Lowtax Network

Back To Top

It's time we started to take referenda more seriously - By Kitty Miv, Editor

Kitty Miv, Editor
10 November, 2011

It was Winston Churchill who said that democracy is a very bad system - but that all the alternatives are worse. I wonder what he would have said about Mr Papandreou, who has been vilified and speedily hounded out of office for suggesting that Greek citizens should be asked their opinion about belonging to the eurozone.

Referendums have had a mixed press: the EU clearly doesn't believe in them, and on several occasions has responded to a negative referendum result by telling the member state in question to try again until it obtained the required answer, rather like a teacher faced with a class of ignorant children.

Some countries enshrine referenda in their constitutions; others don't. Sometimes they are advisory; sometimes mandatory. Switzerland is the best example of a country which makes routine use of referenda throughout its legislative process.

The greatest problem with referenda is how to frame the question being asked, since it is usually under the control of the government in office and is often very heavily loaded. Yet the flaws of referenda are no greater than the flaws of elections in general, and they are arguably a purer form of democracy. Indeed they were the original form of democracy, ironically enough, in Greece.

Possibly the main thing about referenda that stops them being more useful, and more used, is that we don't use them often enough, so that there is no received body of opinion about how they should function. There are certainly no over-arching rules about how to frame the question, whereas there are bundles of rules about how to conduct an election.

Well, it's time we started to take referenda more seriously, because thanks to the Internet they are probably going to be the future of democracy.

It's hard to see this at present, because governments are terrified of being exposed to the direct power of public opinion (Greece is an example). They like to manage public perception via the media, and they control the timing of elections so far as they're allowed to do so constitutionally. But of course in this process they make every possible use of opinion polls, which are a way of sounding public opinion without being directly driven by it.

The media, however, have no such scruples, and revel in their ability to conduct all manner of polls, a game that the Internet has enormously expanded. It's hardly possible to go to a media site of any significance without tripping over an opportunity to vote: should females be as able as males to inherit the throne of England? is a certain doctor guilty? should veils be worn in public? who will be the next president of Russia?

Unlike polling by interview or by mail, Internet polling is instant, and will shortly be capable of being universal. It already is in certain closed communities: voting for the next Chairperson of the management committee of a research institute whose members are spread out across the globe no longer requires a meeting, even if old habits of chicanery, lobbying and 'Buggin's turn' persist in the secretariat. It's true that many of the international bodies thrown up by the process of globalization are some of the most anti-democratic institutions around - the World Bank is a good example - but this is surely just a passing phase.

It can only be a matter of time before some government or other is obliged to allow public opinion (instant, electronic referenda) into its deliberative process, and it can't be too soon for me. The first requisite, evidently, is that every qualified citizen should have access to a voting mechanism during a specified time-frame; but we are already not far off that in the most developed countries. Then the voters will have to be provided with as much information as is currently given to elected legislators (not easy, although most of them won't take advantage of it any more than current legislators read all their briefing papers), and there will have to be rules to balance referendum votes against legislators' votes. A greater than 60% referendum vote to over-rule a simple legislative majority, for instance.

Perhaps it won't be in my lifetime: governments will fight against it to the bitter end. But my children will see it.

Ciao, Kitty


About the Author

Kitty Miv, Editor

Kitty was born in Argentina in 1960 to a Scottish cattle rancher and his Argentine wife. Educated in Edinburgh and at Princeton, Kitty worked for the World Bank as an economist, where she met and married an emigre Iranian banker. During her time with the Bank, Kitty worked in a number of emerging markets, including a spell in the ex-USSR as a Transition Economies Team Leader. Kitty is now a consultant in Brussels and has free-lance writing relationships with a number of prominent economic publications. kitty@lowtax.net


« Go Back to Blogs

Blog Archive

Event Listings

Listings for the leading worldwide conferences and events in accounting, investment, banking and finance, transfer pricing, corporate taxation and more...
See Event Listings »