By Jonathan Parsons
The introduction of forms of direct democracy (even limited forms) allows citizens to be involved in the functioning of government beyond the act of voting.
As it is now, government attempts to engage citizens through initiatives such as those from the Office of Public Engagement. However, citizen input has no teeth: input does not necessarily translate into policy. Forms of direct and participatory democracy would give government legitimacy and authenticity and produce better outcomes.
As the term is used here, direct democracy is a political system in which members of a polity have a direct say in the decisions affecting their lives. An oft-cited example of direct democracy is the ancient Greek democracy in Athens, in which citizens gathered on the Agora to debate and cast their votes on various issues. Forms of direct democracy also operated among Indigenous peoples of North America, for example, in the Six Nations Confederacy.
Direct democracy can be contrasted with representative democracy, in which citizens nominate someone else to make decisions on their behalf. Representative democracy is the general form of democracy in Newfoundland and Labrador and in the Canadian federation.
To be clear, I am not in this instance suggesting that our provincial government should entirely overhaul the system and introduce a full-fledged direct democracy. Instead, I am suggesting that modest reforms, such as introducing even limited elements of direct democracy, would be a welcome change.
As I see it, the citizens of N.L. want a more robust democracy in which they can be directly involved in the day-to-day business of government.
For example, in the province’s current representative democracy there is no established threshold for petitions to trigger plebiscites or referendums in the political system. Although referendums have previously been used in N.L., such as the 1990s referendum on education reform, these have been “top-down” and initiated by the government rather than “bottom-up” and initiated by citizens. With respect to the current petitions to the provincial government, theoretically every citizen of the province could sign a petition asking the government to do or not do some specific act, and yet government is not obliged to comply or even to publicly acknowledge the petition. Interestingly, the preamble of official petitions to the N.L. government takes the form of a “prayer” through which subordinates humbly pray to some higher power to do something on their behalf.
Compared with the N.L. example, British Columbia has clear legislation regarding petitions: once a threshold of signatures is met (10 per cent), a citizen initiative is brought forward to the legislative assembly. Such citizen initiatives can then lead to creation or re-evaluation of specific legislation or to plebiscites or referendums. Furthermore, beyond such mechanisms of petition-oriented democratic processes, a number of other forms of direct democracy could be blended with our representative system. These include the “liquid democracy” practised by the Swedish political party Demoex, which hosts community meetings and facilitates online platforms that allow citizens to directly inform their representative how to vote on a particular bill or piece of legislation.
Liquid democracy is also interesting in that citizens not only get to directly participate in the vote on specific legislation, but also can actively promote issues and generate policy through the public meetings and online spaces. It is important to note that the use of online forums in liquid democracy is not “clicktivism,” a term sometimes used to describe the many online petition websites that are not recognized by our government. Instead, such online forums are legitimate and function as part of the formal political process. These directly democratic elements of liquid democracy feed into the representative system, in that elected politicians cast their vote according to the outcome of the deliberations and not based on party platforms or party discipline. For example, Demoex does not have specific policies or a platform per se, other than its commitment to direct democracy. In this sense, Demoex politicians are better understood as facilitators of a decision-making process and not as decision-makers themselves.
In short, elements of direct democracy can function and be triggered within representative systems in a number of ways, such as through straightforward petitions that reach a particular threshold or through public forums specifically designed to facilitate citizen input for policy-making. In fact, some of the mechanisms to incorporate directly democratic elements in N.L.’s representative system already exist.
Petitions can be read in the House of Assembly and submitted to the government, even as there is no clear threshold for action. In recent years, the provincial government created the Office of Public Engagement, which hosts community meetings and online crowdsourcing to solicit citizen input.
The difference between these mechanisms and forms of direct democracy is that direct democracy has teeth. With clear legislation around directly democratic decision-making and initiatives, government would be obliged to do as it is directed by citizens, whereas in our present system there is no such obligation.
It seems to me the reason such reforms have never been made, and the biggest hurdle for such reforms is that introducing even limited forms of direct democracy is perceived by governing parties as giving up a certain amount of power. Governing parties may also worry that citizen initiatives will be a way for their political foes to mobilize public support to bring down the government or to force changes to legislation. On the other hand, the reason the N.L. provincial government currently has an Office of Public Engagement is, I argue, to reap the benefits of being able to say that public opinion shapes policy and, thus, that the government is directly carrying out the will of the people.
Government wants to be perceived as facilitating the will of the people, because doing so grants political legitimacy, but it does not want to create a binding decision-making mechanism so the will of the people can be expressed. Instead of granting legitimacy to government, the contradiction between the appearance and the actual practice of forms of direct democracy creates cynicism and distrust.
As I see it, the citizens of N.L. want a more robust democracy in which they can be directly involved in the day-to-day business of government. This is not to say that everyone needs to be, or wants to be, involved in all the minute decisions that keep the province running. Rather, people simply want the option to participate to be available to them and, moreover, want that participation to actually matter.
There are many different forms of direct democracy that could easily be introduced or blended into our representative system. If done, I believe government would benefit immensely with respect to popular legitimacy. The N.L. provincial government is long past due to begin a serious process of democratic reform, of which forms of direct democracy may be only one aspect.
What is necessary, when starting such a process, is a spark of creativity and a steadfast belief that the people of the province deserve more political agency and to be the authors of their own future.
About the Author
Jonathan Parsons (English, Memorial University of Newfoundland) is a PhD candidate and a community organizer, researcher and writer from St. John’s. He is a former board member of Social Justice Co-operative NL and a columnist for The Independent.