aside problems too hot for representative bodies to handle.
They have often given legitimacy to new regimes or boundaries or constitutions
that would otherwise have lacked. In short, they have been and can
continue to be valuable adjuncts to representative democracy. We would
hate to see them abolished altogether, and we would hate to see them
overshadow or replace representative institutions.(80)
In Canada, it seems that the main reason to use populist
instruments would be to bring the political system more into line with
the political culture. Certainly, such a change would require a set of
explicit rules governing the use of populist instruments. Otherwise, they
could bring about simplification while taking away essential motivating
factors, such as responsibility, from elected representatives.
Some believe democracy is about the processes of making
decisions. If so, the adoption of populist political instruments may be
beneficial. Others believe that democracy is about the attainment of substantive
public policies. If so, then such instruments must be used cautiously,
as they are not certain to provide benefits in such terms. Since, in fact,
democracy probably rests equally on both beliefs, the solution may be
a practical balance with clearly established rules. In this way, populist
reforms could serve to enhance representative democracy rather than working
to its detriment.
Atkinson, Michael M. "Parliamentary Government
in Canada." Whittington and Williams, eds. Canadian Politics in
the 1990s, Nelson, Toronto, 1990, p. 336-59.
Birch, A.H. Representative and Responsible Government.
Allen & Unwin, London, 1964.
Blisin, B. "Continuity and Change in Canadian Values."
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Boyer, J. Patrick. "Plebiscites in a Parliamentary
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Champagne, Maurice. Mécanismes de consultation populaire
directe: (référendum, initiative et veto populaire rappel (recall) d'élus,
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Chapin, H. "Referendum: Asking Questions."
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Clarke, H. et al. Absent Mandate: The Politics
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Conacher, Duff. Power to the People: Initiative, Referendum
and Recall, and the Possibility of Popular Sovereignty in Canada.
University of Toronto, Faculty of Law Journal 49, No. 2.
Cronin, Thomas E. Direct Democracy: The Politics of
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Mass., 1989, 289 p.
Desbarats, Peter. "What Will a Referendum Mean?
Nothing Conclusive, Constructive or Even New." Maclean's,
3 October 1977.
Farley, Lawrence. Plebiscites and Sovereignty: The
Crisis of Political Illegitimacy. Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado,
1986, 179 p.
Gibbons, P.A. Ideas of Political Representation in
Parliament. Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1914.
Gibson, Gordon. "Direct Democracy for a People-Run
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Hatfield, Richard. "An Illusion of Democracy."
Report on Confederation, Ottawa, October 1978, p. 22-3.
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Johnston, Richard. "An Inverted Egg Roll: The Charlottetown
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studies of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing.
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Peter Aucoin, ed., Vol. 38, Royal Commission on the Economic Union
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Democracy?" Center Magazine, Spring 1986, p. 287-334.
Matsusaka, John. "Referendums: Has Their Time Come?"
Fraser Forum, February 1993.
McCormick, Peter. "Provision for the Recall of Elected
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Electoral Reform in Canada. Michael Cassidy, ed. Vol. 10 of the
research studies of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party
Financing. Ottawa, 1991.
McCormick, Peter. "Bring Back the Recall."
Policy Options, December 1992.
Meisel, John. "Political Culture and the Politics
of Culture." Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol. VII:
4, December 1974, p. 601-616.
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Government. First published 1861, new edition, R.B. McCallum, ed.,
Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1946.
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of the Progressive Movement." Canadian Historical Review,
Vol. 25, September 1944, p. 279-88.
Nevitte, Neil. "New Politics, the Charter and Political
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in Canada. Herman Bakvis, ed. Vol. 14 of the research studies
of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing. Ottawa,
Ornstein, Michael et al. "Region, Class and
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Vol. XIII: 2, June 1980, p. 227-273.
Pammett, J. and M. Whittington, eds. The Foundations
of Political Culture: Political Socialization in Canada. Macmillan,
Pitkin, Hanna F. The Concept of Representation.
California University Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1967.
