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Referendum - risky populism or the way to keep gvt in check?

 
 
nimh
 
Reply Thu 15 May, 2003 08:31 pm
The case for the referendum - whether of binding or merely advisory character - has been made by a variety of groups from different political backgrounds. Lately, the case for the referendum has in Europe mostly been made with an eye to European Union consolidation - in the UK, Eurosceptics even founded a Referendum Party - and it won a number of seats in the Europarliament, too.

Thus, some conservatives now grasp for a tool of direct democracy to stop the outflow of administrative control to a European level hardly controlled by electorates, as a last resort to shore up national sovereignty. But of course the referendum in itself is hardly a conservative issue. In Holland, the referendum has traditionally been a campaign item for the small left-liberal party of Democrats, which was founded in the late sixties on a wave of demands for reforming the political system. Empowering citizens; the right to exercize one's say on a continuous basis rather than just once every four years; forcing representatives to be more literally that again - voted in to represent (their) voters' opinions, issue by issue.

I suspect a case could be made that it would be more authentically conservative to request respect for the elite that was called for government service; to respect its pool of expertise based on experience, and trust their steady hand, rather than to let the ebb and flood of the day's public opinion determine policy. For true leadership, that can only be implemented when granted the opportunity and stability to blossom.

But in this post-sixties day and age, many conservatives seem to perceive the ruling elite instead as a class of bureaucrats, out of touch with values of common sense, with patriotism and accountability - a chattering class that empowers itself to stage grandiose society-shaping projects which were never authorized by the citizen. And the referendum could just be the tool to restore the unity of people and government.

What do you think?
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fishin
 
  1  
Reply Fri 16 May, 2003 05:27 am
nimh - A request for more info - Here in the US we don't have any process for National Referrendums. Each state has rules for their own referrendums and some (like CA) are very loose rules while others are very strict. In CA it isn't unusual to have a hundred or so questions up for referrendum vote at one time which seems absurd to me (how is anyone supposed to comprehend and intelligently vote on over 100 items at one time??). Here in MA we may get 5 or 6 items that actually make it onto the referrendum ballot so it is much easier to focus on each question.

So anyway, how "loose" are the referrendum rules across the various EU nations?

To the core of your question, here at least, I think that there is a general feeling that the politicians have given up on representing the people that elected them. Instead of being a Representative or Senator that represents my district they just become another cog in the overall Federal or State level machine.

I see a limited referrendum power as a way to force the politicos to be responsive to the people that elect them. It's a way to curb their power and authority.
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fbaezer
 
  1  
Reply Fri 16 May, 2003 11:48 am
Most referenda are useless. A way some politicians find to shift the responsability to the people who elected them to work.

If you ask me, John Doe, I want less taxes, better public services, more public investment and social spending, no public debt... I want the cake, and to eat it too. Well, that can't be done.
So I choose, in both the Executive and the Legislative branch, the representatives with the best project (IMO) to allocate the resources.
If the people I elected choose not to choose and want me to decide directly, they are not doing their job.

Direct democracy is different from representative democracy.

Referenda should be limited to some specific social matters and the results should be locked to actual participation of the majority of the electorate in the referendum.
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nimh
 
  1  
Reply Fri 16 May, 2003 02:35 pm
fishin' wrote:
nimh - A request for more info - Here in the US we don't have any process for National Referrendums. Each state has rules for their own referrendums and some (like CA) are very loose rules while others are very strict. In CA it isn't unusual to have a hundred or so questions up for referrendum vote at one time which seems absurd to me (how is anyone supposed to comprehend and intelligently vote on over 100 items at one time??). Here in MA we may get 5 or 6 items that actually make it onto the referrendum ballot so it is much easier to focus on each question.


Yes. <nods>. I see there might be a few cross-Atlantic issues concerning frames of reference here. Thank you for pointing my head in the right direction that way - I might have to go back to the drawing board with this question.

Because from what I gather, the concept of "referendum" might represent something wholly different here and there. And now that you mention it, I did know - I read about those California ballots - just forgot about it again. The American practice is then perhaps most like the Swiss one, where referendums are also extremely regular and often are bundled so various questions can be voted on simultaneously.

Still, even in Switzerland the act itself also carries an important symbolic significance, marking the Swiss democracy as different than others, with the banner of direct democracy flying proudly. Whereas if I understand it right, the referendum questions in the US, even if one by one they might generate controversy, in themselves, as a practice, are a bit of a non-issue?

I can see that routinely having to go through sheets of questions would make the 'referendum experience' something of a day-to-day, administrative kind of thing: it's part of your citizens' homework, that's all. As such it would perhaps carry little of the symbolic portent attached to the Call For A Referendum (that's all caps Wink here. Because in most European countries, referendums either do not exist or are separately organised (away from the regular elections) about issues of immediate and far-reaching concern. Joining the EU or the EMU or not - that's the archetypical one.

Calling for installing referendums is like last resort protest politics - symbolising an attack on 'the established order'. Typically, those arguing for the referendum would be from the populist right or the populist left, with the 'sensible' moderates in the center fearing what impact giving gut feeling free reign would have on their carefully wrought policies (I'm caricaturising now).

Lemme look up some stuff, though do discuss on as you may!

