At the time this article was
written Patrick Boyer was Member of Parliament for Etobicoke.
On January 18, 1988, the citizens
of Prince Edward Island were asked whether they favoured a fixed link with the
mainland. This was neither a new question nor a fresh issue, but certainly one
of transcending importance for the Island's economy, tourism and way of life.
And for all the decades of debate -- about tunnels, causeways and ferry boat
services -- it was the first time ever that the people who lived there were
directly asked for their opinion, and the first time they had a chance to
directly express it. This article, originally prepared for the Commonwealth
Parliamentary Association Regional Conference held in Charlottetown in July
1988, has been updated to refer to the November 21, 1988 election. Mr. Boyer
has introduced legislation in Parliament -- the Canada Referendum and
Plebiscite Act -- to enable nation-wide votes.
Election campaigns, as we all know,
are a grab-bag of issues and it is impossible to separate from the voting
returns a clear mandate for a specific project. Even the November 21, 1988,
general election -- fought extensively on the single (but many dimensional)
issue of the Canada-U.S. trade treaty -- did not constitute a plebiscite, and
those who tallied up all the votes not received by the Progressive
Conservatives and then contended that 57% of the voters specifically voted
against free trade engaged in some democratic revisionism of a most mischievous
sort. As a candidate who was re-elected November 21, I can vouch (as any
political scientist or pollster will also attest) that Canadians really decided
how to vote based on a complex response to many elements -- the personalities
and performance of the respective party leaders, Mulroney, Turner and
Broadbent; the past record and current promises of the Progressive
Conservative, Liberal, and New Democratic parties, the varying qualities of the
local candidates; and the effectiveness of the national campaigns an local
vote-getting organization. While the trade treaty was the catch point, many
other issues in the 1988 election also affected specific voter decisions -- tax
reform, child care, nuclear-propelled submarines, abortion, the deficit,
patronage and conflict-of-interest questions, newly-announced spending
programs, Western Canadian alienation, Unemployment Insurance abuse, housing,
parole and the criminal justice system, pensions, the disabled and a vast range
of serious environmental concerns. Anyone who contends the election was a
black-and-white decision on a single specific issue is either politically
mischievous, or was not canvassing door-to-door!
There is only one way -- or
certainly only one good way -- to obtain a clear expression of the public's
collective wisdom on a particular issue, and that is, quite simply, to ask
people the question in a plebiscite.
To advocate the use of more
plebiscites as a formalized and democratic way of "asking the
question" is hardly a radical notion, nor is it an inconsistent practice,
given our system of representative government.
Unlike representative democracy,
where elected members of council, the legislature, or the House of Commons take
decisions which in their view are best for the community, province or country,
the plebiscite allows everyone to actively consider the issue and express his
or her own view without any intermediary.
Direct democracy -- as in a plebiscite
or referendum -- can, of course, never replace representative democracy in our
system of government, but it can be and is a useful adjunct for those rare
issues of transcending importance where all the people should be consulted.
Premier Joe Ghiz should, in my
view, be congratulated for having put the fixed-link issue to the people
directly in a plebiscite. For one thing it keeps alive an important Canadian
democratic tradition, one that is deeply rooted in Prince Edward Island.
Second, it demonstrates the superiority of a plebiscite over mere public
Plebiscites are more a part of the
democratic infrastructure of our country than many people would believe. We've
had two plebiscites at the national level (prohibition of liquor on September
29, 1898, and conscription for overseas military service on April 27, 1942).
Over 40 plebiscites have been held at the provincial level, starting with
liquor prohibition in a Prince Edward Island vote in 1878, down to the present
times with the vote on independence in Quebec in May 1980, and the N.W.T.
plebiscite on territorial division in April 1982. Apart from prohibition
issues, province-wide plebiscites have dealt with such questions as women's
suffrage, public health insurance, daylight saving time, ownership of power
companies and marketing of coarse grains. At the municipal level, several
thousand plebiscites and referendums have occurred in this century, on issues
ranging from bond issues, building projects, local option prohibition, local
franchises, and forms of municipal government.
