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B.C. transit plebiscite a failure of leadership

Canada has representative democracy. We elect people for a period of time to do the public's business. Then we pass judgment on them, as we will do Oct. 19 in the federal election.

We do not have plebiscitary democracy, as in Switzerland, whereby people vote often on matters large and small, and the elected representatives are bound by the outcomes of these plebiscites.

The Swiss like their system, and it seems to work in their small country, divided as it is into even smaller cantons. In Canada, sprawling and diverse, we rarely use plebiscites, and then usually for proposals to change the country's basic institutions, such as the Constitution or electoral system.

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We want governments to be accountable, not just for one thing but for many – for the general conduct of the public's business, which will be interpreted very differently by various voters.

Plebiscites make no one accountable, except for the people. But then the people, having voted, move on to other matters, which is what just happened in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.

Afraid of taking leadership, or even a position, the provincial government of Premier Christy Clark allowed a plebiscite on a small tax increase to fund transportation improvements sorely needed in this geographically-constrained space between the mountains and the sea. But the government then sat back and let the plebiscite carry on, refusing to take sides, an abdication of responsibility in a system that we choose to call "responsible government."

It was as if the government had read the textbooks about the fate of plebiscites or referendums: most of them lose, not only in Canada but in other democratic countries too.

Yes, there have been some plebiscites in the United States where governments successfully asked the people for more revenue for improvements to transit or education. Presumably inspired by these successes, those preaching for a Yes vote in the Lower Mainland transportation plebiscite thought they could win, instead of losing 62 per cent to 38 per cent.

Those U.S. plebiscites sometimes had the state government arguing in favour, not standing aloof as was the case in British Columbia. By not taking any responsibility for the outcome, the B.C. government could avoid any blame in the event of the plebiscite's defeat.

What it cannot avoid, however, is the increasingly knotty transportation situation in the Lower Mainland that will be a drag on the quality of life and the economic vitality of the area. For the future of what happens when appropriate investments are not made in transportation and transit infrastructure over time, please check out the Greater Toronto Area.

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There, the provincial government has not called a plebiscite on various transportation improvements that are long overdue. It has taken its "responsibility" (that word again) and will be judged on the execution and cost of its plans.

Who knows what would have happened if a transportation plebiscite had been held in the GTA asking people to pay a small tax increase today for improvements tomorrow? Maybe the jam today for jam tomorrow argument would have flopped, as it did in the Lower Mainland.

Maybe, too, the usual dynamic of plebiscitary democracy would have occurred whereby opponents are full of fury at government for all manner of reasons, whereas the proponents fixed on just one item. Opponents in the GTA, as in the Lower Mainland, might have been mad at the transit operator, the specific plan, the idea of a tax increase, the "bloated" bureaucracy, the role of government in society and, best of all, they would not have been forced to suggest an alternative. Or, if they did, their alternative might have been based on some notional "savings" from eliminating "waste and duplication" to finance projects other than through the tax system.

That's the point about plebiscitary democracy: It's a yes or a no, without any intermediate compromises or competing ideas. It is not like an election where there are choices among rival ideas, policies, parties and leaders. In a plebiscite, it suffices for critics to know what they are against without needing to say what they are for.

A certain kind of democracy "won" by saying No in the transportation plebiscite; the wider kind of "responsible government" lost, and for that the B.C. provincial government is responsible.

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