Alberta Politics
Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s Conservative PM from 1979 to 1990, in 2004 at Ronald Reagan’s funeral (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense, Public Domain).

Referenda are ‘a device for dictators and demagogues’ — but never mind about that, Alberta, or who said it …

Posted on June 25, 2020, 1:40 am
9 mins

Referenda, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher once observed, “are a device for dictators and demagogues.”

I mention this in light of Alberta’s new referendum legislation — Bill 26, the Constitutional Referendum Amendment Act — which our province’s United Conservative Party Government introduced yesterday.

Clement Attlee, Labour Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951 (Photo: Dutch National Archives, Creative Commons).

Mrs. Thatcher, normally a hero to the UCP, wasn’t right about much, but she was right about referenda. It is certain her assessment of referenda was more accurate than Premier Jason Kenney’s claim in the Alberta government’s press release Tuesday that “this legislation will help us strengthen democracy and increase accountability.”

Au contraire.

Britain’s Conservative prime minister from 1979 to 1990, who did an awful lot of damage during her rule, was actually riffing off a much sharper observation by Clement Attlee, who was Labour PM from 1945 to 1951 when the memory of World War II was still very, very fresh in the minds of Britons.

“I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum which has only too often been the instrument of Nazism and fascism,” Mr. Attlee coolly observed.

Unlike Mrs. Thatcher’s silly line about the problem with socialism, which was intended to obfuscate the way economies really work, don’t expect to hear UCP supporters endlessly repeating her quite accurate assessment of referenda in their Internet memes.

That goes double for Mr. Attlee’s observation, since it would also require a trigger warning to protect the tender sensibilities of modern conservatives because of the blunt language used by the creator of the National Health Service, which Mrs. Thatcher and her successors have endeavoured mightily to destroy.

It goes without saying that Mr. Kenney’s UCP is not opposed to introducing alien concepts into Alberta’s faltering democracy. He will do the same for Canada if he ever gets a chance. That is what the Republicanized Canadian conservative movement lives to do. The only thing is that Alberta’s Conservatives are less stealthy about it than most.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Despite their superficial appearance of direct democracy, it is not difficult to understand why referenda have an anti-democratic effect.

They reduce complicated questions to simple yes-no equations. They allow elected representatives to avoid doing their jobs — or at least taking responsibility for how they do them. They are intended to be divisive — polarization is the name of the game. They are far easier to manipulate than ordinary electoral politics in a representative democracy, even without the wide-open spending the UCP plans to allow. They encourage authoritarian governments to brush aside constitutional protections for minorities and introduce convenient tyrannies of the majority.

This is what Mr. Attlee was talking about when he mentioned two of the totalitarian movements of the first half of the 20th Century in connection with referendum politics.

But this had been understood for a long time. It was no accident that in November 1804, 99.93 per cent of the votes cast in France were in favour of crowning Napoleon Bonaparte Emperor of the French. The Duke of Wellington wrote finis on that experiment on June 22, 1815, near Waterloo, in Belgium.

The undemocratic nature of referenda is, of course, counterintuitive. What could be more democratic than a vote? This is a point the UCP can be counted on to make repeatedly, and effectively, in response to the obvious criticism of their scheme.

Jim Storrie of Progress Alberta (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Indeed, they are already making it.

As Mr. Kenney or one of his digital surrogates tweeted yesterday afternoon: “The most significant democratic reform in decades will give Albertans a chance to vote in public referenda. Guess who wants to stand in the way? The New ‘Democratic’ Party. Opposing more democracy. You can’t make this up.”

“According to the NDP, referendums are an anti-democratic power grab,” tweeted Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer earlier in the day. “Let that sink in for a minute. You can’t make this stuff up.”

Bill 26 is structured to allow cabinet to determine which issues can go to referendum — no grassroots democracy for these guys. It also allows them to control where and when the referenda are held, a huge advantage to the governing party during provincial or municipal elections when they need to whip up their base.

