Sunday, October 9, 2016

Why referendums are bad for democracy

The recent referendum in Colombia highlighted once again the inherent danger in putting single questions to an entire electorate.

What should have been the final chapter in a long and bloody conflict has now heralded a period of prolonged uncertainty and even, heaven forbid, a return to the battlefield.

The deal that was worked out between the Government and the rebels, the Marxist Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) was the best it could be. Of course it was a compromise, what else could be expected after half a century of turmoil?

Politics is, and always has been, to quote Otto von Bismarck “the art of the possible, the attainable — the art of the next best”.

Politicians and diplomats understand it, but it is a hard concept to convey to tens of millions of people who have little or no understanding on how politics and diplomacy work.

In the case of Columbia, there was a great deal of emotion involved. Families had lost members in the decades-long conflict; other had been internally displaced; people had been kidnapped and simply disappeared. The scars ran deep. 

What information the Government provided was fragmented and scarcely reached beyond the big cities and the elite who had easy access to television, radio and the internet. Yet it was often the remote, rural areas that had borne the brunt of the conflict.

This led to a widespread feeling that the electorate was being ignored, that their opinions did not matter, something that was emphasised by the hubris between the conclusion of negotiations with FARC and the actual referendum.

Champagne popped, there were military fly-overs, Heads of State witnessed the signing, and acclaim came from the international community. The referendum was relegated to a side issue, and the people punished the Government for taking them for granted.

All that was needed to give form to the simmering discontent with the negotiations was a populist hero — and that came in the form of former President Alvaro Uribe who is generally credited with turning the tide against FARC while he was in office.

His claims that the deal disrespected the victims and would hand the country to the rebels were simplistic and hugely exaggerated, but the grain of truth they carried was sufficient to mobilise a slim ‘no’ majority in the vote.

Here lies the problem with referendums in general, just at the time they are becoming increasingly popular with timid Governments that shrink at the very shadow of unpopularity: Handing complicated issues with far-reaching implications over to an entire electorate risks the raising of multiple grievances which have little to do with the question at large.

I well remember during the United Kingdom’s June referendum on European Union membership  hearing the single mother with six children saying she was voting for Leave because she had not been given public housing — an argument with her local council, but certainly not with Brussels.

In Australia the Government seems determined to put the issue of gay marriage to a plebiscite rather than a Parliamentary vote. While polls have suggested that 70 per cent of the population agree with the question and a national vote will surely pass, the campaign will provide a platform for a homophobic minority to give vent to their hatreds, quite possibly resulting in an upsurge of abuse and violence against everyone perceived to be ‘different’.

In a democracy we have the opportunity to elect men and women to represent us and govern in our name for a period — four in many countries, five in India and the UK and just three in Australia — at the end of that time we have the chance to re-elect them or throw them out. They stand and fall by what they have done in the intervening period.

The only referendum needed is that vote. To constantly run to the electorate on this or that issue is an abrogation of responsibility and a failure of leadership. Worse still it undermines the functioning of democracy and gives ammunition to those who believe in more authoritarian or totalitarian philosophies of government.   

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