Saturday, February 25, 2017

Switzerland's newest citizen-generated referendums

Once again Switzerland runs ahead of the rest of the world in pursuing democratic means of governing. For once again, the other day, the Swiss used citizen generated referendums to vote on complex issues not often given such freedom of decision by other countries. That latter includes Canada – where it does not even permit referendums, either nationally or provincially, to be initiated by citizens – upon any subject. .
The newest issues in Switzerland included one where they voted to permit quicker citizenships acquisition by younger people (under the age of 25) if their parents and grandparents had been living in the country. This is similar to fast-tracking citizenship to foreign spouses of Swiss nationals, according to a recent Sun Media story. This may be far-reaching to a country where non-citizens apparently make up one-fourth of the population. Normally to obtain citizenship in Switzerland requires 12 years of residency, mastery of at least one of Switzerland's four national languages, and honouring the “fundamental values” of the Swiss constitution (such as equal rights for women and men, and freedom of conscience).
But, at the same time the Swiss rejected a complex tax reform which would have gotten Switzerland more in line with international standards – according to the report. This would have scrapped a two-track tax system that offers lower rates to foreign firms to lure investment. Proponents of the current laws felt that in a country of few exportable natural resources such laws were needed to keep their country competitive.

 These recent referendums supplement the democratic processes followed by California (see last blog on that subject) and other US states in allowing citizens to vote upon complicated matters where enough of them want to be permitted a say. Both areas do very well in most aspects of freedom and productivity. Why cannot Canada move forward in such a fashion? Does any federal or provincial political party have that far-reaching right as part of their policy? Only one person within the dozen running for federal Conservative Party leadership has that as part of their proposed platform, and that is Kellie Leitch. Personally, I wish her luck!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

17 Referendums in California

California has 38 million people, more than the whole of Canada, and is considered to be the 5th biggest economy in the world. Its median family income is some $61,000, above average within the States. It is also very complex with more Latin Americans than whites living there, according to the Economist Magazine of Oct. 15
And it will be having some 17 referendums to be voted upon by the citizens at the upcoming federal election on Nov. 9. That is apparently about average there for even-numbered years since 1996. All this is readily researched via Google in a setting called “ballotpedia”.
One referendum proposal for a $!5.00 minimum wage was withdrawn by the advocates after the Calif. state legislature passed a law raising such wage to such level by 2022. Support and opposition for all of the ones on the ballot varies considerably, of course, but monies expended for and against are kept track of, as one can see in the following paragraph.
The issues that the California electors will vote on are very varied. They include marijuana permission (of which some $18 million has thus far been raised in support and $2 million contra); gun control; healthcare and drug prices; plastic bags (of which $4million has been raised in support and $6 million contra); repealing or altering the death penalty ($9 million in support against $13 million opposed); increase of tobacco taxes, (for $30 million, against $66 million); new expenditures that cost over $2 billion, (monies in favour - $6 million , opposed $12 million); bilingual education in public schools (of which $4 million has been raised in favour ). This latter question is also fully referred to in the said Economist magazine – and fully supported by it.
Fifteen have been inserted after citizen initiative and acquisition of the required number of supporters, and two were by legislative request.
In California, before being allowed upon the ballot, one needs to obtain 585,000 signatures within 180 days after approval of the ballot wording by the AG's dept. , and that must also be prior to a deadline, which this year is July 8. The 180 days start from when the AG completes a review of the wording – and provides a title, and allows for 30 days of the proposing citizens to review.
The number of supporters required this year (585,000) for insertion upon the ballot is 5% of those who last voted for governor.
Over 100 initiatives were filed altogether, in time to potentially qualify (but only15 “made it”) .
And just how many such democratically driven, citizen approved, or otherwise, referendums will be voted upon during the next few years in any province or indeed the country of Canada – likely, nil. Although some of you may argue that surely if our federal government wants to alter the way we have voted in its general elections for the past 100 years – surely that will be approved or otherwise, only if it submits the question to a citizen referendum process?
Anyhow, it is clear that many difficult issues are being decided in some states of the US by the people – not only by the elected representatives; - a better form of democracy, surely; and it certainly seems to be working in the very successful, complicated state of California. And they do appear more frequently in the news these days, all over the world, don't they?

 However, in Australia recently, a bill which would have referred a decision on gay marriage, to a national referendum was blocked by opposition MP's because they thought it would be costly and incite homophobia. So, - it is not an appealing idea everywhere yet, not just in Canada, is it?