The bill will also allow well-heeled third-party advertisers to spend up to half a million dollars, and since they will only have to file audited financial statements if they spend more than $350,000 and can set up myriad unauditable front groups, there are essentially no controls on election spending. So much for taking the big money out of politics.,

Napoleon Bonaparte from The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David, completed in 1807 (Detail: Public Domain).

As Jim Storrie of Progress Alberta put it in a newsletter to the group’s supporters yesterday, this will allow “an absolute free-for-all for rich donors.”

Referring to the UCP’s plan to hold a referendum on Canada’s constitutional equalization program, which is habitually misrepresented by Conservative politicians on the Prairies, Mr. Storrie commented: “That’s public money being spent to court conservative voters for a phoney stunt that even the government’s own panel admits won’t achieve a thing.”

He concluded: “Cooking up an illusionary issue to manipulate the electorate, sneak big money into politics, and divert public funds to campaigning for conservatives: there’s really nothing to call it but corruption.”

Well, at least Mr. Kenney isn’t asking us to endorse crowning him Emperor of the Albertans … yet.

Such criticism won’t deter the UCP, of course. They have a majority and intend to use it.

I am not at all confident Bill 26 would be found unconstitutional by a Canadian court. Still, our Constitution does begin by stating that our Dominion will have “a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.” And as Mr. Attlee observed, government by referendum is alien to British tradition. So I suppose some bright lawyer could try to make a case that this is so.

Of course, much of what Mr. Kenney is trying to implement in Alberta — and by extension Canada — is alien to our Canadian traditions of democracy, respect, and moderation, not to mention the promise of peace, order and good government that has been in our constitutional documents since 1867.

Dictatorship and demagoguery? I reckon that if we follow Mr. Kenney down the Republicanized road trod by Canada’s conservative movement, we can have it all.

13 Comments to: Referenda are ‘a device for dictators and demagogues’ — but never mind about that, Alberta, or who said it …

  1. CovKid

    June 25th, 2020

    You wouldn’t have any pictures of the back of Kenney’s head, by any chance?

    The front versions give me nausea.

  2. Dave

    June 25th, 2020

    Mrs. Thatcher was a shrewd observer on occasion. I doubt she would think much of most of the current populist tactics so eagerly embraced by some modern Conservatives.

    It is true these tactics are contradictory, just like the more oppressive countries are often the most eager to try give the appearance of not being so. For the most part, we only have elections every few years because most voters have neither the time or interest in all the issues and all the detail involvrd therein.

    Of course, shrewd modern Conservative politicians cherry pick what they want to have referendums on and by setting the rules around these things like financial involvement further try to tilt things to their favour. For instance, Alberta Conservatives wll never allow referendums on certain things that might be popular, like say more gun control, or increasing taxes or royalties for sone large corporations.

    Sometimes referendums are just a useless distraction, like the one on equalization might likely be. In other cases they get totally out of hand and cause real damage, like Brexit, which in addition to the economic damage caused, has also increased social division and led to increased hate crimes and race based attacks. Of course don’t expect the Alberta mainstream media to bring this recent example up much if at all. It is mostly just easier to regurgitate UCP talking points on this and leave it at that.

    The point of this type of for show democracy is to appeal to the local audience by giving them the feeling they are participating more in decision making, when in fact it is mostly a charade. However, I doubt many outside of the Alberta political bubble will be much impressed or fooled by this.

  3. Just Me

    June 25th, 2020

    The best about referendums is, yes, politicians will be required to do less work than ever. Where once policy makers had to have at least a modicum of understanding of a particular issue, they can toss it to special interest voters and let them dream up the legislation. As has been said many times before, legislation based on populism is often bad and far reaching in its destructive impact. One needs only to watch an number of Monty Python sketches to realize that people-power ruins more than it builds.

    The only problem with this for Kenney is that he may see revolt by referendum. Given his tendency to compartmentalize reality, we can expect to see Kenney’s reality distortion-field in full overdrive in the future.

