Richard North, EUReferendum, has posted on the subject of direct democracy in his series of posts following the ‘Harrogate Meet’ and in so doing mentions the fact that the use of referendums can bring results that are not wanted, citing the example of Hitler and the 1975 EU referendum. His previous post on the subject of local government, to which Raedwald links citing a paper by Simon Jenkins, basically endorsed the idea of direct democracy – unless of course I have misunderstood that which he wrote. It is fair to say that, possibly, one should wait for part ii on this subject of direct democracy, but in the meantime……
To accept that which Richard North terms ‘negative assent’ is but to leave matters where they presently exist, ie to allow Parliament to decide on new laws and their introduction – something which Harrogate attendees surely would not accept. If, as I written previously, it is accepted that the people are the supreme political authority, then logically whether any proposed law is acceptable or not cannot be left to politicians to decide – that decision can only be taken by the people. On the matter of ‘positive assent’ Richard North is quite correct to write that this should require a positive vote by the people before it can become law, especially where any new constitution is concerned – and where any attempt is made to negate the power of the people as the supreme political authority.
Richard North then moves on to the question of statutory instruments, a matter on which presumably part ii will deal with. However, while we await part ii, it should be remembered that statutory instruments are the means whereby central government uses these as the principal form through which secondary legislation is made to supplement Acts of Parliament. Bearing in mind that under Direct Democracy central government will be limited to say 5/6 areas of responsibility, all of which would be subject to the threat of a referendum, then the need for and amount of Statutory Instruments would fall dramatically — where they would still be permitted in any new constitution. Consider: if any Act is to be subject to the threat of a referendum, then should not proposals to amend, ‘tweak’, or add to the original Act also not be subject to a referendum?
It is worth digressing on the subject of referendums and looking at the effect they have in Switzerland where frequent referendums do have an influence on the way both parliament and government act. Experience shows that a party defeated in parliament will call for a referendum on a new law and that the chances are good that even a single one out of five major parties may win a referendum and block the new law, if it is too extreme. The German terms “Referendumsdrohung” [threat of referendum] and “mit Referendum drohen” [threaten to call for a referendum] cannot be found in dictionaries, but they are often used in Swiss newspaper reports on parliamentary debates .
Both the Swiss government and administration and the parliament do take the “threat of a referendum” into account. There is even a formalised method of opinion polling before a draft is even sent to the parliament. In German, it’s called “Vernehmlassungsverfahren” [procedure to hear opinions]. The reason is very simple: even the most sophisticated system of proportional election cannot guarantee that the opinions of the members of parliament are a true representation of people’s opinions in any possible political question. So in a parliamentary debate some arguments decisive in a referendum campaing might get lost or not be taken serious enough. The “Vernehmlassungsverfahren” gives a possibility to a broad spectrum of political parties, professional and cultural organisations etc. to put forward their wishes and views and to state where the limits for a threat of referendum are for them.
In the parliamentary debate these views are taken into account and usually a “typically Swiss compromise” is sought. If nobody is really happy with it, but almost everybody can live with it, chances are good that either nobody will call for a referendum or that the proposed law will at least be accepted by a majority of the electorate. But although all members of parliament know the system, sometimes a majority is still inclined to play the power game – and usually they will lose it.
Traditionally, the members of Switzerland’s government do present proposed laws both in parliament and (if it comes to a referendum) to the electorate, and they are expected to do so even if they personally disagree with the proposal and everybody knows they do. If the proposal is rejected in a referendum, then the issue is cancelled. Nevertheless, given a political system with referendums, it is definitely helpful to share executive power in a broad coalition of parties. So four of five major Swiss parties are represented in Switzerland’s 7-member government, and at present they have a two-thirds majority in the big chamber of parliament and a 100% majority in the small chamber. If these parties disagree – and they constantly do in Switzerland – the electorate will decide and the government will execute what has been decided. No need for a vote of confidence, no need for untimely elections. Just political stability.
Consideration needs to be given to the conditions under which any referendum is held. Thinking back to 1975, the referendum result was ‘skewed’ by outside influence, disparity twixt the financial clout of each side, coupled with the influence of the media. It is of paramount importance that in any referendum, (a) sufficient time is allowed for debate; (b) it is necessary to mandate the amount of money that can be spent by either side; (c) equal access to the media, coupled with equality of media output: and (d) that any ‘outside’ input/interference is not allowed. Another issue which should be considered is the role of the government in a referendum campaign. Should the government be allowed to campaign for the outcome it supports? Can they or should they distribute their own promotional material or run government broadcasts outlining their views? Should there be a designated neutral source of information separate from the government and campaigners providing for the dissemination of non-partisan information about the issue? It is worth noting that in Switzerland when ballot papers are produced, along with those are included fair, un-biased, information sheets setting out the main points of each argument.
More to follow when part ii of Richard North’s article appears.