Referendums only one tool to study, decide issues

by Margret Kopala

Letter to the editor published in The Ottawa Citizen July 23, 1997

Jim Coyle rightly questions today’s trend to referendums ("Why Ontario should not adopt referendums," July 11) Such a trend takes us perilously close to the politics of the gladiator ring - thumbs up, thumbs down - and all in the name of democracy.

Ever since that wintry Manitoba day when the Castonguay-Dobbie Commission commenced hearings and no one came, it has been clear that our instruments of consultation and inquiry are in need of fine-tuning, if not outright overhaul. Referendums may not be the answer, but neither are the countless commissions and boards that have been set to drift, sometimes aimlessly, for years on end.

Alternatives to referendums and commissions exist. At the University of Texas, Prof.Fishkin has coined the term "deliberative" democracy , involving a group of citizens who become fully informed before delivering an assessment on an issue. At Trent University here in Ontario, Prof.Vaughan Lyon promoted the creation of local assemblies to advise elected representatives, while regional and municipal councils have taken some of this to heart by establishing "citizen panels" to advise on specific issues.

Some parliamentarians have suggested that the work of commissions and inquiries be subsumed by Senate committees, while a recent federal discussion paper, Reforming Commissions of Enquiry, suggests departmental investigations, parliamentary committees, task forces or round tables.

Such suggestions are in keeping with restoring the highest and best traditions of our parliamentary system - a representative democracy in which the individual member of Parliament has a voice and a vote in the process but in which party discipline allows legislative follow-through.

Of course, there will always be issues in which parliamentarians are in a conflict of interest. These may include MPs pensions and salaries, electoral reform, constitutional change and questionable government conduct. For the latter, independent commission of enquiry are an absolute necessity, while the best solution to conflict of interest on constitutional matters is the constituent assembly. Following the referendum defeat of the Charlottetown Accord, former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed suggested such an assembly consist of people who would decline political involvement for a designated period after serving. I suggest such an assembly be convened once every generation to address the constitutional issues of the day.

No single instrument, then, is a panacea. And, indeed, as Jim Coyle points out, some questions might just lend themselves to the simple yes-no proposition of a referendum. They key is to find the right instrument for the right job, be it public enquiry, consultation of constitutional renewal.

Margret Kopala

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