Tallian, Laura. Direct Democracy: An Historical Analysis
of the Initiative, Referendum and Recall Process. People's Lobby Press,
Los Angeles, 1977.
Winn, Conrad. "Educational Failure May Have Defeated
the Yes Campaign." Ottawa Citizen, November 1992.
Wilson, John. "The Canadian Political Cultures:
Towards a Redefinition of the Nature of the Canadian Political System."
Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol. VII: 3, September
1974, p. 438-502.
Zimmerman, Joseph F. Participatory Democracy: Populism
Revived. Praeger Press, New York, 1986.
Ward, The Canadian House of Commons: Representation, University
of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1950, p. 4.
(2) John Stuart Mill,
Considerations on Representative Government, first published 1861,
new edition, R.B. McCallum, ed., Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1946.
(3) For a detailed analysis
of this subject, see Robert A. Dahl and Edward R. Tufte, Size and Democracy,
Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1973. For a discussion of Rousseau's
view that political freedom can exist only in states small enough for
all the citizens to meet together, as in his native city of Geneva, see
A.H. Birch, Representation, Macmillan, London, 1972, p. 35.
(4) John McMenemy, The
Language of Canadian Politics, John Wiley & Sons, Toronto, 1980,
(5) Canada Elections
Act, R.S., 1985, c. E-2, s. 327, as amended.
(6) David Butler and
Austin Ranney, Referendums: A Comparative Study of Practice and Theory,
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, Washington,
1978, p. 34.
(7) Ward (1950), p. 4.
(8) Richard Van Loon
and Michael Whittington, The Canadian Political System: Environment,
Structure and Process, McGraw Hill-Ryerson, Toronto, 1987, p. 161-163.
(9) David V.J. Bell,
"Political Culture in Canada," in Michael Whittington and Glen
Williams, Canadian Politics in the 1990s, Nelson Canada, Scarborough,
1990, p. 142. Similarly, a study conducted by Simeon and Elkin found
that Canadians have low expectations from politics. Another study, conducted
by Clarke, Jensen, Leduc and Pammett in 1974, concluded that Canadians
feel extremely negatively towards the political system, especially politicians
and political parties.
(10) Van Loon and
Whittington (1987), p. 126. "Until the early 1970s, Canadians
began to expect more from their governments; they were disappointed when
they found out that government could not meet all their expectations or
effectively deal with all problems": Thomas Hueglin, "The Politics
of Fragmentation in an Age of Scarcity," Canadian Journal of Political
Science, June 1987, p. 241.
(11) H. Clarke et
al., Absent Mandate: The Politics of Discontent in Canada,
Gage, Toronto, 1984, p. 183. A recent Gallup poll indicates that
only 9% of Canadians have "a great deal of respect" or "quite
a lot of respect" for political parties; the House of Commons is
respected by only 16% of Canadians. These figures are down 50% and 30%
respectively since 1989: The Gazette (Montreal), 1 February
(12) Lorne Bozinoff
and Peter Macintosh, "Political Institutions Earn Scorn of Canadians,"
Gallup, 16 March 1992, and "MPs Viewed as Having Low Honesty
and Ethical Standards," Gallup, 3 August 1992.
(13) O.D. Skelton
Memorial Lecture, "The United States in Canadian Foreign Policy,"
Presentation by Allan Gotlieb, Toronto, 10 December 1992, p. 17.
"Canadians have lost faith in both the political process and their
political leaders. They do not feel that their governments, especially
at the federal level, reflect the will of the people, and they do not
feel that citizens have the means at the moment to correct this":
Report of the Citizens' Forum on Canada's Future, Minister of Supply
and Services, 1991, p. 96.
(14) When there is
significant disagreement over policy and/or process, disrespect for politics
and the entire political system is bound to increase. The emergence of
new political parties and the heightened prominence of special interest
groups suggest many Canadians believe their existing political institutions
are not sufficiently responsive to their views and interests. See Royal
Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing, Reforming Electoral
Democracy, Minister of Supply and Services, 1991, p. 229.
