Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Citizen Initiatives and Referenda

Because of the recent HST referendum I started researching the differences between a "referendum", a "citizens' initiative", and a "recall". These 3 things are different, it turns out, and have different rules. The rules are laid out in 2 pieces of legislation, which I summarize briefly below.

Referendum Act

This act summarizes the rules for running a referendum. A referendum is a public vote on a question that the government has decided it wants public input on (note: not a question that voters have decided they want to give input on!). As an example, in 2009, BC had a referendum on a new voting system called "STV".

Summary of the rules:
- in order to pass, 50% of the votes cast need to be in favour of the question.
- the referendum is binding on the government that called it.

These rules can be changed on a case-by-case (ie. referendum-by-referendum) basis, through separate acts of the Legislature (ie. they have to be voted on by MLA's). For example, they were indeed changed for the STV referendum; the threshold for passing was changed from 50% to 60% (as well as some other changes).

Another referendum, which passed, was the Recall and Initiative referendum, in 1991. This was instigated by the Socred government, which fell before they could enact the Act into law. But the subsequent NDP government decided to honour the results anyways, and duly proclaimed the...

Recall and Initiative Act

This act lays out the rules for how citizens can petition the government to force a public vote on any specific issue. It also lays out the rules for recalling sitting MLAs. BC is the only province to have such legislation!

The rules for turning a citizen-led initiative into a public vote are as follows:
- 10% of the registered voters in every constituency must sign the petition
- the signatures must be received within 90 days of the "start" of the petition
- once the signatures are received by the Chief Electoral Officer, and (s)he decides that the criteria have been met (ie. valid signatures, correct threshold, the petition is worded properly), the petition goes to a special committee of the Legislature (I've not yet managed to learn how membership on any special committee is determined, but presumably these are non-partisan), and this committee must decide either to refer the bill to the legislature for a vote into law, or to the electorate for a referendum vote. The committee may not change the wording of the question. One or more of the following rules may be changed, however:
- initiative votes, if required, are held at minimum every 3 years, specifically in 2009, 2012, 2015,...
- in order to pass, 50% of the total registered voters must vote in favour of the initiative, and 50% of the registered voters must be in favour in 2/3 or more of BC's constituencies.

If the public vote is successful, then there is a requirement for the petition (now a bill) to be voted on by the Legislature. It is only made into law if the bill passes.

For the recent HST referendum, the last two conditions were in fact changed:
- the date for voting was moved forward (to 2010)
- the conditions for passing were altered to 50% of overall votes cast in favour (no constituency limit).
These changes were made by a special act of the Legislature and apply only to the HST referendum we just had.

It is pretty clear that without the last change in particular, no initiative would ever pass. It is basically impossible to have 50% of registered voters vote in favour of anything. Heck, it's problematic these days to get 50% of registered voters to even bother voting!!!

Note further that the first 2 conditions are also almost impossible to achieve. Since 1995, there have been 7 tries at getting an initiative to a public vote. Only a single one has managed to achieve the signature threshold, and that is the recent HST initiative. Getting enough signatures in the extremely limited timeframe requires an army of at least 6500 volunteers working for a solid month to collect the signatures.

I conclude that the Initiative Act is flawed and basically useless. It only serves to bring issues to the attention of government, but getting a public vote to happen is still completely at the whim of the party in power. It's another tool, like a letter-writing campaign, a petition, or chaining yourself to the doors of the Legislature...I'm not sure it's any more effective.

(Note: Recalls have different, but equally stringent, criteria. Since 1995, 25 have been submitted, and 23 have failed, most because of insufficient signatures or because they were never submitted. There was one that "failed" because the MLA in question resigned when it looked like the recall was headed for success. Currently the BC Legislature website lists a 24th recall is in progress in Mission, but I suspect that's on the ropes.)

There's of course a larger discussion we should probably be having, though...how does "direct democracy" fit in with the idea of a "representative democracy"? I mean, we elect people to represent us in government; we pay these folks to educate themselves about the issues, to debate and discuss, and finally to come up with a decision. Surely this is a better approach than allowing the general public (who are typically not educated about the issues) to decide public policy?

Unfortunately, it seems to me that people have no confidence that they are actually being properly represented by their MLA. In many cases, they didn't vote for that person, and don't even support the policies of the party that the person is a member of. Then, it really appears to most people that the party, rather than the constituents, control the MLAs. No wonder voters don't feel represented. The HST referendum was as much a show of resentment over Gordon Campbell's style of government, as it was a vote about tax policy. Is this a good way to decide important policy issues?

So maybe the real problem is that we first need to "fix" the representation part, and maybe reduce the level of control that the party exerts over the individual MLAs, and that the Premier's Office exerts over the government itself...and then we wouldn't need referenda?

Oh right, we voted on this already. That was that STV referendum to change the electoral system into something more representative - and it failed.

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