Monday, September 26, 2016

Swiss people support security

The Swiss people have just recently backed their government's actions related to security concerns, according to Reuter's newspaper. In a manner similar to many other countries, the government had proposed to effect more surveillance to overcome possible militant or terrorist attacks. This included the possible use of drones and manners of hacking computer systems.
However some opponents of the law, especially within the young people's wing of the Social Democratic Party obtained enough signatures (50,000) to force the issue to a referendum of the people. They thought the measures were too severe.
But , the people voted to support the provisions. Switzerland had not yet suffered the terrorist-type attacks seen so often elsewhere in Europe. Other countries, such as France and Poland have expanded “spy agency” powers following Islamist attacks there, emphasizing security over privacy. “Newer, better tools” are needed to reduce possibilities of such attacks in Switzerland also, suggested a professor of public policy at the University of St. Gallen.
On the same ballot were an initiative aiming to require businesses to use resources more efficiently, and one boosting retirement pension payments by ten percent. They also were both defeated.
The Swiss certainly do employ aspects of democracy to effective limits. As a result they have become one of the world's most socially and economically effective jurisdictions.

 If only we in Canada could use Direct Democracy to keep our politicians in check! 

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

British referendum - and others

Britain certainly exhibited a major democratic twist by its Brexit referendum recently. Besides its vitally significant majority opinion to leave the EU, other important decisions from the citizens of other jurisdictions keep happening (except in Ontario, or indeed, Canada).
In Oklahoma in November will be a “ballot measure” aimed to raise some $600 million to pay a $5,000 per year increase in teacher’s salaries. Oklahoma, it seems, happens to have the lowest paid teachers in America. The method to raise that sum is to be by adding a penny in the dollar to state sales taxes.
It is difficult to raise taxes in Oklahoma, according to the Economist Magazine of May 28, because of previous citizen initiatives, which require 75% of legislators to agree before doing so. This “initiative”, if passed, would partly overcome that political difficulty.
Twin Falls Idaho is an “ultra-conservative” community within Idaho, according to the June 4 Economist magazine. Recently a group tried to obtain 3842 signatures for an initiative to close a refugee centre there.
However, the main promoters of the idea were unable to obtain that required number to have the referendum even considered. They obtained only 894 within the legally mandated 6 month period.
Public discussions were held; of course the media had its points about the proposal. But, that local citizens can even pursue such an issue via a method which would be clearly very democratic, shows that some nearby areas do employ complex citizen-initiated referendums. They do pursue issues in a modern, democratic manner.
Getting back to Britain – no matter your viewpoint, one can understand the utility of such a process – clearly a democratic means of determining an important issue. However, it might well have been better if it were only aspects of the union that were voted upon, rather than the whole shebang; - such as immigration quotas, for example. Mr. Cameron the British PM who promoted the stay in the EU referendum must wish he had followed such precedent.
For in most areas employing referendums such issues are initiated by the citizens – not by the head government itself. Indeed in such well organized places such as Switzerland it is only such citizen initiated referendums that are allowable.
However, in Canada we cannot, it seems, even yet persuade our government that to change the manner of electing our supposed representatives, it should only be concluded via a nation-wide, democratically conclusive referendum. It should not simply be determined by the elected representatives themselves.

 Are we that backward in Canada about democracy? Its meaning is – “citizens rule”. Other parts of the world employ it – in usually carefully monitored referendums. Why cannot we do so?  

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Recent European Referendums

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Many new referendums are being noticed by one mainline periodical these days. In The Economist magazine of February 27, reference was made to an effort in Switzerland to “strip private banks of the power to create money”.  Enough signatures were submitted to the government to “trigger a national referendum on the subject”. The proposed alternative to the current system, it was claimed, would “nudge lenders into behaving more prudently”.
         As required under the Swiss system, the government has to respond officially to every issue proposed to be put to a referendum. It is opposed to the idea for various reasons, one being that because recent rules on “reserves and capital have all been tightened” since the recent banking crisis, the referendum idea is not necessary. However, the campaigners for the referendum think the government’s answer is disappointing. The referendum will not happen until next year at the earliest, giving lots of time to more fully inform the voters about both sides of the ramifications.
         But, it is certainly rather amazing to our eyes on this side of the Atlantic that such an issue could  be considered and decided by the citizens in a democratic vote.
         Another vote is taking place in Italy in June. A new “populist” group formed there called “Five Star Movement” is becoming suddenly rather widely acclaimed. Among other activities, it is supporting a 37-year-old woman as the new mayor for Rome, and it seems she has a fair chance of success.
         However, it is through its use of the internet to obtain   various views that this group is becoming best known.  As The Economist of March 12 puts it, “disdainful of conventional democracy, its leaders believe the internet offers a chance to return to Athenian-style direct democracy, in which every major political issue would be submitted to an online referendum.”
         It will be very interesting to see just how far this method goes in the upcoming election process.  Modern, quick communication methods should enable use of more referendums to clarify voters’ views and dramatically expand democracy.
         Then there was the recent referendum in Holland reported in some depth in The Economist of April 2. After years of negotiations, the European Union finally thought they had reached an Association Agreement with Ukraine. However, a campaign in the Netherlands to block this agreement began last summer by a “Eurosceptic” social-media group. It selected the issue partly as a test of the new referendum law in the Netherlands which came into force on July 1, 2015. It quickly gathered 470,000 online signatures (needed were only 300,000) to force a vote on the subject.
         The referendum just passed on April 6, much to the surprise and dismay of the other 27 EU states that had already approved the process. How it will alter the proposed Association Agreement is not certain at the moment. As The Economist reported, the anticipated opposition to the agreement came as a bit of a surprise because the Netherlands had suffered more than most to the Russian-backed “war of secession” in the Ukraine. There are many opposing views now coming out which perhaps re-enforced the decision of the many who opposed the agreement.
         The Economist article, printed before the actual vote occurred, suggested that the vote, though close, would probably “lose”. It didn’t! The article also stated that the “defeat (of the agreement) would be felt far beyond the Netherlands’ borders.”
         Referendums represent the views of the majority of the people, however. And if one believes in democracy, one must go along with the majority’s decisions, not those of “oligarchs (brought) into our camp by false promises” as is claimed by those who support the new referendum law in the Netherlands.  