(15) "The system
will remain stable as long as the outputs of the system remain marginally
effective in satisfying active members of the political community, and
the marginal level may be considerably depressed by the distraction of
people's attention from issues to personalities. However, if there is
an infusion into the system of people who were formerly politically inactive,
as may occur when significant new issues arise, the system may become
unstable unless its institutions can be adapted to accommodate the effective
participation of many newly aroused citizens": Van Loon and Whittington
(1987), p. 163.
(17) "If a society's
political structures are not congruent with its dominant political values,
then either people's attitudes must change to conform to the institutional
values, or the institutions must change to reflect societal values more
closely": Michael Whittington, "Political Culture: Attitudes
and Values as the Determinants of Politics," in John H. Redekop,
Approaches to Canadian Politics, Prentice-Hall, Scarborough, 1983,
(18) Nevil Johnson,
"Types of Referendum," in Austin Ranney, ed., The Referendum
Device, American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research,
Washington, 1981, p. 19.
of direct democracy, espoused in the 1920s by the Progressives, continue
to have currency. Recall, initiatives and referendums have become commonplace
in many other democratic countries, and their popularity is again ascending
in Canada": Patrick Boyer, The People's Mandate: Referendums and
a More Democratic Canada, Dundurn Press, Toronto, 1992, p. 40.
(20) Report of
the Citizens' Forum (1991), p. 96.
(21) Patrick Boyer,
Lawmaking by the People: Referendums and Plebiscites in Canada,
Butterworths, Toronto, 1982, p. 22.
(22) According to
delegate theory, the representative is not just influenced but controlled
by those interests he represents; otherwise, he will represent the state
to his subjects but not the subjects to the state: Roger Scruton, A
Dictionary of Political Thought, Harper and Row Publishers, New York,
1982, p. 401.
(23) No constitutional
provisions allow for recall at the federal level in the United States;
however, approximately 15 states provide for the recall of state officials,
and 36 states allow for the recall of local officials: Boyer, The People's
Mandate (1992), p. 29.
(24) Between 1913
and 1919, the provincial legislatures of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan
and Manitoba passed legislation that allowed for referendums and citizen-initiated
referendums; however, such attempts to impose direct legislation laws
were never fully implemented. See Royal Commission on Electoral Reform
(1991), p. 231.
(25) Agar Adamson,
"We Were Here Before: The Referendum in Canadian Experience,"
Policy Options, March 1980, p. 53; Boyer (1982), p. 22-24.
(26) Report of
the Citizens' Forum (1991), p. 104.
(27) The bill would
allow electors to recall an MP by circulating a petition containing the
names and addresses of at least 50% of the voters enumerated in that riding
in the previous election, after which a by-election would be held. A Private
Member's bill is debated and voted upon only if that bill is chosen randomly
from among others in a lottery. Norm Ovenden, "Reform's Grey Introduces
MP Recall Bill," Edmonton Journal, 11 December 1992.
(28) Royal Commission
on Electoral Reform (1991), p. 247.
(29) Pierre-F. Côté,
Instruments of Direct Democracy in Canada and Quebec, Directeur
Général des Élections du Québec, July 1992, p. 6.
(30) Government of
British Columbia, "Background Paper: Initiative," Referendum
B.C.: The Decision is Yours!, 1991, p. 3.
(31) "At the
municipal level, the popular initiative device is used for matters such
as the authorization of Sunday activities in a number of provinces, the
fluoridization of water and changing the ward for municipal elections
in Ontario. Popular initiatives did exist at the provincial level in western
Canada, but only for a brief time. The form of initiative available at
the municipal level in Canada is rather constrained; local councils play
a role in the law-making process, and there is usually a provision allowing
the provincial government (through its municipal affairs board or department)
to overrule such an enactment according to certain criteria": Boyer,
The People's Mandate (1992), p. 27.
(32) Royal Commission
on Electoral Reform (1991), p. 247.
(33) David Robertson,
A Dictionary of Modern Politics, Europa Publications Limited, London,
1985, p. 285.
