The basic idea here is that government by referendum is essentially an abandonment of the responsibilities of government, namely to protect all members of the community. Referendums happen when either (a) a government can’t get the agreement of its own members for a course of action, or (b) when it wants to absolve itself of all responsibility for the consequences of a dubious course of action.
A referendum is basically an instant opinion poll of a voting population about some issue of consequence at that moment in time. It’s not a measured consideration of the pros and cons, it’s a snap poll.
Vulnerable to this are minorities whose rights are put up for a referendum vote. Most common in Europe recently are rights for gay marriage. Some have succeeded, most have failed. Gay people have been offered up for crucifixion at the hands of religious bigots by a simple, popular vote, which depends not on reason, but on the whim of the moment.
The article makes this point:
Making an opinion poll a mandate for government policy, especially where that policy relates to human rights, is an abrogation of government responsibility. If it turns out not to have been in the interests of the country, who’s to blame? The government or an opinion poll?
There are also strong arguments that referenda are merely an expression of majoritarianism, devoid of checks and balances. In the recent Brexit referendum, 37 per cent of the electorate voted to leave the EU. The rest either voted remain or didn’t vote. It’s hard to fathom in what way the outcome of that referendum represents the public will when 63 per cent did not vote to leave the EU. Could the death penalty be restored on 37 per cent of the vote? Or the recriminalisation of abortion or homosexuality?
The problem with referendums – certainly without extensive safeguards – is that they can use the veneer of democracy to undermine a democratic society. Referendums and human rights do not mix.
I am very much concerned about the consequences of referenda on gay people. We have much to lose. If a referendum can confirm our rights this year, can another referendum deny them the next, according to the whim of whatever majority rules at the time? Gay folk are a minority and can never become a majority. So we should stay vulnerable to majority whim?
We see the same argument with Brexit. The first referendum narrowly voted to leave. Of the electorate, they were a minority of 37%. The rest either voted to stay, or didn’t bother to vote, suggesting they were content with the status quo, or at least not so upset they wanted to change it. Yet the Brextremists barge on, confident in the support of the British public which they do not have.
Was that referendum result legitimate? Should a second referendum be given to allow the electorate to change its mind?
I think it should. I think the first referendum was a very bad idea, and David Cameron rightly resigned when he lost it. He should never have had it. But since he did, we deserve a rethink. And a chance to change our minds. If the voters are so bloody minded as to reject relationships with Europe, let then have their forthright say. If they want to reconsider, likewise.
And after, let’s reconsider how we use referendums. Should they pass by simple majority? Should one be sufficient, or should it be followed up by a second one in the event of a narrow majority in the first?
You can get anyone to vote any other person’s rights away on a whim given enough stress and provocation. There should be a cooling off period of several years between them, if we use them at all.
But why the hell can government not do its job?