An automatic referendum on separation?

Posted 09.04.12

SHAWVILLE, QUEBEC | As times change in Canada, so do our election options, and at each provincial election we are presented with interesting proposals and promises from all the parties. Elections even bring us new parties, offering projects previously unavailable. Yet, as each election campaign moves along and we grow convinced that certain proposals would be beneficial for our province, we come face to face with the fact that we have only one issue to consider: another independence referendum or not.

We are held hostage by the nationalist-federalist conflict. If we don't want our province's next couple of years spent in preparing for a referendum -- not to mention the huge expense, nor the economic and social instability of national division -- we have to throw away all the issues we so carefully considered, and vote only for or against a referendum.

We may get or avoid a referendum, but we don't get the projects which had caught our attention at the start. We are hostages.

Yes, there is a choice to vote for the Independence party and, should it form the government, have no referendum, but go directly towards ‘independence,’ but that's hardly an option (and hardly a possibility, too). Aren't there other ways to deal with this issue?

Federalists hope that at some point, enough " no" referenda will mean there's no point in having more independence votes. This is unlikely, given the large minority of Quebecers who want that choice and don't mind the costs. But it would be interesting if one party proposed putting such a threshold into law -- not that it couldn't be over-turned by a sovereigntist party in the future.

The closest, so far, was Jean Chretien's Clarity Act that sought to impose some minimal standards on the referendum process, but this hardly changes the way the referendum question wipes out all other political issues and choices, each election.

Another proposal would be to use Quebec's municipal model: if we wish a referendum on separation, the pro-referendum forces would have to obtain not just a simple minority but an over-all vote based on the whole population -- say, 60 percent of the population must vote for a pro-referendum party for a referendum to go ahead. If, for example, a part of the city of Gatineau wishes to separate and re-form as its own city, it needs to reach a similar threshold to begin the process.

The question is so important, that it requires the engagement of most of the population. And if this is required of a municipal matter, shouldn't it be required of a vote that might split the nation and create a new country?

An even more radical proposal to soften the destructive effects of the referendum question on electoral politics, would be to mandate an automatic referendum policy. Say, every fifteen years there will be an independence referendum, automatically. No matter what people at the time vote, the referendum is coming, and so there's no reason to fight the independence question in each election.

This could include the proviso that a sitting government could " pass" on the automatic referendum, assuming there is little taste for it at the time, like Lucien Bouchard's " wining conditions" standard, that avoided a useless vote on independence. And being automatic, the vote also would not be as threatening to investors and property owners as is the present system.

There may be other options. But we should be able to vote for better-managed health care or better education, and not only for or against another referendum, shouldn't we?

Copyright © 2012 Fred Ryan/Log Cabin Chronicles/09.12