(34) In popular usage,
the terms are used interchangeably and the processes involved in both
are virtually the same: Boyer (1992), p. 23.
(35) Boyer, Lawmaking
by the People (1982), p. 12.
(36) While authors
such as Jean-Marie Denquin have made numerous distinctions between the
two concepts, others, such as David Butler and Austin Ranney, suggest
that there is no clear or generally acknowledged differentiation between
(37) Royal Commission
on Electoral Reform (1991), p. 235.
(38) Boyer, Lawmaking
by the People (1982); Vincent Lemieux, "The Referendum and Canadian
Democracy," in Institutional Reforms for Representative Government,
Peter Aucoin, ed., Vol. 38, Royal Commission on the Economic Union,
University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1985.
(39) The Accord was
rejected in Nova Scotia, Quebec, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British
Columbia. Ontario narrowly approved of the Accord by a margin of 49.8%
to 49.6%, and strong approval for the Accord was found in Newfoundland,
New Brunswick and P.E.I. Nationally, 44.5% voted yes and 54% voted no:
Elections Canada (unofficial results).
(40) In a recent survey,
59% of those surveyed outside Quebec thought that Quebec was given "too
much" in the Charlottetown Accord, while a similar percentage of
Quebeckers believed that it "did not give enough to Quebec."
See "Canadians Still Split on Quebec in Survey," Winnipeg
Free Press, 28 September 1992.
(41) Côté (1992),
(42) A total of 44
consultative referendums or plebiscites have been held in Canadian provinces,
31 in the four western provinces. No province has held a mandatory referendum.
New Brunswick is the only province not to have held at least one referendum.
Most referendum questions involved either the prohibition of liquor sales
or the adoption of daylight savings time. There were some notable exceptions:
sovereignty association in Quebec; the two Confederation referendums in
Newfoundland; women's right to vote in B.C.; and the fixed link issue
in P.E.I. No referendums (binding votes) are permitted in New Brunswick.
Of the 44 referendums, 31 were held before 1945. See Royal Commission
on Electoral Reform (1991), p. 233.
(43) Notes from this
section were taken from: Pierre Marquis, "Provincial Referendum Legislation
and Declined Ballots," Elections Canada, July 1992.
Newfoundland Election Act, section 169. Referendums in provinces
except Quebec and P.E.I. are held either under specific legislative statutes
or under provincial electoral law. Most provinces have legislation that
permits local and municipal level referendums and plebiscites. See Royal
Commission on Electoral Reform, p. 234.
(45) According to
political scientist Alan Cairns, Canadians will demand and probably receive
the right to vote on any future constitutional deals: Vancouver Sun,
16 October 1992.
(46) Roger Gibbons
and David Thomas, "Ten Lessons from the Referendum," Canadian
Parliamentary Review, Winter 1992-93, p. 3.
(47) Patrick Boyer,
"Is a Mandate from the People on Fundamental Issues Essential to
a Healthy Democracy?" Parliamentary Government, No. 41:3-17,
3 June 1992, p. 3.
(48) Such assertions
apply specifically to the Progressive movement in the United States, a
reform movement operating within both the Republican and Democratic parties
in most American states and to a lesser degree in national politics from
the 1890s to America's entry into World War I. See David Butler and Austin
Ranney, Referendums: A Comparative Study of Practice and Theory,
American Enterprise Institute, Washington, 1978, p. 27.
(50) Boyer, The
People's Mandate (1992), p. 5.
(51) Patrick Boyer,
"Is a Mandate ... Essential?" (1992).
empowerment would promote a greater sense of attachment, on the part of
Canadians, to the central institutions of the country, as well as a stronger
feeling of participation in the decisions that concern us all": Vincent
Lemieux (1985), p. 138-9.