  4. Jimmy

    June 25th, 2020

    Excellent article. Just for clarification, Aneurin Bevan, Health Minister in Clement Attlee’s cabinet created the United Kingdom’s National Health Service without assistance from his prime minister. The details are documented Bevan biographies by Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds and Michael Foot. The latter was a political ally of Bevan and later became Labour Party leader.

    • David Climenhaga

      June 25th, 2020

      Jimmy: Thanks for this note. I knew that, actually, but felt it was fair to risk giving the PM credit for the policy — after all, it would not have moved forward without his nod. I always write too much, and I do look for ways to save a few words here and there. That said, one of my university professors had met Aneurin Bevan and admired him enormously, so I didn’t skip over that historical abbreviation without feeling a little guilt. I’m not displeased to discover there’s a U.K. health care policy wonk out there reading this blog. DJC

  5. Abs

    June 25th, 2020

    What a world, run by the little emperor and the car dealership owners. By the time they bankrupt the people of this province, the citoyens will not have money for their expensive vehicles, but this point seems to be lost on them.

    It’s truly a shame Alberta doesn’t have access to tidewater. That would make for easier access to remote volcanic islands in the South Atlantic. However, the famous postal code H0H 0H0 could be a feasible substitute, and the airlines need tge business.

  6. Murphy

    June 25th, 2020

    Is it really Kenney who is trying to implement the Used Car fascist agenda? The efforts of Heather Reisman nothwithstanding, one can still read Mein Kampf, the singular encapsulation of the sheer kookery of the hard right “thought process”, and anyone interested in the way this world operates should read it. Like Adolf, another boy nobody liked, Kenney was a man devoid of accomplishment and bereft of talent who was propelled to his position by people with an agenda who are happy to have him in the limelight. The planned American Idol political system in Alberta was not dreamed up by Tailgunner Jay, who has never demonstrated any imagination at any point in his “career”.

  7. Guest

    June 25th, 2020

    From John Ralston Saul’s “The Doubter’s Companion”:

    REFERENDUM: Most commonly used to deform or destroy democracy, referenda casually offer a false choice – to accept a change proposed by those who have power or to refuse it. In other words, there is a single option, which is not a choice. They are often represented as a populist tool of direct democracy which translates into undermining representative democracy. They can indeed be tools of democracy, for example, if the citizens of a territory want to choose between belonging to one of two countries.

    Referenda were introduced as a political tool under the French Revolution, but they came into their own under Napoleon. He used them to create something new – a populist dictatorship. Referenda resembled a democratic appeal to the people, without requiring the long-term complexities of elected representatives, daily politics and regular elections. Instead he combined his personal popularity with a highly focused appeal on a single subject. The result was that he could later claim the general support of the populace on any subject for undefined periods of time. In 1804, Napoleon used a referendum to become emperor, thus destroying democracy. Hitler did virtually the same thing in 1933 and again in 1934. In two referenda he got more power than an absolute monarch.

    Those who propose the question invariably argue that a yes vote will solve problems; a no vote will bring on the apocalypse. This was as true of Napoleon as it was of the Canadian government’s constitutional referendum in 1992.

    All efforts of those with the power to pose questions are concentrated on making the populace understand that they “need” to vote yes. “Necessity,” William Pitt once said, “is the plea for infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves.” And as Andre Malraux noted, “the slave always says yes.”

    Even at its best, democracy is a cumbersome and often tiresome business. Nor is it surprising that the gradual conversion of political propaganda into an important profession – public relations – which runs together social, economic and political questions, should favour the Heroic referendum approach over the complex multi-faceted and slow process of electoral democracy. The result is that we are increasingly subjected to the Heroic view of government. Even legislative elections are being turned away from their normal mix of issues and personalities to the illusion that a single candidate’s position on a single issue or a personality flaw is all important. Single-issue lobbyists are as devoted to converting elections into referenda as public relations firms.

    And the press quite easily fall into the plebiscite game-plan, because they find it easier to harp on about the same subject, dramatizing, hyping it in fact, than to deal with a mix of complex issues.

