This week in The Spectator Mike Ryan revived the idea of the citizen-initiated referendum. This is a welcome suggestion and it recalls the memory that in 1987 the Centre For Independent Studies published a very well researched book on the various forms of the citizen’s vote, including the provision for recalling politicians who don’t take any notice of their constituents.
Walker’s most telling arguments in favour of the CIR system concern the decline of representative democracy and the rise of the party system and the capture of the politicians by special interest groups. Members of the lower houses of Parliament come from defined electorates but they no longer serve their constituents as they may have done long ago.The are servants of the party and their loyalty has be to proved all the way from preselection to the division in the House.
Traditionally the members of Parliament were supposed to debate the motions before the House, then cast their votes in line with their stated principles, the interests of their constituents and the public good. But the rise of the party system ensures that the debate preceding the vote is an empty ritual that does nothing to change anyone’s vote. It merely fills in time and enables the more witty speakers to score debating points. The politicians have been captured by the party system and the parties have been captured by interest groups who threaten to turn the tide of elections by mobilizing blocks of votes in marginal seats where a handful of votes can decide the result.
The CIR system would enable the people to defend themselves from predatory interest groups by exerting the power of veto over legislation that hands out special favours to sectional interests. It would also revive confidence in the right to have a meaningful vote, at least some of the time. For the majority of people in “safe” electorates there is no sense that their vote makes a difference. There is also the frustrating situation where none of the major parties have acceptable policies on some issues. Walker wrote:
An educated electorate finds it increasingly frustrating to be given a choice only between two packages of personalities and policies when it might prefer to elect certain invidividuals but reject some of their policies.
Up the the First World War Australia was one of the leading countries in democratic reforms such as universal adult suffrage and the secret ballot. Walker reports that:
“The Australian Labor Party, from its earliest days in the 1890s, accepted the principle of initiative and referendum (and later the recall) not merely as policy but as one of the primary objectives of the party.”
Legislation for CIRs passed in the Labor controlled Queensland lower house in 1915 but it stopped at the conservative-dominated upper house. After this no serious efforts to promote the people’s vote occurred for many decades and Walker reported that in 1963 the Labor Party dropped it from the party platform.
Walker identified three strands of thought which are hostile to the principle of the people’s vote; these are the doctines of legal positivism, Parliamentary sovereignty and political elitism. Legal positivism sees the essence of law as a product of the power of the state, in contrast with the view that sees the law as a formalisation of conventional norms and popular consciousnes which is merely administered and enforced by agencies of the state. Legal positivism has dominant in academic circles for some time and it provides the basis of the theory of Parliamentary sovereignty. This was expounded by A V Dicey in his classical work The Law of the Constitution which dominated constitutional thought for almost a century. According to this view the British Parliament has absolute power to pass statutes as it sees fit, regardless of popular customs and morality. Walker claims that this has been taught as a dogma in law schools and has been carried by lawyers into Parliament where it is a very congenial notion. It is not generally noticed that Dicey changed his mind on the omnipotence of Parliament and spent the rest of his life campaigning for the people’s vote.
Despite all these adverse influences, local interest in CIRs resulted in numerous submissions to the Constitutional Reform Committee making the case for the people’s vote. The Committee even suggested that voter-initiated reforms should be introduced for changes in the Constitution but it recommended that wider use of the system should be deferred until it is tested in constitutional referendums. [That recommendation did not proceed].