HARRISON RUESS: Referendum needed before changing democracy

The following article also appeared as a national column in Sun Media newspapers on December 20, 2015.

Outside Ottawa, Main Street Canadians typically don’t pay much attention to the comings and goings of Parliament. Sure, there’s the odd scandal or debate that fires people up, but it’s rare.

Today though we face a big problem, and Main Street needs to tune in.

Those now governing our country want to fundamentally change how Canadian democracy works – and they’re not ready to give Canadians the final say.

The Liberals argue that since they won the election, and because Liberals made a vague promise about electoral reform (they promised to “end First Past The Post,” but did not offer what the alternative would be), and will “consult” the public, the government now has carte blanche to change our democratic system however they please.

This is fundamentally wrong, violates long-held principles of Canadian democracy, and is well beyond the authority of any one government. To change the very nature of Canadian democracy, any government – lead by any political party – must call a referendum and gain support of the population directly prior to enacting changes.

No lesser approval is sufficient for such a profound change to our country.

Referendums are very rare in Canada, and so I don’t make this argument lightly. In our entire history, there have only been three national referendums – on prohibition in 1898, conscription in 1942, and the Charlottetown Accord in 1992.

Fundamentally changing our democracy is as significant as those three issues, if not more important.

It also happens that calling a referendum on electoral reform is entirely consistent with the actions of Canadian provinces.

Since 2004, governments in Ontario, New Brunswick, Quebec, Prince Edward Island, and British Columbia have all undertaken studies and committees to propose electoral reform in those provinces. In every case a provincial referendum was held over the proposed changes.

(Or a referendum was promised: in New Brunswick and Quebec, the governments that promised the reforms and referendums were defeated before any took place, and subsequent governments backed away from the issue.)

Outside Canada, other countries contemplating electoral reform also held referendums on the issue, namely New Zealand (1992, 1993, 2011) and the United Kingdom (2011) before implementing any changes.

In other words, it is utterly normal to hold a referendum prior to changing something as significant as the nature of a democracy.

Further back though, provincial governments in British Columbia, Alberta, and Manitoba introduced electoral reform without referendums. In each case, taking place between 1920 and the mid-1950s, electoral reform was introduced to secure a political advantage over their rivals. This undermined the legitimacy of our democratic institutions, and the changes were eventually undone.

We must remember what history has taught us: getting things right – and giving policy legitimacy – depends on the power ultimately resting with Main Street Canadians.

And yet, the Liberals are – so far – sticking with their wholly undemocratic position to alter our voting system without holding a referendum.

As Conservative MP Scott Reid put it on December 9: “We can’t think of a more robust, inclusive consultation process than the holding of a referendum. The Liberal government obviously thinks Canadians can’t be trusted with such a fundamental change to our democracy. We couldn’t disagree more.”

It’s time to fight for our democracy.

— Ruess launched DefendDemocracy.ca, which calls on the government to hold a referendum prior to enacting electoral reforms.

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