In western liberal democracies, political representatives are elected on a mandate that is meant to reflect the will of the people. They are entrusted to make decisions on behalf of their constituents.
Despite the system, governments have relied increasingly on surveys and referendums to make decisions.
The B.C. government recently put out a survey asking what British Columbians thought about daylight savings time. Unsurprisingly, 93 percent of respondents wanted to do away with the practice. The cost of that survey was $31,000 — a drop in the bucket of the Ministry of Attorney General’s annual operating budget. That cost includes the entire survey, the data analysis, and the preparation of a report on the survey data.
Still, $31,000 to find out something that people have said for decades is a bit much.
At their most altruistic, surveys show that governments are willing to listen to their constituents. The trouble of them is that surveys are at odds with the structure of our political system.
A prime example of the dangers of survey and referendum is the ongoing Brexit saga. The decision to leave the European Union should have been made by qualified elected representatives based on factual evidence and expert advice. Instead, it was decided by a slim 52 percent majority of the public. And the cherry on top — the referendum cost 129 million pounds, ($210.4 million CAD).
Britain is now facing potential food and medicine shortages — and economic disaster — if a no-deal Brexit occurs.
An example closer to home is the B.C. government’s 2018 referendum on electoral reform, which had a total budget of $14.5 million, and 2011’s HST referendum that had a budget of $8 million. In the first case, B.C. residents were not given a clear alternative to the first past the post system, and electoral reform was defeated by the largest margin of all three attempts to change the system.
The HST referendum was another policy decision that should have been made by experts, but was left to the public to decide.
When it comes to democracy, there can be rule by an elected body of representatives, or direct democracy where the public makes policy decisions. In an ideal world, there would be both. However, in the world as it is today, there needs to be a clear distinction between the two.
If elected representatives choose to rely on surveys, referendums, and other forms of direct democracy to make decisions, then what is the point of having an elected assembly at all?