Politicians and referenda: Where hypocrisy meets hyperbole

By Walter Robinson
web posted November 27, 2000

"Okay, cast your ballot, now run along and shut up. And don't you dare bother me with your trivial ideas about making government work better for Canadians."

This phrase effectively sums up the attitude of the Canadian political elite toward voters. And nowhere is this contempt for voters more evident than in the reactions of the major party leaders when it comes to the notion of solving policy questions through citizen-initiated referenda.

"Initiative" is a process that allows for the passage of laws via binding referendum brought on by a citizen petition. While there is justifiable concern over the issue of minority rights being put to referendum or the thresholds needed to trigger a referendum, these concerns are no excuse for summarily discounting the initiative concept.

NDP leader Alexa McDonough called citizen-initiated referenda "cowardly and reprehensible." Joe Clark said they were a "dangerous mechanism." (Seems Joe is still smarting from the referendum defeat of the Charlottetown Accord in 1992.)

Chretien speaking to Liberals on November 24
Chretien speaking to Liberals on November 24

And Prime Minister Jean Chretien called them "divisive. " He also noted that "when you have tension in a society and your refer to the mechanism of referendum, what happens is the politicization of the society, the demagogy sets in." And although Stockwell Day supports referenda, he is almost apologetic in this stance.

But what about referenda on tax cuts? In the recent U.S. elections, the Virginia-based National Taxpayers Union reports that voters in nearly a dozen states opted to trim, cap, or reform entirely their own systems of taxing and spending through state-wide initiatives.

Massachusetts voters passed, 59 per cent to 41 per cent, an initiative to reduce the state personal income tax rate to 5 per cent. Two states overwhelmingly adopted sweeping changes in their methods of taxing automobiles that will result in significantly lower levies (Montana 58 per cent to 42 per cent and South Carolina, 84 per cent to 16 per cent).

Montana (67 per cent to 33 per cent) and South Dakota (79 per cent to 21 per cent) both voted to repeal and ban state inheritance taxes. Louisiana residents rejected (62 per cent to 38 per cent) a referendum to repeal the current federal income tax deduction they may take against state income taxes. And although Arizona voters approved a proposal to raise state sales taxes by .6 cents, the increase is partially offset by limits on local property taxes.

Tax cuts are also an issue here. But the best voters can hope for is that Mssrs. Chretien, Day or Clark will live up to their promises if elected. But for voters south of the border, broken political promises won't be a factor, they've already decided the issue.

Ah to dream: if only Canadians had such ownership of public policy. This is where the hyperbole and hypocrisy of our party leaders is laid bare for all to see. They don't dare question – indeed they praise – the collective wisdom of the voters that elect them. But when it comes to trusting those same voters (you and me) to contemplate and decide on fiscal policy issues like taxes, our judgment is never even sought!

Walter Robinson is the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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