Monday, 14 May 2007

On accountability & Swiss democracy

With the sponsorship scandal & Gomery inquiry helping bring down the Martin-lead Liberal government, and with Harper’s crew successfully bringing government accountability reform into their previous campaign – it might be said that Afghanistan (& Green issues lately) aside, the past couple of years in Canadian politics has been largely influenced by accountability issues. But with the passing of the Conservative Accountability Act and the recent NDP uncovering of a corporate contribution loophole in said Act - it’s as if the debate is dominated by ethical conduct, transparency, lobbying and how political campaigns are financed.

These are all worthy issues for reform and I am very glad efforts these things are all part of the debate - my concern with all of this, however, is what happens when the public is genuinely pissed off with their government; when they have been elected fairly and have not broken any ethical or transparency rules but are passing legislation that the public at large is in heavy disagreement with? It’s impossible to predict from a campaign the full spectrum of activities any government will proceed with in the course of their term in power – and though highly unlikely in Canada (since seriously negative public opinion usually leads to a modification of policies on their own), if a government were to actually proceed with passing legislation that genuinely angered a decent majority of citizens - as a representative of the people, are there any options that can be developed for the angered public to take beyond simply waiting for the next election to remove them from power?

While I would never advocate imposing much of Swiss law onto Canada, after spending a couple of years in Geneva I did come to admire some aspects of how they practice democracy. Though it can be an excruciatingly slow process at times, their system of referendums is quite interesting …If government has passed something drastic that is not well received, concerned citizens can form a petition which if verified to contain ‘x’ number of names – an automatic referendum is scheduled on the issue where the public can vote to uphold or strike down whichever aspect of the legislation is under criticism (it can only be stricken if a certain quota of voters is met). When I asked Toronto MP Carolyn Bennett about this in her weekly web chat, her response was rightfully that although it is democracy practiced at a high level, the world of Swiss referendums is inefficient and can take a very long time (up to 4 years!!) to complete. While I completely agree with her here, I’ll also be the first to acknowledge that there must be ways in which we could adopt a modified version of legally-binding referendums that respects the basic tenets of the Swiss style into a more timely and practically relevant process.

One would hope that the combination of drastic majority-government action & negative public opinion would never get this far in Canada (poor PR often leads to policy modifications on its own). If it did however, in giving the public the possibility of veto power, it would likely force governments to better educate the general public so that they can at least better understand the reasons behind a seemingly controversial and complicated piece of legislation.



Ps – FYI, the Swiss voting populace is fairly conservative on referendum voting, only approving about 1/10th of the referendums placed before them; much more common is an acceptance of a modified version of the criticized initiative that has been rewritten by government - a happy medium if you must.
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