Posted tagged ‘referenda’

Debating Referendums

September 26, 2011

Have I seen this picture somewhere before?

Last week we wrote a piece decrying the Government’s ludicrous idea of giving local residents the power to call referenda but then not make the result of that referendum binding. As mentioned, this is sort of the equivalent of giving people money to go out and buy as many cakes as they want but then not letting them eat any of them.

Flippin ridiculous!

However, the twitter response to our post was not about the idiocy of the Government’s response but actually about referenda themselves. One of our favourite critics, Paul Evans was particularly exorcised, signing off with one of my favourite debate enders ever:

Direct Democracy is just poison.

It was sort of hard to know what to say to that really; so I bottled out and pledged to spend a bit of my weekend mulling why exactly I was defending referendums and whether the plural or referendum was referendums or referenda. (Paul got me on that one too!)

Before I continue I should urge you to read Paul’s piece on why Direct Democracy is a really bad idea. It’s available here and lays out, in more detail than I’d ever manage, the reasons that referendums are not a good idea.

Rather than refute each of Paul’s points, which would be pretty dull and often not possible due to the quality of some of his arguments, I decided to try and develop a coherent vision of when and why referendums might be a good thing. It was a lot more tricky than I originally thought.

We should not get caught up on the principle of the issue but it is worth saying that it is profoundly democratic to let people have an un-weighted one person one vote on an issue that directly affects them.

As Paul points out the problem here is that the way we set up referendums in this country. In general we usually set them up for a limited number of questions and usually one where all nuance is stripped out of the debate. The referendum regarding the voting system is a recent and prime example.

However, just because we mis-used a referendum to decide our electoral system does not mean the whole system is bad; or does it?

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