A 'no' To Referendums
Please welcome Guest Blogger, Travis Kendal who is a Political Scientist, Professional Educator. Travis has a political background and keeps on top of the political scene locally and globally.
A 'no' To Referendums
It is now twelve hours since the results of the Brexit vote began to come in. Even early one it seemed clear that despite polling numbers, and a great deal of coaxing (and threatening) from political leaders and experts in many fields, the British people were going to make the decision to leave the European Union. In the end the vote was roughly 52% in favour of leaving the EU compared to 48% in favour of staying (although it has to be noted that several regions, including Northern Ireland, Scotland, and the City of London all voted strongly for the 'remain' side).
The consequences of the vote to leave the EU are already being felt only a few hours after the results were made official. The Pound is losing a great deal of its value, independence parties in Northern Ireland and Scotland are already talking about future independence votes, and world markets are plunging.
The Brexit vote leads to some uncomfortable, but necessary questions. Are referendums useful when deciding very complicated issues and can citizens be trusted to make what are sometimes binding decisions on these issues? As I sit watching the Brexit results, the answer seems to be no.
First, please do not take that last paragraph to mean that I am calling people untrustworthy or stupid. It is simply that referendums often involve vast and complex pieces of public policy, such as the EU and its role, or to use a Canadian example the Charlottetown Accord in 1992, that even experts have trouble fully understanding. In the case of the European Union, I doubt that there are many people who can fully understand everything that the organization does (immigration, agriculture, trade, etc) and the direct/indirect impacts that it has on peoples lives. Without understanding the whole picture, people sometimes become single issue voters, fixating on one or a few areas (i.e.: immigration) rather than the whole. In a complex world, I firmly believe that there are issues that are simply too big and intricate to be left to a referendum.
It is also the case that referendums can quickly become quite emotional and polarizing which in turn can lead to votes based on anger, resentment, or simply a desire to "stick it to the man", rather than on the substance of the issue. As eminent political scientist Rand Dyck noted, during the Charlottetown Referendum, a significant number of voters seemed less interested in the substance of the accord than in their anger with the Canadian political establishment. Whether it is a proposition on gay marriage in California or continued EU membership for the UK, political issues are often personal and deeply emotional. If logic and thoughtful analysis, as opposed to slogans and name calling, are what you want when public policy is made, than the use of referendums needs to be very limited.
The use of referendums as a decision making tool also seems to ignore the fact that we already have decision making bodies called governments, (most of which are capable and accountable, despite what you might hear). Governments exist for a good reason. In the democratic world we have elected officials, a civil service, and a judiciary, professional people we expect to make thoughtful and sober decisions based on their expertise in areas of policy. Of course this is not always the case. The political establishment seems to create more problems than it solves; however I believe that there is a need to have some faith in our officials and institutions (of course, not too much). Governments are in place to make to decisions for all citizens, and in most cases they do.
The ability to vote, to have your say, is a great feeling. I have always felt a great deal of engagement when I am standing in the polling booth; however when the issues are emotional, divisive, high stakes, and often beyond the comprehension of the majority of the voting public, public referendums are often counterproductive. On the use of referendums to solve major policy issues, I vote no.
Travis Kendal Political Scientist, Professional Educator
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