Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Should a critical decision which impacts a country in the shorter or longer run be decided by a referendum?

MAYBE this will be the beginning of a new trend. Referendum on whether to have schools or not ? Whether to have grammar at schools? Whether to screen movies at colleges?  Whether to have a timetable for classes in a college? Whether to declare three day working week? and so on. Who knows? Referendum is the new fashion word!

A referendum is a form of direct democracy, whereas in a representative democracy, the government decides policy after Parliamentary debates etc. Referendums put the onus on the voter in what is essentially a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ choice. We cannot give the decision power of a referendum to the people on issues which need firm governance. I am not talking about governance at gun point. On several issues where personal discretion is involved and in issues which affect the people's life we need opinion polls to gauge the minds of the people. For example, do we make the minimum age of 18 or 21 for voting? This may be referred to public. The government cannot decide objectively on 18 or 19 or 20. These ages more or less represent same levels of maturity. 

A judicial system cannot go for public referendum about the quantum of punishment. Maybe, opinion polls on whether to implement capital punishment or not can be held, but a referendum? Certainly Not.

referendum (in some countries is synonymous with plebiscite, or a vote on a ballot question) is a direct vote in which an entire electorate is asked to either accept or reject a particular proposal.

But on matters where they need to arrive at objective decision, they can give opinions via opinion polls, but it is up to the governing body to decide after an effective debate - after all they are elected by the people and they can make law by effective debates. For passing each law, the referendum is not held but elected representatives decide after effective debates. After all, elections are held to enable governing bodies to decide on people's behalf. When people at large cannot objectively decide since many factors are to be weighed before deciding, then referendum cannot be an option. 

Now, the Brexit issue. In theory, Cameron could ignore the public and disregard a Brexit vote.  But In practice he has repeatedly promised that the result will stick – and there may be no going back on that line now.  That is his view but now more than 3 million people have petitioned for second referendum. When more than 100,000 people ask for a second referendum and the online petition has crossed this, the British parliament is obligated to look into this. The website for the online petition for second referendum is crashing in Britain with each passing day witnessing increasing traffic. The result of uninformed voting in the first phase of voting is evident by the signatories for the petition and the top trending Google search in UK post Brexit, the very telling “What is the EU?”

This incident brings in the understanding of pros and cons of referendum.

Arguments put forward in favor of referendums are:

- It is a real form of direct democracy
- They increase political participation
- Referendum can serve as a brake on “elective dictatorships” during a government’s five years span
- Referendum may provide a clear answer to a question the government might be ‘asking’
- If the government listens to the people, it is likely to be gaining public approval and support
- Referendum can unite a divided lot
-Referendum can provide a mandate for controversial policies.
-Referendum legitimizes important constitutional issues such as devolution.

Arguments put forward against the use of referendums are

- Referendums are inconsistent with the belief in parliamentary sovereignty.
- Issues might be too complex for a mere yes/no vote or for the public to understand
-The regular use of referendum could lead to apathy among the public. They may get frustrated with frequent referrals 
-There are effective low cost alternatives: opinion polls and by-elections. A referendum is an expensive undertaking and not suitable for multiple uses.
- A low turnout can distort results. Even in Brexit referendums, there is a view that the climate also played spoil sport as many booth stations were empty 
-The results of a referendum might not be decisive may in fact lead to a sharply divided constituency. 
-Funding differences can affect results as government money can pour into a referendum and the group on the other side may well be handicapped on this front
-Referendum might result in “the tyranny of the majority”. If the majority votes for it, does the government go ahead with it? What about the wishes of the minority? How are these safeguarded?
- Opinion polls can gauge the mood, but legislations based on referendums will throw away the representative democracy environment under which we currently operate. 

To end, these words of Chanakya are relevant.

A nation is NOT governed on popular opinion alone. It is built on the knowledge, wisdom and expertise of its leaders. 

If popular opinions are not in the direction of the objective legislation as derived by the elected parliament, sufficient efforts have to be spent by legislators to shape the opinion in such a way as to reach an effective alignment. A referendum may not be the best answer, but for those who need to make the tough decision, it is an easy solution.

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