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Comments on the Report of the Select Standing Committee on Referenda and Recall

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As part of the provincial election in 1991, voters were asked whether they support recall—the right to vote between elections for the removal of an MLA—and initiative—the right to propose questions that must be submitted by the government to voters by referendum. Both proposals received overwhelming approval from the electorate (recall: 73.75%; referendum: 74%). The B.C. government then created a Select Standing Committee to investigate the pros and cons of recall and initiative and to propose recommendations to the Legislature. The Committee reported on November 23rd, 1993 and its report will be debated in the coming legislative session which commences on March 16th, 1994.

The BCCLA is supportive of any measure that improves the quality of democracy in the province and in the country. Therefore, the ways in which recall and initiative improve the democratic atmosphere of provincial politics should lead us to endorse both types of legislation. Moreover, the fact that an overwhelming percentage of the electorate expressed support for such legislation also leads our Association to urge the government to adopt legislation of this sort.

However, our concern is that both recall and initiative bring with them dimensions that could seriously compromise central dimensions of democratic politics, in ways that are particularly damaging to

  1. minor parties or parties elected by slim majorities;
  2. candidates elected to public office;
  3. cabinet ministers;
  4. and, perhaps the most important, the quality of policy developed and passed by the government.

The trick is then to find a way whereby government policy regarding recall and initiative can capture the good elements and avert the bad ones. A further discussion of precisely what these elements are follows.

The benefits

Initiative

Initiative allows a specified number of voters to petition government to hold a referendum on a particular question.1 It provides a way for citizens to get directly involved in the governing process. Direct participation might then stimulate public debate and cultivate a greater sense of political responsibility amongst the electorate. Participation has long been thought, by democratic theorists and political psychologists, to be the means to improve the political sophistication of citizens. Since the personal development of individuals is often thought to be the raison d’être of democracy,2 any means to this end ought to be embraced by a democratic government.

Another asset of initiative is its potential to force governments to address controversial issues which they would just as soon avoid. Policy analysts have found that governments routinely try to embrace only symbolic issues and avoid issues that involve imposing costs. Moreover, governments have long sought to avoid controversy. Past and present advocates for change in the government’s policy on abortion, capital punishment and euthanasia are well-acquainted with this problem. So, initiative will force our government to deal with issues that it might otherwise avoid.

Recall

The benefits of recall are similar to those of initiative with the added dimension that in Canada’s system of cabinet-centered government where party discipline is often strictly imposed, the threat of recall is sure to strengthen the ties between an elected member and her constituents. Moreover, if an elected member is compelled, because of party discipline or because of the broader interests of the province, to vote for a piece of legislation that is unpopular in her riding, she is bound to make more of an effort to discuss the matter with her constituents. This process may also help to educate the electorate on the problems of policy-making and governance. In general, then, recall will have the effect of strengthening the communication links between an elected member and her constituents.

The drawbacks

Initiative

The drawbacks of initiative are potentially few, depending on how the legislation is constructed. Minorities can be protected through Charter scrutiny of any initiative. The dominance of special interest group initiative can be controlled by requiring a minimum threshold of signatures on petitions for initiative in each riding in the province.

Nonetheless, at least two drawbacks remain. The first is that the availability of the initiative mechanism might exacerbate rather than allay the tendency of elected officials to avoid controversial policy issues. Elected officials might appear to be or feel themselves justified in avoiding policy-making in certain areas unless an initiative forces an issue upon them. They might interpret the absence of initiative as evidence that the status quo is working.

This then leads to the second problem, which is that by relying for our governance on initiative-generated policy-making, we will rely more on the efforts of organized interest groups in society. Proposals for initiatives are very likely to be orchestrated by interest groups who will try and secure signatures to petition, etc. While interest groups provide an important function in democracy, many important interests in society remain unorganized (the impoverished and homeless; convicts; ex-convicts; various immigrants, including female immigrants, and many others). In a political system that privileges organized interests to generate policy, the unorganized will be disadvantaged. Initiative is likely to help privilege organized interest groups. So, even if spending limits are strictly imposed on interest groups, an initiative mechanism is likely to skew policy-making in favour of organized interest groups. This means that if the status quo is not working for many people in a community, unless these people are in a position to organize a provincial-wide petition-signing campaign, their interests will not likely be addressed through the initiative process and, moreover, might be less likely to be addressed by government.