         When will we in Canada ever trust our citizens to vote upon binding referendums?  Or are we just basically another “oligarchy” going through the motions of democratic changes.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Reecent Economist Magazine and Referendums

-->Even the prestigious Economist Magazine can become “elitist”. In its Jan. 16 edition it criticized the various (and many) places, especially  in Europe which are about to (or recently have) conducted referendums. These referendums were normally instigated by the “leaders” to clarify the feelings of their followers.
         They came from such countries or states, as – the Ukraine, the Dutch, the Danes, Greece, - of course Switzerland (but that one was initiated by the citizens), California, (likewise) , etc. The article even referred to an apparent quote by Margaret Thatcher – who “dismissed referendums as - ”a device of dictators and demagogues”. (Just who was that talking?)
         It refers to “legalistic jiggery-pokery” by EU politicians  to overcome potential triggering of referendums. It does add the comment that – “all (this) smells horribly undemocratic to some”. And it goes on to say “national governments can shoulder some of the blame for not being clear with voters about what their arrangements with the EU imply”.
         However, the article does conclude with a mollifying statement: – “founding father  Jean Monnet,   wrote that he “thought it wrong to consult the peoples of Europe about the structure of a community of  which they had no practical experience” - That may have worked when Eurocrats restricted themselves to tinkering with agricultural subsidies and fisheries policy. Not any more: the age of referendums is here  to stay”.
         At least the writers admit that direct democracy is becoming more often used by citizens than before. And, I would add that it is about time. The “elites” have not done a great job in aligning the various states and peoples into a well-functioning system. Maybe the citizens can emplace more commons sense into what is going on via a few more referendums.
         Particularly if it is the citizens themselves who initiate – in proper manners - such referendums. One must either admit to being in favour of – democracy (the will of the majority of citizens) or to that  of autocratic elites. To which is the Economist mag. supportive? To which are you? 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Albertans Are Seeking Referendums

            Extraordinary efforts are being pursued by some Albertans to try to change the mind of the 8 month  old NDP government in Alberta.  According to reporter Jan Gerson, in the National Post on January 11,  people are actively complaining all over the province.
         They are completely frustrated by some decisions resulting  from the surprising ascent of the new Premier Rachel Notley.  Such  include the idea of instituting  a carbon tax. Some are also wildly opposed to the proposals to improve farm safety. There are regional groups all over including, in Grande prairie and Red Deer  ”incensed by the NDP’s ceaseless rat-a-tat-tat legislation” – according to the report.
         Some are even trying to find a way to “recall” Noxley.  The methods include a serious effort to present a petition  of  80,000 names  to the  Lt. Governor, Lois Mitchell.
         Mob rule has been threatened such that the opposition leader Brian Jean has had to issue a public plea to keep the tone of debate more civil. Considerable, new unemployment   is compounding the problems. But, George Clark, the leader of the group trying to obtain the petition said – “I’m trying  to help those people direct that anger into some form of positive action”.
          As the article suggests – “Western Canadian politics have a long-standing affection for direct democracy by which Alberta’s populace can force its government to hold a plebiscite:” (my comment – they really mean a binding referendum). 
         Although clearly there is no legislation to permit such action now,   Clark, is hoping to find a legal arrow  to “lift the spell of the last election and restore Alberta to its normal state”. One activist named Ben, who would not leave his last name because of receiving threats,  says that he knows that the petition has no legal force; “and that the Lt. Governor is not an instrument of the popular will. But he  is doing it anyhow”. “What else do you do, he asks. Its about accountability”. 
          Formally instituted Direct Democracy in Alberta  could certainly now be very helpful there,  say I.