British Columbia’s “virtual”, not virtuous, “direct democracy”

In theory, the Province of BC has some elements of direct democracy. In reality BC’s “direct democracy” works as a “clever” way to may it look like direct democracy. BC’s “direct democracy”; referendums and initiatives are not worth the paper they are written on.

Let us look at BC’s “direct democracy” in relation to Switzerland’s, or to direct democracy in any Swiss canton.

BC has about 5 million people, Switzerland 8.5. In most respects Switzerland is a better organized, more prosperous society that BC, but Switzerland is number one in the World, so it is not surprising. BC is also a highly developed society and a very stable representative democracy.

This is how direct democracy works in Switzerland (or any of its cantons) and how it “works” in BC.

Switzerland: If 1% of the voters request a referendum, they will hold a referendum, unless the government proposes an alternative that the committee who collected the signatures, agrees to. The 1% criteria, or close to it, is the norm in Switzerland at all levels of government.

On national laws and policies the citizens want to stop, the Swiss have to collect 50 000 signatures in 100 days.

If they want to have a referendum to change the constitution of the country, the Swiss need to collect 100 000 signatures in 18 months!

In British Columbia the requirement is 10%, but not only that, those collecting signatures must collect 10% in each of the over 70 electoral districts in BC. They have 90 days to do it.

In heavy pro-government districts, collecting 10% will be very difficult. Keep in mind that many voters may not be interested in the issue.

10% of registered voters in BC amounts to 350 000 signatures.

But there is more. In BC, there can be only one group proposing the referendum, but there can be many groups opposing it. It is obviously an unfair law. You can imagine the army of lobbyists trying to shoot the initiative down so that people will not sign. Remember the opponents only need one district that falls below 10% in signature collection to send the effort of the proponents of the referendum down the drain.

It does not end here. Even if the proponents can collect the signatures, at the last minute the legislature, the politicians can, after all the effort, say “we do not think this referendum is in the best interests of British Columbians”, and that is the end.

Even if the matter went to a vote, in BC, for the proposal to pass, they would have to vote for it half plus one of the registered voters, it is not enough that most of those who vote support the proposal.

But even if what they propose goes to referendum and most registered voters vote for it, the legislators, again, can kill it.

In Switzerland, all referendums are binding; governments must accept and put into effect the results of referendums.

In Switzerland, not even the Supreme Court can overturn the results of a referendum. The people are truly sovereign and, like the adults they are, they have to live with, or rectify with another referendum, the consequences of their votes.

There are other differences but those are enough to show BC has no direct democracy.

I am sure that the people of BC, if they really had direct democracy, just like the Swiss they would vote responsibly, they would have to, they could not blame the politicians because they decided the issue, not the politicians.

By the way, some people believe that proportional representation, instead of the first-past-the post system we have in BC and Canada, will address some representation issues. It may, but the key issue is not this or that way of electing politicians, the key issue is that without direct democracy, the politicians will still have all the decision-making power and the people none.

I am not against proportional representation; the Swiss have it, but many other representative democracies have proportional representation, some of them pretty lousy ones. What makes Switzerland different, and far more democratic, is direct democracy, because the people decide, not proportional representation. In your country, insist on direct democracy, leave proportional representation for later.

I hate to say this because I am Canadian, but the way direct democracy measures are set up in BC could be copied by any banana republic or totalitarian one party system state.

In the rest of Canada there is nothing about direct democracy at all. That is no good, but at least the system does not offend the intelligence.

In my next blog I will outline how Canada would look like, territorially and administratively, if it adopted direct-representative democracy like the Swiss.

Victor Lopez

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