“Beware of Greeks bearing ballots” was the swift and stern warning issued by Europe’s political and financial leaders in response to the sudden announcement by Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou that his government would hold a referendum on whether to accept the terms of the financial bailout package offered his country.
The instantaneous and virtually unanimous opinion of those European leaders was that the Greek public could not be trusted to make the right decision on the package and should therefore not be given an opportunity to do so. They then threatened Greece with expulsion from the euro currency union and the loss of a crucial $8-billion emergency loan instalment if it proceeded. The referendum proposal was subsequently withdrawn.
One can certainly understand why European political and business leaders mistrust the Greek politicians and electorate. Have not the Greeks been living beyond their means for years, defying all appeals to get their financial house in order, and rioting in the streets to protest against the austerity measures required to do so? All true, sadly.
But was the vehement and instant denunciation of the referendum proposal the wisest response by Europe’s leaders? I don’t think so.
When political and business leaders tell the public – any public – “We don’t trust you to make the right decision” – they prejudice that electorate against the very proposals they want it to accept and undermine public confidence in themselves. The understandable public reaction is, “Why should we trust you when you don’t trust us?” Leaders in democracies can’t continue to tell voters that “We trust you to elect us, but not to make any other meaningful decision.”
When the initial effort of political and business leaders to influence public opinion on an issue is to threaten rather than to engage and persuade, they further arouse public opposition rather than win support. Remember the referendum on the Charlottetown constitutional accord? The more Canada’s political and business elites threatened Canadians that the country would disappear into a black hole if the accord weren’t passed, the more Canadians opposed it.
When any attempt to consult the public or secure public support for a policy position is contemptuously dismissed by business and media elites as mere “populism” – the term most often used by anti-democrats in academia to attack those aspects of democracy they most dislike – they further reduce their ability to positively influence public opinion on that policy. If Greece were to revert to a military dictatorship (like the one that ruled the country from 1967 to 1974), would Europe’s business and political leaders actually prefer such a regime provided it accepted and enforced the bailout plan to a Greek democracy that rejected it?
Without giving carte blanche approval to a referendum on the Greek bailout proposal, it’s nevertheless worth considering that referendum campaigns – if properly structured, financed and managed – can serve as mass educational campaigns in which large numbers of people are given the facts, the arguments, the time and the responsibility to make the best possible decision on the issue in question and to be held accountable for the consequences since they made the decision themselves.
One wonders whether public support for the bailout plan in the birthplace of democracy might have been bolstered, rather than further eroded, if the initial reaction of Europe’s leaders to the referendum proposal had been more along the lines of that expressed by Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney. Speaking to the House of Commons finance committee, Mr. Carney said it’s “imperative that there is widespread support” for tough decisions to implement major fiscal austerity measures. “Painful economic restructurings need broad democratic support. … If it’s the judgment of the Greek government that this [holding a referendum]is the best approach to validate that support, we fully respect that.”
Well said, Mr. Carney.
Preston Manning is president and CEO of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.