02 December 2009

The people spoke ... and embarrassed their nation

One question that anyone who spends time thinking about democracy eventually encounters is the relative merits of direct and representative democracy. The recent referendum in Switzerland in which the Swiss voted 57 per cent to ban minarets on mosques in that country raises the question once again.

The Swiss are big on referendums and, indeed, referendums are the most popular vehicle for direct democracy. They are not, however, without major weaknesses. Problems arise from their yes or no nature. Yes or no sucks one of the vital ingredients of democracy — compromise — out of the issue. It also divides, creating an atmosphere of us and them, winners and losers. And indeed the Swiss decision has created division, and much hostility.

Few issues are as simple as yes or no. Referendums relieve citizens of the need to think below the surface. Some citizens will research the issue, think it through calmly and thoroughly, and discuss and debate it with others. Many won’t. The ignorance component of referendums can, therefore, be very high. One of the powerful advantages of representative democracy is having decisions made by people whose job is to study issues thoroughly before deciding. Referendums short-circuit this advantage. A decision made by elected representatives after thorough consideration might be closer to what the people would decide if they deliberated rather than if they simply voted in a referendum.

And then there's the question of just how representative a referendum is. How representative of the Swiss people was the 53 per cent who turned out for this vote? Was it truly representative of the whole population or was it, as referendums often are, dominated by those most emotionally involved with the issue. In this case, that may very well have been the bigots, those most aroused by hate and fear of the other.

Fortunately, there is a form of direct democracy which neatly solves the problems of division, inaccurate representation, and lack of deliberation posed by referendums. It's called a citizens assembly, and consists of bringing a representative group of citizens together to immerse themselves in an issue and discuss it face-to-face. Provided with a comprehensive package of information, access to experts and politicians on all sides of the issue, and ample opportunity to discuss and debate among themselves in small groups, participants can arrive at a thoroughly deliberated decision that incorporates a full range of views. With scientific sampling of a population and mandatory attendance, an assembly can truly represent the people, at least the people in microcosm.

Referendums force citizens to take sides, and the majority hammers the minority. Whereas referendums divide people, assemblies unite them, and unlike a referendum, every citizen involved in an assembly is well-informed. People isolated in their own domains tend to obsess on their own world views, constantly reinforcing their prejudices. Assemblies bring people together to unite and modify their views. Dialogue between participants ensures better decision-making, engenders respect for other views and refines the art of compromise. It educates and civilizes. It offers the possibility of a politics of shared goals rather than a politics of angry difference.

So what would the Swiss have decided if a group truly representative of them had had the opportunity to thoroughly deliberate and discuss their views with each other in an intimate setting? Well, we don't know. We do know that without that opportunity they came to a decision laced with bigotry. We also know that the bigotry has no basis in fact. Muslims make up only five per cent of the population of Switzerland; they are mostly of European extraction, well-integrated, religiously moderate and no mosques have called for sharia law or any other form of political Islam. We know also that the government, the mainstream political parties, the churches, the major newspapers and the business community all opposed the ban. Of course, the people are not obliged to pay any attention to their leaders. And yet the most recent poll showed only 37 per cent of the Swiss people supported the ban, leaving one to wonder if those who voted did represent their countrymen and women. Were they the voice of the people?

In any case, the result was not surprising for the divisive instrument of referendum. If the Swiss had opted instead for a citizens assembly, they might have reached a more enlightened decision and avoided embarrassing their country.

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