How important decisions get made - look at what the Brits just did and what Canada did when it chose the flag we now have.

Rivers 100x100By Ray Rivers

July 1, 2016


Brexit was a simple referendum question – leave or remain. But dumbing down the referendum question doesn’t make the answer any better. Leaving the European Union is a complicated matter involving trade and other economic considerations as well as a broad swath of social issues, including immigration and settlement policy. Is it little wonder that the voters were confused.


They did get their country back – not much left to work with.

Media reports indicated that some Leave voters confessed to regretting their decision as early as the morning after. The truth is that many voters were understandably ignorant of what they were actually voting for, as evidenced by the stampede to a google search for EU. Pity you say – a bit late for voters to struggle trying to figure what the EU actually stands for, after having just voted to leave it. Britain was only part of the EU since the 1970’s after all.

Churchill is reported to have once said that the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter. And this mess is exactly what we should expect when we overlay an ad hoc exercise in direct democracy on top of our normal representative system of governance. So why not make sure that our indirect democracy is as representative as possible.

After all we elect and give license to our MPs to make these complicated decisions so we don’t have to get into the weeds – it’s not our job. And Brexit is about as weedy as it gets. But like Canada, Britain is stuck with an outdated first-past-the-post electoral system. Given voting splits among various parties, the governing Conservatives there came up the middle and were elected by just over a third (36.9%) of the electors.

Canada has had its fair share of grief over referenda in the past. Who could ever forget Mulroney’s divisive Charlottetown Accord. Then there were the two Quebexit plebiscites, the second one coming within a hair off creating a Brexit-like crisis.

Canadian flag at Quebec referendum

The referendum on Quebec leaving confederation was a very close vote. Imagine if they had won?

Had Quebec voted to leave, would aboriginal communities have demanded separation from Quebec, as the Scots may now do? Or what about those English-speaking parts of Montreal and Hull, across the river from Ottawa and dependent on national capital for its livelihood? One might argue that we escaped only through plain luck. But unlike Cameron who had no contingency process, Jacques Parizeau had a secret exit plan. His morning-after involved nationalizing military bases located on Quebec soil.

In the last federal election Justin Trudeau campaigned on electoral reform in order to make our democracy more representative. The loyal opposition is now demanding a referendum to seal any kind of deal on electoral reform. Mostly that is pure survival instinct on their part. Almost any kind of change will make the Tory’s lot in life less favourable – reduce their chances of ever forming government – unless they broaden their appeal beyond the stereotypical right-wing voter.

So the Conservatives are putting their eggs into the referendum basket, having watched the earlier electoral reform campaigns in Ontario and B.C. go down in flames. Still they are part of a parliamentary committee looking at options. One option, some sort of proportional representation, would entail reconfiguring our parliamentary chambers and most likely require a constitutional amendment. Fortunately Canada has a comprehensive constitutional amending formula, arguably superior to any national plebiscite.

And of course representation could be improved, were elected candidates to command the support of a majority of voters, as a first, second or third choice. This kind of change, use of a ranked or preferential balloting process, also referred to as a single transferable vote, would involve a relatively simple modification to ballot counting. In fact ranked ballots are what Ontario has invited municipalities to adopt for their next local elections – without any requirement for a referendum.

New Zealand is a case study for a parliamentary democracy which has also institutionalized some measure of direct democracy. Of course it is a small country with its own ethnic and economic diversity, but on the whole is arguably more homogenous than Canada. That argues for New Zealand as a place to pilot the complementary use of direct democracy. This nation of about four million people introduced its own mixed-member proportional representation system following an overwhelmingly positive referendum, and continuance of that system was confirmed by another.

In fact New Zealand has developed a referendum law and process to guide it. But even a New Zealander might eventually find referenda problematic. For example, thanks to their direct democracy going awry, they totally blew their search for a new flag and are now stuck with the old Australian-looking one.

Flag at house of commons

Getting this flag was not an easy decision.

Contrast that to how Lester Pearson managed to bring in Canada’s new flag while operating with only a minority government. And recall how Kim Campbell defused the abortion debate in this country without any referendum at all. As we celebrate Canada Day today, let us recall that we didn’t need a referendum to adopt a new flag, to re-write our national anthem, to repatriate our constitution, to enter into free trade agreements and a host of other things we entrust to our elected representatives. And they could and will better represent us before long.


Ray Rivers is an economist and author who writes weekly on federal and provincial issues, applying his 25 years of involvement with federal and provincial ministries.  Rivers’ involvement in city matters led to his appointment as founding chair of Burlington’s Sustainable Development Committee.  He was also a candidate in the 1995 provincial election

Background links:

Scottish Independence –  EU Google Search –  Electoral Reform

More Brexit New Zealand Voting –   First Past the Post –  Single Transferable Vote

Proportional Representation –   BC Referendum –    Electoral ReformNZ Flag –

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