Islanders last went to the polls in
a plebiscite on June 28, 1948, because Section 8 of the Province's new
Temperance Act required a provincial plebiscite to give majority approval
before the Act came into force. That was the fifth P.E.I. plebiscite on
prohibition -- the others being held in 1878, 1901, 1929, and 1940. The 1940
plebiscite, held under Premier Campbell, resulted in a disappointingly small
vote, but by 1948, the situation was quite different. During the liquor
plebiscite under Premier Jones, voters had a choice of voting either for
"bone-dry prohibition" or the new Act. The Temperance Federation
sponsored large paid advertisements and speakers toured through rural areas,
some of them in direct violation of the Island statute forbidding outside
participation in any P.E.I. election. Premier Jones went on the air three days
before the plebiscite voting and urged the people to vote for the new Act.
Judged by the campaign, and in
those blessed days before opinion polls, everyone judged the outcome would be
close. The result was a surprise. Islanders voted nearly 3 to 1 for the new
Temperance Act, and the plebiscite showed that the `dries' on the Island were
more vocal than numerous. About 53% of the 52,000 eligible voters cast ballots,
with 7,338 voting for prohibition, and 19,814 favouring the new Temperance Act
which provided government control over liquor sales.
Today, P.E.I. is one of several
provinces with a separate enabling statute for the holding of votes on
"questions" -- the Plebiscite Act. The British Columbia Elections Act
contains enabling provisions for province-wide plebiscites, which have been
resorted to at least nine times since Confederation. Alberta, New Brunswick and
Newfoundland have similar provisions in their election acts, while Quebec,
Yukon and Northwest Territories join P.E.I. in having separate statutes for
Where enabling legislation does not
exist, a special statute has to be enacted each time a plebiscite is held. Thus
the three plebiscites in Ontario on liquor questions (in 1902, 1919 and 1921)
each required special legislation, as did our two national plebiscites. When
specific legislation is required, the Act usually gets mixed up with the issue
or "question" itself. Just as we have an Election Act at the ready
whenever it is time for an election, so we should have plebiscite legislation
in place, to be used when important national questions deserve to be put
directly to the electors for an expression of opinion.
One can think of issues debated
recently such as "universality" of social programs, capital
punishment, the Meech Lake Accord, and free trade -- that would be worthy of
submitting to the people in this way.
The Canadian identity would be
strengthened through the use of more plebiscites because we would be forced to
speak out and contest with one another as to the kind of country we want -- in
very specific terms; moving beyond the vague generalities that too often pass
for public discourse in our land.
Legally, of course, a distinction
should be draw between a plebiscite, which is a formalized expression of public
opinion through the ballot box, and a referendum, which is the same thing,
except its results are a binding verdict of the people which must be reflected
in a law. For instance, the "referendum" in Quebec in 1980 was, in
fact, a plebiscite, a large-scale opinion poll, without any direct consequences
in law. The votes held in 1979 in the cities of Edmonton and Calgary, with
respect to expensive public works projects, were truly "referendums",
in that the results were legally binding on the municipal governments.
I believe plebiscites and
referendums are vastly under--utilized instruments of our system of popular
government in this country, and that Canadian democracy will be much healthier
and stronger when we permit greater direct participation of citizens in
I do not want to demean the value
of a plebiscite by suggesting it is little more than a large-scale formalized opinion
poll. One should never under-estimate the symbolic value of the political
process. While it is possible, for instance, to conduct opinion polls among the
population of Quebec on the question of independence, or among Islanders on the
long-discussed question of a causeway, there will always be doubt as to the
wording of the `question', quibbling as to the representativeness of the
sample, and a feeling that it is "nothing more than an opinion poll"
to be contradicted by someone else's poll tomorrow. Nothing speaks with the
same eloquence as a counting of ballots, deliberately cast on a question by the
voting citizens of the province, or the entire country, after a cathartic
Other democratic countries have not
been timid about using plebiscites and referendums. The Australians resort to
referendums on constitutional matters. Submitting questions to voters in the
United States has long been a integral part of that country's system of
government -- occasionally sending seismic waves through the North American
political culture, as in the 1968 "Taxpayers' Revolt" on Proposition
13 in California, when the sovereign public voted to impose ceilings on their
government's spending. In the United States most state constitutions contain
provisions enshrining the right of citizens to vote on certain laws.