Did the issue of being for or against using the referendum tool more figure at all in the Ross Perot, Jesse Ventura, etc platforms?
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steissd
 
  1  
Reply Fri 16 May, 2003 02:52 pm
Referenda as a tool for accepting or rejecting specific decisions is detrimental for the reasons Fbaezer mentioned.
Quote:
If you ask me, John Doe, I want less taxes, better public services, more public investment and social spending, no public debt... I want the cake, and to eat it too.

Feedback from the plain citizens should be obtained through polls that have only information collection purposes.
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fbaezer
 
  1  
Reply Wed 21 May, 2003 07:06 pm
Too many referenda bore the Swiss:

http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/20/international/europe/20SWIS.html
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georgeob1
 
  1  
Reply Wed 21 May, 2003 08:35 pm
Nimh,

Very interesting question. Could it be that as the EU Commission and the growing body of mostly bureaucratic "law" (or standardization) that it has established, together with the growing influence of the EU legislature, has shifted the focus away from the various(representative) national governments to the extent that the new interest in referendums is merely a way of establishing an indisputably authentic expression of the pubic will?
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nimh
 
  1  
Reply Wed 28 May, 2003 07:10 pm
georgeob1, yes, the new interest in referendums is definitely an expression of a sense of frustration about "establishing an indisputably authentic expression of the pubic will", i'd say - the call for referendums becomes louder as the sense of estrangement from government becomes bigger.

The background of this estrangement can be of varying kinds. Here in Holland, for example, we had eight years of a left-centre-right government that left little parliamentary opposition of any clear political profile; an excess in consensualism, perhaps, that led to the revival both of fringe parties and calls for stuff like referendums.

But yes, you're also right about "Europe" playing an important role. We go through minutely and extravagantly publicized election cycles for national and regional parliaments that in fact have ever less to decide over, as the real power is increasingly devolved up to the European level - away from one's vote's effects. This sense that, you can't change anything about what they do, anyway, definitely plays a role.

One issue I would like to take up with you, though, is about how "public will" <giggles - sorry, only now see your spelling mistake> is most authentically expressed in the context of EU politics. You mention the national governments as the more representative, the more "authentic" thus, I gather; contrasted with the bureaucratic body of the EC and the EU legislature.

One could make the opposite case - well, at least concerning an ideal scenario of full potentials. The EC does at least correspond to a European legislature - and in its policies and measures thus is accountable to a directly elected parliament. (Only thing lacking there is the still incomplete authorities of that parliament).

The voice of the national governments, in the context of EU policies, on the other hand de facto comes down to my PM (who isn't even elected) going to Thessaloniki to hammer it out with other government leaders - delegated by "The Netherlands" with a carte blanche to conduct his negotiations. And the only accountability involved there is that theoretically, my national parliament could subsequently throw out the entire deal they'll reach there, but that's unlikely to happen. So in terms of expressing public will, I'm not necessarily sure the council of government leaders has better cards than the Commission, bureaucratic a monstrum it may indeed be.

Anyway - I'm opening an entire thread about this, so do come visit (you'll be among the few, I suspect, dry as the matter is): http://www.able2know.com/forums/viewtopic.php?t=8031
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georgeob1
 
  1  
Reply Wed 28 May, 2003 08:04 pm
nimh,

Just saw it myself ! Well the pubic will does often trump even the authentic public will.

I find it remarkable that the EU has accomplished so much standardization of public policy without having to face directly the inevitable question of federalism -- is the EU to be a sovereign union of states or an association of sovereign states? After about four unsatisfactory years under the Articles of Confederation the fledgling United States undertook to write a constitution. After about eight years of wrangling they ended up with a result that few foresaw - a sovereign union. Even then a bloody civil war was required fifty years later to finally resolve the issue.

Perhaps it is the very complexity of the overlapping authorities of the Commission, the Heads of States, and the EU and national legislatures, plus the wiggle room left to states in conforming to EU norms that has enabled it to work.

It seems though that fairly soon the tough issues will emerge - union or association, small states vs large, etc. I find it difficult to imagine that certain of the European nations will accept full integration and the loss of their sovereignty - Norway, Denmark, the UK, and - the Netherlands come to mind here.
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nimh
 
  1  
Reply Fri 30 May, 2003 09:21 pm
georgeob1 wrote:
Perhaps it is the very complexity of the overlapping authorities of the Commission, the Heads of States, and the EU and national legislatures, plus the wiggle room left to states in conforming to EU norms that has enabled it to work.


I think you may well have something there, george, it's a very good point. In a way, a degree of carefully left ambiguities has actually made it possible for this increasing European body of institutions, legislations, procedures to be put into place, gain speed, and start working. Of course the fundamental choices are still going to have to be made some day. But (as I wrote on the other thread, where I quoted you), by that time the possible conflict about it will be buffered by everything that has been put in place, under the protection of that degree of ambiguity, already.

Thats actually the way they go about accesssion negotiations with new members states, too. Postponing the trickiest questions to the last, they first go through these expansive other chapters of legislations, that the new member states have to integrate into their lawbooks; they go through detailed negotiations about all the various smaller matters, during which the new states will also gain substantial rights and funds - and all this time the candidate member state's government has to defend the process at home, a momentum in public opinion builds up ...

By the time the most contentious chapter finally does come up, in the very last phase of the negotiations, there is no way either party (EU or new member state) can still back out of the process without enormous loss of face. So they are forced to forge the necessary compromises on that, too. Perhaps the same dynamic will go for the EU as a whole, too.
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