First I have to remind everyone; there isn’t a real direct democracy now. Nothing we have can compare to ancient Greece direct democracy.
But direct democracy is advancing around the World. I have no doubt it will become the norm for all humans. Some will need more time than others.
We have excellent examples of partial direct democracy.
Direct democracy is not the only Greek idea that took time to gain acceptance. It also took time the application of reason to understand the Universe., instead of relying of the word of a god. It took 2200 years, until Galileo. And we all know how far we have come in space exploration and astronomy since.
Direct democracy is a little harder; so far, 2800 years have passed.
I will start with a direct democracy example in Canada. It is in a small town that has introduced essential elements of direct democracy.
This case is recent, from 1980, and it does not come from a long tradition of direct citizen power. Canada comes from the British tradition. In the British system there is not a tradition of direct rule by the people. The people elect the representatives, and the representatives rule. The people have no direct power between elections.
Fortunately, in the British tradition we have the most stable representative democracy. This provides freedom to promote change.
This small town in British Columbia put into practice two elements of direct democracy; the referendum and the initiative.
Both are under the control of the people; the town council has no choice but to respect the results.
The town is Rossland. Rossland has a population of about 3500 people. It has more people in winter because it is a popular location for skiing and snowboarding.
Rossland had one important advantage because Canada, as a solid representative democracy, provides an environment of tolerance.
I like the example of Rossland also because it is easier to start small. Before an entire country makes the transition to direct democracy, it is important to have successful “pilot projects”.
In 1980, they had problems in Rossland. The elected city council had been losing credibility because many decisions did not please voters.
Some citizens got fed up and presented a document; “A Constitution for Local Government”.
But they had to take into account that the laws of British Columbia do not help direct democracy.
The people understood that they could propose nothing that would require changing British Columbia laws. They knew a town of 3000 people had a zero chance of convincing BC legislators to change the province’s laws.
So they had to introduce a measure of direct democracy within a representative democracy tradition.
They produced a municipal “constitution”. This document had two important provisions of direct democracy; referendum and initiative.
The referendum gives give the people the final say on whatever the elected representatives decide.
The initiative gives the people the power to propose change and to force the elected representatives to act on what they propose.
With the referendum, the residents of Rossland can stop any by-law before it becomes the law of the town.
To do that, any citizen that collects the signature of 20% of registered voter will force the town to hold a referendum on the by-law. If the proposal to stop the by-law wins, then the by-law is dead in the way it is written.
This forces council members to consult and negotiate until they believe the revised version will be accepted.
The second way in which the voters of Rossland can take matters into their own hands is by a petition. Citizens can propose a by-law to city council. If 20% of registered voters sign it, then council has to hold a referendum on the draft of the by-law.
Of course, this by-law, like any other by-law, can be challenged by citizens.
The process makes voters responsible for the running of their community. If a voter, for example, push for a by-law to double the number of traffic lights in the town, they quickly learn the cost of the project and how much their taxes will go up to pay for it.
Direct democracy will not work if the majority of voters do not have enough common sense. But nothing works if that happens.
Rossland’s direct democracy measures were not proposed by any party or any group with an ideology. The only ideology was “we want to decide”. If ideology gets into the picture, the whole thing is likely to go nowhere.
I hope you like this little example of how a small town in Canada introduced two key aspects of direct democracy.
Perhaps the wise people of Rossland in the mountains of British Columbia, Canada, will inspire you. Go and visit them!
In the next blog I will give more examples.