Even in the United Kingdom, in what
many considered a major departure from accepted constitutional practice by the
mother of most of the world's parliamentary democracies, a plebiscite was held
in 1975 on the question of Britain's entry into the European Common Market. Yet
it is not the sole precedent. On March 8, 1973, in an attempt at a new
settlement to the sectarian violence and problems of government in Northern
Ireland, a plebiscite was held asking the voters whether they wanted the
province to remain part of the United Kingdom.
For better or for worse,
referendums and pleiscites are a fact of Canadian political and legal life. For
better, say those who see a referendum as a means of giving a greater, clearer
voice to the people; for worse, say those who see referendums as a pernicious
and unparliamentary practice.
For better, too, say those who see
the occasional necessity of extracting a highly controversial issue from the
normal parliamentary processes (which might be shattered if forced to deal with
it by traditional means of party discipline, cabinet solidarity, and the like)
and turning it over to the people as a whole for a verdict by means of voting.
For worse would counter those who
instead see such appeals to the public at large as a highly dangerous and
unpredictable device for resolving any issue, given that battle lines must be
simplistically drawn between "yes" and "no" rather than
permitting the usual compromising procedures of Parliament.
Others more critical of the
practice and operation of governments and legislatures and imbued with a deep
faith in democracy, contend that referendums and plebiscites mean issues are
squarely faced, public decisions are publicly arrived at, popular will is accurately
expressed, apathy and alienation come to an end, and people have a greater
voice in major political decisions, and therefore their use should be
encouraged and extended.
I certainly do not think that every
issue has to be "put to the people" but perhaps every decade, or in
the life of each parliament, there may be one or two issues of over-riding
national importance that should be subjected to the fullest expression of
The plebiscite process is helpful
in our self-definition as Canadians. Instead of passively letting our
representatives in Parliament make decisions for us, or relying on editorial
page writers and CBC commentators to do our thinking for us, it is stimulating
and productive to have everyone come to terms with his or her own view about a
public issue. That is what happened a few months ago in Prince Edward Island,
as the heritage and future of the Island were debated in relation to the fixed
link crossing. It happened in Quebec when Quebeckers had to consider the future
of the province as a separate entity or within a greater Canada. It happened in
1982 in the Northwest Territories as northerners voted on splitting the NWT
into two territories. While the debate can be emotional and the confrontations
difficult, that is what democracy is all about. The exercise is ultimately
positive and creative.
Finally, in these days where we
suffer a plague of opinion polls, there are several ways that plebiscites are
superior, and it is good to recognize this.
First, instead of the "representative
sample" in an opinion poll, you have your own say in a plebiscite and so
does everyone else.
Second, you may be busy watching
the hockey game, cooking a meal, working in the garden, or otherwise distracted
when the telephone rings to ask you, out of the blue, your opinion on some
issue of the day. Yet, in a plebiscite, there is a period of debate and
deliberation over several weeks. The telvision programs, newspaper articles,
public meetings, discussions in church halls, workplaces, coffee shops, union
halls and around the dinner table enable everyone to hear all the arguments and
reason through their own position. A plebiscite records a more deliberate view
and a more careful conclusion than an opinion poll.
Third, plebiscites can settle an issue
the way mere opinion polls never can. In Quebec, there were polls published
monthly for years as to the level of support for independence. It was only the
plebiscite on May 20, 1980, recording that 40.4% of voters favoured
"sovereignty association" against the victorious federalist
"no" option supported by 59.6% of the voters, which, I believe, put
the matter to rest for at least a generation.
Plebiscites teach us the lesson
that we are all responsible for our destiny and cannot leave it to others. Plebiscites
help maintain a level of active participation that is so essential to a healthy
democratic society. Moreover, as a democrat, I believe that the collective
judgment of well-informed people, as recorded in ballots cast deliberately, is
distilled wisdom. Trusting the people is the formula to be more right, more
Canada's history with plebiscites
has been interesting and colourful and the experience has been a mixed one. The
same is true of our elections. The point is that the instruments of democracy
are varied, and each is important. The plebiscite is part of an essential
Canadian democratic tradition -- a tradition which Canadians have formed, and
which we now will do well to restore more fully to its rightful place.