On referendums

The Spectator’s Alex Massie recently wrote:

The only thing that has been proved by this referendum on changing the electoral system used for Westminster elections is that referendums are a hopeless way of deciding these matters. Neither the politicians nor the press have distinguished themselves during an affair that’s been distinguished by the mendacity of almost all the protagonists, the hysteria of partisans on both sides and the sheer quantity of lumpen stupidity on display. It has not been an edifying or comforting process.

The rest of his post continues in the same vein, as he points out the failings of both the Yes and No camp – the Yes campaign being “dire”, the No campaign “ridiculous”.

I share Massie’s opinion of referendums. I have experienced two here in Canada, one held at the national level on the Charlottetown Accord, a package of reforms meant to amend the Canadian constitution in 1992, and the second, a provincial referendum in Quebec on Quebec sovereignty from Canada (1995). Neither were particularly edifying debates, and the combined experience convinced me that certain things should most certainly not be left to the general public to decide.

Referendums are often used to settle particularly divisive issues. The government of the day may want to absolve itself from the responsibility of taking what may be a rather unpopular, but necessary, decision, and so puts the matter to a referendum instead. That way, regardless of the outcome, the government (more specifically – the party forming the government at the time) can’t be blamed either way. If the referendum passes, it was the will of the people and the government is simply implementing what the people want. If the referendum fails, again, that’s what the people wanted.

However, the problem is that some issues are, to be frank, far too complex to be decided by a popular vote. Constitutions and constitutional amending packages would certainly fall into that category. These are very complex matters, and there is rarely agreement among constitutional experts as to the impact some clauses may (or may not) have on the country as a whole, or on a certain group in relation to another, etc. Because of the complexity of the package as a whole, the arguments for and against breakdown into fear-mongering. It’s understandable – the message has to be condensed into media-friendly soundbites and nothing is simpler than trying to build support by warning of the dire consequences of a No vote, or the opposite – warning that if the Yes wins, it will be the end of everything we hold dear.

The referendum on the Charlottetown Accord, as I remember it, certainly fell into this trap. The debate pitted various groups of Canadians against others. It gave too much to Native Peoples. It didn’t do enough for Native Peoples. It gave French-Canadians in Quebec special status and rights. It didn’t do enough to recognize Quebec as a distinct society. I found myself in a bizarre voting dilemma simply because of where I lived at the time – in the province of Quebec. I knew the accord would be defeated in Quebec, and because of that, voted Yes because the accord did do good things for Native Peoples. However, had I lived in a different province, I would have voted no, because I disagreed with recognizing Quebec as a distinct society.

The 1995 Quebec referendum was a far more gut-wrenching experience. For non-Canadian readers, you can read the Wiki page I linked to above. Suffice it to say that the No side almost lost. It was an extremely acrimonious, divisive debate. I lived in Montreal at the time, hot bed of the anglo “money and ethnic vote” that many blamed for the defeat of the Yes side. That vote quite literally sucked the life out of the City of Montreal for months. There was a pall of suspicion and distrust that hung over almost everything. It is not an experience I ever want to live through again.

Which brings me to the UK referendum on AV. By any measure, a vote on a voting system simply does not have any of the emotional weight that a vote on breaking up one’s country carries. Most people are, quite simply, rather apathetic about the entire debate. Yet, that has not stopped passions on both sides from flaring up to rather astonishing degrees and this is doubly surprising when you know that most of the Yes side isn’t even that keen on AV in the first place.

Unlike complex constitutional packages, or trying to debate what might happen if one part of a country became independent, voting systems are fairly straightforward affairs. In theory, this is the sort of matter that could be easily decided by referendum since it is easy to explain both options and people can then decide which they think they might prefer. In theory, there should be very little room for scare tactics and fabrication of facts. In theory. In reality, the AV referendum, as Massie rightly points out has been characterized by nothing but “hyperbollocks” from both sides.

I think the No2AV camp have put forward only two factual statements during this entire campaign: 1) FPTP is simple, and 2) only three countries use AV. Actually, that last point is somewhat problematic. Australia actually uses full-preferential voting for its House of Representatives, not AV, but a couple of Australian states use the same system being proposed in the the UK. As for the other two countries, Fiji and Papua-New Guinea, one is actually a military dictatorship, and the other has problems that go way beyond what voting system it uses. Pretty much everything else that has come out of the No camp is, to quote Massie, “hyperbollocks”. The Yes side hasn’t done much better. It has attempted to paint AV as a marvelous, nay – miraculous voting system that will end corruption, force MPs to work much harder, put an end to safe seats – well, you get the picture.

I can’t comment that much on how the UK media has covered the referendum since I am not in the UK and thus have no idea how the debate has been reported by the networks. My only exposure is to what appears online and I’ve seen a rather equal number of very good and incredibly bad articles and commentaries about AV. I have seen a few television clips in which the interviewer did a fairly good job at trying to get through the hyperbollocks, such as this recent appearance by Baroness Warsi for the No side on SkyNews, however, even during that interview, she gets away with some false claims about Australia.

It is the politicians who come out of this perhaps the worse for wear, and despite claims to the contrary, one does wonder if this will create lasting tensions within the coalition. In recent days we’ve had David Cameron attack Nick Clegg, Clegg lashing back, Chris Huhne lashing out at Baroness Warsi and more recently, Chancellor George Osborne, Vince Cable urging people to vote yes to shut out Conservatives, to list but a few examples.

I should add that three Canadian provinces have held referendums on electoral reform, and while I was not living in any of them at the time, from what I could see in terms of press and blog coverage, the campaigns here weren’t much better. Perhaps less acrimony coming from the political classes (at least in one province, the politicians pretty much stayed completely silent on the matter and the coalition arrangement in the UK does add a certain twist to the entire debate), but certainly a fair degree of idiotic opinions permeated the press and blogosphere.

Alex Massie concluded his post thusly:

I doubt more than one in twenty of the arguments made – either for or against AV – in this campaign have any substance to them at all. Instead there’s been such an endless parade of misinformation, dishonesty, special pleading and scaremongering that one wonders if this country’s political and media classes can be trusted to hold any further referendums on any subject at all.

Based on my experiences here in Canada, both direct and indirect, I’d have to answer that with a resounding “no”.

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