Recall

The potential drawbacks of recall are more numerous and possibly more serious for the quality of democratic politics than those of initiative. Again, interest groups and the likelihood that they will organize and dominate recall procedures elicits similar concerns to those outlined above.

Second, recall invites a type of political mischief that is likely to worsen the quality of our parliamentary politics. It is well known that when an opposition party needs only one or two more seats either to cause a majority government to become a minority one, or to become the Official Opposition (as is presently the case in Ottawa regarding the Reform Party and the Bloc Québeçois), it will relentlessly employ whatever means it has to cause the resignation of a member of the government or a member of a rival party (if Official Opposition status is what it seeks). In this way, any individual elected to the legislature is potentially the target of an unwarranted “smear” campaign. The recall mechanism increases the opportunities for such campaigns, and might even appear to legitimize them. The problem we currently have in Canada of attracting our best people to public office will be exacerbated if recall is used often.

The third drawback is comprised of a cluster of drawbacks, all related to the ways in which policy is likely to be influenced when our policy-makers are continuously worried (as opposed to worried every four to five years) about their job security. The benefit, mentioned above, of tying MLAs closer to their constituents has the drawback of encouraging MLAs to become “parish pumpers” or advocates of their ridings to the exclusion of province-wide or societal interests.

Fourth, this problem will particularly undermine the effectiveness of the cabinet. Cabinet government is designed on a model of team work in which the entire team stands by a policy and, ideally, agrees to resign if that policy is not endorsed by a majority in the legislature. Cabinet members who cannot agree with a cabinet policy are asked to resign from the cabinet. Recall puts cabinet ministers in uncompromising situations; either a minister sides with the cabinet and risks instigating a recall campaign, or she sides with her constituents and must resign from cabinet.

Fifth, in terms of the quality of policy generated by government members and cabinet ministers who are constantly subject to recall, it seems that many of the challenges currently facing Canadian society and our provincial community would not be better addressed by encouraging legislators to take a more particularistic view of the public interests they are required to serve. In fact, many issues of current salience (such as restructuring the economy, social programmes, and environmentalism) are ones that require compromises between different sectors of the public. Democratic deliberation leading to such compromises may be poorly facilitated by elected representatives for whom compromise is likely to spell electoral recall.

Sixth, and through a more principled perspective, recall will disadvantage policy solutions that require compromise between different communities. Moreover, the well-being of the broader community—in this case, the overall good of the province—is likely to get short shrift in a system where recall is used often. Not only will our representatives have a disincentive to take care of the public good, but the electorate will not be encouraged, or forced, to focus on interests other than those of their riding.

In a pluralist society, governments which are committed to the principles of liberal democracy have the difficult task of encouraging public participation and deliberation while protecting disadvantaged minorities and facilitating compromise between different communities and groups. Two virtues of representative democracy are a broad representation of all interests—not simply those that are organized, wealthy, or otherwise dominant; and the opportunity for efficient policy-making amongst individuals who are better situated than is the population as a whole, to forge compromises. For the reasons outlined above, it is important that any legislation on recall and initiative not compromise these virtues.

Motion on Recall and Initiative

Whereas legislative recall in a parliamentary system is likely to:

1) disadvantage policy solutions which require compromise between different constituencies;

2) impair the ability of MLAs to tackle political issues which involve difficult choices between competing interests and, possibly, conflicting sectors of the public;

3) undermine cabinet and caucus solidarity and thus discourage “team work” in government;

4) invite political mischief by organized interest groups,

the BCCLA urges the British Columbia Legislature not to adopt legislation which allows for recall.

Whereas legislative initiative may have the consequence of increasing the influence of organized interest groups in our politics, it may, nevertheless, have the attribute of stimulating democratic debate and creating a more civic-minded public.

Therefore, the BCCLA urges the British Columbia Legislature to adopt legislation on initiative only if such legislation contains mechanisms by which the influence of organized and wealthy interest groups may be limited and controlled. The mechanisms of this sort recommended by the Select Standing Committee on pp. 30-32 of its report on recall and initiative ought to be incorporated into the legislation.

Notes

1. Report on Recall and Initiative, p. 21.

2. See, for example, C.B. Macpherson, The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy (Oxford, 1977) chps 4 and 5; Charles Taylor, “Alternative Futures,” in Reconciling the Solitudes: Essays on Canadian Federalism and Nationalism (McGill-Queens, 1993); Jean Bethke Elshtain, Democracy on Trial (The 1993 Massey Lectures) (Anasi, 1993).