Direct Democracy: It is Time

It is with great regret that we have noted the laying in Parliament of a draft Constitution without prior public consultation. Nevertheless, we would like citizens to consider the implementation of a direct democracy in Trinidad to supplement our representational bicameral democracy.

As the rhetoric of 'Vision 2020' continues its daily barrage on citizens, it is time to underscore that no vision will be realised without a population educated enough to advance informed opinions on issues of governance, and in other areas of public life. Are we ready? If we are not, then the goal of 'Vision 2020' is a conceit. How do we get a government to listen? By referendum.

Switzerland is the only country in the world that operates a direct democracy. Its system of governance involves a bicameral parliament like ours but, not including its use of proportional representation, with one important difference: the use of public referenda to veto, to suggest, or to modify any existing laws, or laws recently passed, in the Parliament. Additionally, referenda can take place to cast a vote of no-confidence in any individual in public office, including a Prime Minister, and force that individual to demit office.

How does such a system work? Very briefly, if a citizen chooses to challenge a law passed in Parliament, she/he must then (in Switzerland, at least) be able to gather at least 50,000 signatures in support of her/his proposal/objection within a specified time period. Following this, a national vote is convened whereby citizens accept or reject the law by simple majority. A constitutional amendment requires 100,000 signatures. The government may submit a counterproposal to which citizens vote on at the same time, or at another date. The bottom line is that the government must abide by the decision of the public: it is a Constitutional guarantee. Do you think that the Minister of National Security is a waste of oxygen, for instance? No problem. Get your signatures, the government assembles a referendum on your behalf, and the citizens decide whether the illustrious minister gets the "boot". Power to the people; exactly where it should be.

Research into this form of governance has revealed reduced levels of government corruption, reduced influence of political parties on public perception, better representation, reduced patronage and nepotism, greater political transparency. In other words, all the things we need.

The disadvantages of a direct democracy are as follows:

1. The need for a voter population to be interested, and actively involved, in the process. Research has shown that if less than 10% of the population repeatedly votes on referenda, the process will not reflect a sufficiently large percentage of the population to warrant such an approach to governance.

2. Complex policies may not be understood by all voters. It is therefore imperative that voters be properly educated, in general. Some argue that this not a disadvantage of the system, but highlights its inherent beauty. It allows for a trickle-down phenomenon where ordinary citizens are sensitised to complex issues, so that they may make informed decisions. It also reduces the likelihood of an oligarchic ruling-class of lawyers running the country!

3. Voters may be susceptible to arguments proposed by the more vociferous, or charismatic, speaker (or politician) rather than coming to a decision based on the facts. The counter-argument is that in our system, for instance, voters tend not to listen to anybody at all! "I is a PNM 'till ah dead", and "UNC and Panday forever!" is the unfortunate fruition of party-politics. Voters tend to act with a great deal more maturity when they are aware that country-wide policy is now directly in their hands.

4. The smaller the country, the better direct democracy works. It costs a lot of money to organise referenda. However, in this age of internet voting, this argument is no longer tenable.

5. The constitution will have to be unambiguously framed to prevent the inevitable attempts by some to use the system frivolously.

The local politicians will avoid this system of governance like the plague, of course. There is no more frightening a nightmare to a politician than the thought of the plebeian public usurping his/her right to power. Politicians manoeuvre continuously to consolidate their power and stranglehold over the community: adding the power of direct democracy to the constitution will effectively scuttle their ambitions.

Many of the local intellectual elite are of the unstated opinion that we do not have enough gyri in our brains to accommodate such weighty responsibilities as a direct democracy. Is this so? It comes down to each one of us in the end. Do we want to be led blind, deaf, and dumb? Are we to remain the disgrace of a hand-out and a CEPEP society? Will we wait for someone to hand out a constitution to us? Or do we want to be the ones who decide the fate of Trinidad and Tobago? Your choice. Decide well.

- May 2006


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