(55) Attitudes toward
the politicians involved, and toward the process that led to the referendum,
have determined how people are likely to vote as much as specific contents
of the Charlottetown Accord. Hugh Windsor, "Poll Gets the Word from
Cranky Electorate," Globe and Mail (Toronto), 9 October
(56) A survey conducted
at Simon Fraser University following the referendum found that voters
in Vancouver and Montreal could correctly answer only 60% of basic questions
about the Accord. Further, from questions about people's attitudes toward
governments, politicians, natives and Quebec, Professor Jim Ogloff concluded
that people voted with their hearts and not their minds. See "Canadians
Score C+ on Accord," Vancouver Sun, 28 October 1992.
(57) On the other
hand, Patrick Boyer suggests that the conscription crisis actually helped
Mackenzie King keep the country together, since the vote demonstrated
how views differed between Quebec and the rest of Canada. See Boyer, The
People's Mandate (1992), p. 5.
(58) Joseph Zimmerman,
Participatory Democracy: Populism Revived, Praeger Press, New York,
1986, p. 57.
(59) David Butler
and Austin Ranney, Referendums: A Comparative Study of Practice and
Theory, American Enterprise Institute, Washington, 1978, p. 35.
set up confrontations rather than encourage compromises, dividing the
population into victors and vanquished": Ibid.
(61) Boyer, "Is
a Mandate ... Essential?" (1992), p. 6.
(62) Butler and Ranney
(1978), p. 34.
(63) Julian N. Eule,
in Aaron Wildavsky, "Foundations of Democracy: On Respecting Politicians,"
Current, No. 347:21-5, November 1992, p. 21.
(64) Butler and Ranney
(1978), p. 34.
(65) Royal Commission
on Electoral Reform (1991), p. 238.
(66) According to
supplementary federal spending estimates, it cost taxpayers $103.86 million
to hold the 26 October 1992 referendum. It cost Quebec approximately
$46 million to hold its referendum of the same day. See Directeur
Général des Élections du Québec.
(67) Boyer, The
People's Mandate (1992), p. 7.
(68) Van Loon and
Whittington (1987), p. 277. Another drawback of this system is the
difficulty of maintaining the list in a large country with a transient
(69) Boyer, "Is
a Mandate ... Essential?" (1992), p. 4.
(70) Lyman Tower Sargent,
Contemporary Political Ideologies: A Comparative Analysis, Dorsey
Press, Homewood, Illinois, 1984, p. 51.
(71) Wildavsky (1992),
may vote against constitutional reform in order to pass judgment on the
popularity of the leader and/or the government of the day. The recent
Panamanian referendum, on constitutional reform, strongly rejected, was
widely seen as a referendum on the President and his government":
Ottawa Citizen, 16 November 1992, p. A9.
(73) Wildavsky (1992),
(74) The poll also
found that people fear that a referendum, rather than binding the country
closer together, may worsen the country's divisions. This poll was conducted
by Angus Reid/Southam/Star Phoenix, and the results appeared in "Referendum
Divisive: Poll," Star-Phoenix, 17 September 1992.
(75) On assessing
the historical evolution of the confidence convention, the Special Committee
on Reform of the House of Commons (McGrath Committee) concluded that clearly
not every vote involves confidence and that governments in future should
specify what votes should be considered confidence matters. See Van Loon
and Whittington (1987), p. 601.
(76) "As legislatures
lose power, they will lose popular respect, and outstanding citizens will
be less inclined to seek public office. Even those who remain in office
are likely to behave less responsibly, since they are aware that anything
they do, good or bad, may be overridden by a referendum": Butler
and Ranney (1978), p. 37.
(77) This has been
described as happening in California, where the entrenchment of popular
initiatives has been, in effect, taken over by well-organized and financed
interest groups to put forth their own agendas.
(78) Patrick Boyer
outlines a number of factors that could be used to determine whether a
referendum should be held. Some of these include: whether the proposed
change affects positive principles going to the root of our institutions;
whether the public was not informed of possible changes at the time of
election and, if so, might have voted otherwise; and whether an issue
needs to be resolved separately from political personalities. See Boyer,
"Is a Mandate ... Essential?" (1992), p. 14.
(79) Johnson, in Ranney
(1981), p. 30.
(80) Butler and Ranney
(1978), p. 226.