Referenda - expensive waste of time and money?

  bigggles 10:12 15 Jun 2008

“Voters rejected the Lisbon Treaty by a significant margin” click here
This result has been debated in another thread, but my point is to question the whole idea of a referendum as a way of making political decisions. Only 51% of the Irish electorate voted, and there was a narrow (or is that significant) margin of less than 7%. In the end, just a few thousand voters decided the issue – and that will always be the case, because if the result is predictably overwhelming there would be no need for a vote in the first place. This is not intelligent or democratic decision making.

It is impossible to construct a referendum question that is concise enough for a yes/no option, but sufficiently clear to the electorate on what their options are. I doubt that many people actually read the treaty, no-one knows what the alternative is, and a well funded campaign can swing the vote either way. Electors vote on pre-conceived prejudices, because they just don’t like the Government of the day, or because they read a particular newspaper.

My vote helps to elect a Government, my taxes pay MPs to represent me and I don’t have the time, knowledge or inclination to study and understand complex constitutional or moral issues. Politicians are (by and large) intelligent human beings who are neither corrupt nor inept. It’s their job to make judgments on my behalf, and I don’t think they should avoid their responsibility for making difficult choices.

To my mind referenda represent a bad way to run a country, and the sooner they fall out of fashion across the EU the better.

  GANDALF <|:-)> 10:22 15 Jun 2008

Having been on many planning committees, I agree that referendums can be hugely annoying and can drag out the simplest of tasks to Herculean amounts of time. I firmly believe that laws should be approved by the freely voted representatives.....but without referendums you have a dictatorship that cannot be held in check during it tenure. Either way it is between a rock and a hard thing.


  Forum Editor 10:34 15 Jun 2008

referenda are certainly bad - I agree with you there. The concept of democratic government is based on a group of like-minded people saying to the voters 'We believe that this, or that should be done, and if you elect more of us than of any other group we'll see to it'.

We, the voters provide an elected government with a mandate - it may act and legislate on our behalf, as long as it can persuade enough individual members of parliament to go along with it, and as long as the upper house, and ultimately the monarch does too.

There are checks and balances provided by opposition parties in parliament, and they see to it that the government doesn't have it all its own way, especially when the government doesn't have a large majority in the house. It all works pretty well, and it's a system that has been copied - with various local amendments, and a few notable exceptions - by the majority of the world's developed and developing nations.

So far, so good, but just occasionally a government wants to do something that is so radical, and has potential implications that are so far-reaching, it isn't enough, simply to try to force the changes on society - an entirely separate and distinct mandate is called for; one that doesn't mean a general election, and all that entails.

Enter the referendum. It's a useful way of asking the people for their consent (or otherwise) to major social, economic, or political change, and if it is to work properly there are two prerequisites:

1. The question must be asked in the right form.

2. The government must promise to accept the result.

Using a referendum too often is a sign of a weak government. It's also not going to provide a country with a sense of strong leadership and purpose; few ordinary citizens have the breadth of knowledge required to make meaningful decisions about complex socio-economic or political questions,and so a referendum result is never guaranteed to be based on informed judgments - it's a sophisticated form of opinion poll at best.

  Earthsea 11:54 15 Jun 2008

It's worrying to think Jeremy Kyle viewers would have a say on complex socio-economic or political questions.

  Forum Editor 11:57 15 Jun 2008

And that, I think, encapsulates the problems associated with referenda.

  spuds 12:38 15 Jun 2008

"Only 51% of the Irish electorate voted". And I think that is perhaps one of the main problems with politics on the whole. People have become very despondent on any political issues, from whatever party. And as for understanding or reading fully the actual article, could I say that even those who were deeply involved, have perhaps limitations on that score.

Perhaps taking a point mentioned by Gandalf, with respect to planning committees. Our local council (like most!) have planning officers who approve or disagree on most planning applications or enforcement of building regulations. When it comes to the disagreement or public concern stage, then we have committee meetings, usually in the form of officers, other relevant bodies and local councillors. Only recently I was involved in discussions regarding the councillor's role and their expertise on planning rules and regulations plus common sense. In the main it was found that councillors could be swayed by their political party or the planning officers attitude and applied interpretations of supposed or certain laws applicable.

  beeuuem 15:41 15 Jun 2008

Among the reasons put forward for not having referenda is that we elect poliicians to make these decisions and that the the issues are too complex for mere mortals like voters to understand.
"Irish prime minister Brian Cowen undermined the Yes campaign when he admitted he had not read whole Lisbon Treaty."
So any decision he makes is not based on a thorough understanding of the documnt. He supports it on the basis of what he ha been told, which may well exclude the parts which are detrimental to the citizens he is supposed to represent.

  laurie53 18:54 15 Jun 2008

The Swiss make a great deal of use of referenda, and while perhaps not the best country in the world, by no means the worst either.

  Forum Editor 19:17 15 Jun 2008

The Swiss do lots of things differently. I stayed with a Swiss client once, and was somewhat disconcerted to see an assault rifle propped in the corner of my room. When I asked about it he said "It's the law".

He told me that all Swiss men have to do military service, and once that's finished they must retain their rifle at home and maintain it in a fit condition for combat, complete with a supply of ammunition. No licences are involved, and all men have to be ready for action if called upon by their government.

We admire the Swiss for lots of reasons, but one of them should not be the way that they force people to keep guns like this. There are many family killings in the country every year, and almost all of them involve husbands shooting wives and/or children with these rifles. The murder rate per 100,000 of the population in Switzerland is about 20 times that of the UK. It's a slightly weird society in some ways, and to be honest I'm quite pleased I don't have to go there very often.

  lofty29 21:19 15 Jun 2008

Whilst I agree things such as referenda, proportional representation etc have faults I find it dismaying that anyone should advocate taking away any oportuniy of the citizency being deprived of any voice in matters concerning them no matter how inefficient. As for politicians being elected on a firm mandate, manifestos of political parties are NOT commitments, they are only at best aspirations as has often been seen in the past. As for Eathseas comments, how can you judge the intelligence or principles of people by the tv programmes they watch, or the newspapers they read,or perhaps he is advocating that only certain sections of the populace should have the right to vote, such as we had in the past. ie the wealthy or well to do, or aristocracy or those that possess a degree. How about " no taxation without representation"

  IClaudio 21:39 15 Jun 2008

'We believe that this, or that should be done, and if you elect more of us than of any other group we'll see to it'

Just as the Labour Government were voted in on their promise that a referendum on Europe would be held? Liars...

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