    A new face. The reduction of debt. Immigration. Nationalization. Privatization. Free Trade. One of these is the answer to our problems. It will allow us to avoid the apocalypse. The choosing of hundreds of representatives in the context of hundreds of issues, big and small, is in this way reduced to a plebiscite. Referenda are thus anti-democratic because they lend themselves so easily to the politics of ideology.

  8. Jim

    June 25th, 2020

    So private groups can spend up to $349,999 on referendum advertising regardless of when the referendum takes place? It’s just so annoying that they seem to think we are so stupid and can’t see through their scheme. If they put half the effort into actually governing that they do in devising these schemes we might be in better shape.

  9. Bob Raynard

    June 26th, 2020

    This is another great piece, David, thanks for writing it.

    As I reflected on your words yesterday, it dawned on me that we have already seen a preview of Kenney’s referendum environment during last year’s provincial election. Spurred on by the promise of a significant tax cut and other promises to business groups, we saw all sorts of billboards and full page colour newspaper ads telling us how wonderful a premier Jason Kenney would be. No doubt the media will love referendums, considering how much advertising they will sell.

    Really, the scenario is brilliant. Jason Kenney has an odious policy he wants to implement. He knows it will be difficult to sell to the public, and he will take a hit politically for it, because it favours business interests over voters. Put it to a referendum! This way deep corporate pockets will pay for the marketing of the idea when he couldn’t. Because of the advertising revenue, the media will present the idea in a positive way so as not to alienate their advertisers. Presto! the idea gets implemented and there is no blow back on the government.

  10. Athabascan

    June 26th, 2020

    Here’s an idea: Why not a referendum on whether we want Kenney’s faccists to step down and call another election? Or, a referendum on whether Albertans want their wasted pension money back, or funding restored to our health care and education sectors? Or, a referendum on whether Albertans support green energy…

  11. Keith McClary

    June 29th, 2020

    The CBC was going on about Putin’s terribly undemocratic omnibus referendum.

  12. jerrymacgp

    July 4th, 2020

    Referenda — or plebiscites (now there a distinction without a difference ) — do have their place. They’ve been used, for example, to:
    – add a province to Confederation: the Dominion of Newfoundland (as it was then known) voted in not one, but two referenda to join Canada, which it did in 1949
    – to attempt (fortunately without success) to remove a province from Confederation: Quebec held two referenda, in 1980 & again in 1995, on the subject of secession from Canada
    – to attempt to amend the Constitution: anyone recall the Charlottetown Accord referendum in 1992? (It didn’t pass)
    – to take action on electoral reform (in B.C. & I think PEI), although for various reasons none of those initiatives actually led to changes from our current system
    – and to make structural changes in municipal governance: one of the most recent was the 2018 decision of the electors of the Town of Grande Cache to dissolve the Town and become a Hamlet within the MD of Greenview.

    However, referenda at the provincial and federal levels pose unanswered questions about one of the fundamental tenets of Canadian Parliamentary government: confidence. Normally, if a government measure proposed to the House is defeated, this is deemed a want of confidence and the government must resign. The members of the House of a Commons or provincial legislature are the delegates of the people, and their votes on such matters are assumed — in theory — to reflect the views of their constituents. If the people lose confidence in their government, their elected representatives should — in theory — vote to bring it down.

    But in a referendum, the people speak directly on the government’s proposals, rather than through their elected representatives; thus, if the government’s position in a referendum is defeated, does that mean the government must resign? Technically, it doesn’t — but it ought to. However, in 1995, when Quebecers voted ‘NO’ in that squeaker of a plebiscite, did Jacques Parizeau’s PQ government resign & go to the people for a new mandate? No; although Parizeau himself stepped down as PQ leader, he was replaced by Lucien Bouchard & the PQ continued in government until the 1998 election, then was re-elected. Similarly, after the defeat of Charlottetown, the Mulroney government hung in for another year before going down to a historic defeat in 1993. So, referenda are incompatible with our model of democratic accountability, in that a government seems to be able to survive even a devastating rebuke by the voters because it didn’t happen on the floor of the House.


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