Perhaps what I will be writing here now doesn’t exactly fit under the header, but it is about politics and I am Dutch, so it’ll have to do. It will be, by far, my most opinionated piece in this series up until today, just warning you in advance.
Apparently several people still think a referendum is something good. Power to the people, direct democracy, no backbenchers deciding for the man in the street, plenty of pros. I will tell you why it is not a good idea.
Referenda can only work in tiny societies. The idea in itself isn’t bad at all. If it is important, let the people decide. Unfortunately this is impossible in any western country at the moment. The way most democracies are organised these days, a referendum can result, at its most, into an oligarchy. Few decide for many, not all decide for all.
In the real world only few people actually vote in a referendum. Looking at elections in Europe over the last years, turnout for non-popular elections, like the European Parliament, are at about 40%. A good referendum might get the same percentage. Which still means that out of 16.300.081 Dutch people, just over 12 million have voting rights. If 40% actually show up, this means that 4.8 million do the effort. So with less than 2.5 million votes, a referendum could actually be won. So yes, 51% is good enough, but in my, not-randomly chosen example, nearly 14 million people didn’t vote for the same choice as the winning choice.
Obviously, that’s just numbers. Anyone in favour can say: ‘they should have come’. Good argument. Yet not exactly realistic, if you want the people to decide, they should all have the opportunity. Just by sending out ballots, you do not get millions to show up automatically.
My second problem is the decision for a referendum. Who takes it? When? Why? At what moment our elected representative decides that he/she cannot decide for me anymore? Which subject is important enough for anyone to have a personal vote, instead of an indirect one? There can only be two answers without problems. Either every vote (impossible) or none. Hence I chose for none. If one subject is important enough, any other can be as well.
The third problem is that we do have indirect democracy. I vote for someone to represent me for a certain period, 4 years normally, and I want that person to do her job (I have voted for women only for over a decade now). If on certain subjects she lets me do the voting myself, I take away the base from her existence as a MP. Why vote if a referendum exists?
Fourthly there is the matter of knowledge. How can I judge on complicated matters like social reform, weapons of mass destruction, environmental pollution or international politics? Or as I have to do on June the 1st, on the European Constitution? I consider myself fairly well educated, I have travelled, I teach and read a lot of books, yet I couldn’t possibly know all implications to a fair judgment. With all do respect, I wouldn’t want ‘the man in the street’ to vote either, decide about my future. Politician is a profession, let’s keep it that way.
My fifth argument is more practical: who decides on the exact wording of the question? Simple example: “Are you in favour of the Death Penalty?” or “Do you oppose the Death Penalty?” will give different results, though basically it is the same question. I could also rephrase the question to “Would you, given certain circumstances, be opposed the reintroduction of capital punishment, eventually leading to fatal results, if given to repeat offenders of serious, second category or higher, crimes?”
Did I make my point? It is impossible to ask a completely independent unbiased question in a referendum.
At six the issue of impopular decisions. Off course refugees can come here, but nobody wants them in their home town (NIMBY). Where do we plan garbage dumps, chemical waste and huge factories? It is impossible with a referendum around. A politician can make an important decision, against the will of the people, because it is for the benefit of the same people. Necessity are trustable politicians, a rare breed as well, but an argument against established politics is not an argument pro-referendum.
Lastly a lot of referenda can still be overturned by the elected representatives. Why would I bother going to the poll, to see the parliament overrule the result a week later anyway? If they need my opinion, they can call me, e-mail me, ask me at my door, use opinion polls or whatever, but don’t bother organising a costly showcase referendum if the results are only meant as a hint for representatives on how to vote. It is not worth it.
I can imagine a tiny community somewhere in the pacific using direct democracy, but for me, I am happy enough as it is, even given the disadvantages, with indirect democracy. And in an indirect democracy a referendum has no place.