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OPINION | Jason Kenney likes referendums. Here's why you shouldn't

What’s the plural form of referendum? Is it referendums or referenda? It doesn’t really matter. Using either doesn’t change the fact that a referendum is, politically speaking, an optical illusion.

Referendums may be a good idea on paper but are not as good in practise

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaks during a press conference in Edmonton earlier this year. Recent legislation passed by Kenney's government will allow the government to hold referendums on "government-led initiatives or matters of public interest before they are implemented." (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

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What's the plural form of referendum? Is it referendums or referenda?

It doesn't really matter. Using either doesn't change the fact that a referendum is, politically speaking, an optical illusion.

It gives the appearance of direct democracy at its purest. After all, everybody gets one vote.

Indeed, this is the argument presented by Premier Jason Kenney when his government introduced Bill 26 this week. The Constitutional Referendum Amendment Act will allow the government to hold referendums on "government-led initiatives or matters of public interest before they are implemented."

The potential list of subjects for a vote would be limited only by Kenney's imagination.

He is already planning a referendum on whether Albertans would like to scrap the federal equalization plan and might hold one on withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan.

"Albertans continue to tell us that they want a greater say in the politics in this province — and that is what we're doing," said Kenney. "This legislation will help us strengthen democracy and increase accountability, giving Albertans a louder voice and a direct impact on the actions of government."

Kenney pointed to other jurisdictions that hold referendums, including the United Kingdom.

Yes, he was obliquely referring to Brexit.

If there's a one-word argument against holding a referendum, "Brexit" would be it.

The 2016 referendum on Britain leaving the European Union sparked a deeply divisive campaign that saw the Leave side win narrowly by a vote of 52 per cent to 48 per cent. The vote has thrown the country's future into chaos as Britain continues to struggle in post-Brexit negotiations with the EU.

And the "Leave" campaign continues to be mired in controversy, being fined for breaking electoral finance laws and being accused by critics of using social media and misleading advertising to manipulate the vote.

Alberta government plans to hold a referendum on equalization during municipal elections in October next year. (David Ramos/Getty Images)

Brexit also pretty much ground the House of Commons to a halt.

A majority of MPs — 75 per cent — realized Brexit was a bad idea and were opposed to leaving  the EU. However, that slim 52 per cent majority threw a spanner into the parliamentary works. The Brexit vote weakened the authority of Parliament and politicians.

You might think this a great idea: undermine the authority of politicians and make them listen to the people via referendums. In that case, why have elections?

Referendums reinforce the cynical narrative that politicians can't be trusted with power and they also undermine the importance of general elections.

They pit direct democracy against representative democracy, which defers the decision-making to elected officials. There's no room for nuance or compromise in referendums; it's winner take all.

Stronger democracy?

Just look at California, a state that is arguably ungovernable due in no small part to its reliance on direct democracy ballot initiatives.

Over the years, California referendums have reduced the rights of minorities by undermining affirmative action and curtailing bilingual education.

"Though derived from a century-old idea favoured by the populist and progressive movements as a weapon against special-interest influence, the initiative has become a favoured tool of interest groups and millionaires with their own political and personal agendas," concluded American journalist David Broder, the late Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and author of Democracy Derailed.

Direct democracy initiatives are not the sole territory of the rich. Public-sector labour unions in California have used them to protect underperforming workers against dismissal by the state.

Troy Senic, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, wrote in the National Affairs magazine last fall that direct democracy measures "tend to create a sense of permanent revolution in California politics. No issue is settled for long; no approach to public policy is given much of a chance to predominate; and elected officials are left less, not more, accountable as their ability to control the levers of state power is substantially reduced."

It sounds like chaos rather than a strong democracy or increased accountability.

But this might fit into Kenney's plans for Alberta.

He's a combative politician who, after a lull because of the COVID-19 pandemic, has re-launched a political war against Prime Minister Trudeau and the federal Liberals. This us-versus-them narrative has proven remarkably successful by keeping not only the UCP, but the entire province on a kind of war footing.

Likewise, a series of referendums could add to that chaos by pitting Albertan against Albertan along partisan lines. Or they could be used to cynically manipulate public opinion as Kenney is already doing by promising a referendum on ending the federal equalization program, something Alberta cannot do because it's a federal program protected by the Constitution.

If too many important decisions are left up to plebiscites, we risk having politicians afraid to pass laws and a public sector bankrupted because politicians can't raise taxes. We'd become California but without Disneyland or surfing.

Having said all that, I'm not totally against referendums. I say hold them roughly once every four years but don't call them referendums or referenda. Just call them general elections.

About the Author

Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.

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