Direct Democracy: How We Can Control Our Politicians

"The government is the servant of the people and not its master" - Winston S. Churchill, 1948

Table Of Contents

The Problem

Canadians from sea to sea are growing increasingly angry, frustrated and cynical both about their political leaders and institutions. Many Canadians feel that the only time when they can exert real control over their governments is on election day - once every three or four years. In between, voters must put up with what amounts to an elected dictatorship, which ignores the views of the majority. In 1990, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and ten provincial premiers met behind closed doors to cobble together radical changes to Canada's constitution. Acting without an electoral mandate and without consulting citizens, Mr. Mulroney "rolled all the dice" in a high-pressure, all-or-nothing gamble to get his deal through. The Meech Lake Accord eventually collapsed amid acrimony and confusion.

Later the same year, however, the federal government successfully rammed through the Goods and Services Tax (GST) in the face of overwhelming public opposition. Canadians, who had made their views known through letters and phone calls to MPs, rallies and petitions, were ignored again. The truth is that democracy in Canada has been gravely weakened by self-serving politicians more interested in promoting their own agendas than in reflecting the will of the people. We have allowed ourselves to be maneuvered from rule by the people's representatives with the consent of the people - parliamentary democracy - to rule by political elites who impose their political ideologies on the people - elected dictatorship.

To make matters worse, this has happened at a time when our country faces constitutional, economic and political crises of the first magnitude - and much of it results from the imposition of national policies that increasingly conflict with the wishes of the majority. Clearly, something is missing from our democratic process.

The Solution

The remedy lies in establishing a system of direct democracy through which political power could be exercised directly by a majority of citizens. Direct democracy would enable voters to be governed by the laws they wanted rather than by laws which only the politicians wanted. Had it been in place in 1990, Canadians could have voted directly on major issues such as Meech Lake and the GST. In this booklet, therefore, we argue that direct democracy in major issues of policy could and should be introduced in Canada, both at the provincial and federal levels.

Part 1


An initiative allows citizens to originate and pass legislation themselves.

A referendum submits a proposed law that has been passed by a legislature to a vote of citizens for ratification or rejection.

A plebiscite is an expression of opinion by means of a vote of citizens which is not binding on a government.

How Direct Democracy Would Work In Canada

Initiatives would originate with the citizens and not with the government. A stipulated number of citizens or a percentage of the electorate would file a petition demanding that a certain measure proposed in the petition be decided directly by a popular vote. If the measure were supported by a simple majority of the votes cast, the government would have to enact it.

Referendums would be initiated by citizens who opposed legislation already passed by a government. If enough signatures were gathered, a referendum would be held and if a majority of the people voted against it, the law would be struck down. In this way, the GST could have been defeated. Referendums could also be initiated by the government, in which case it would be for the government to decide both the wording of the question and the subject matter.

Plebiscites could be initiated either by citizens themselves or by the government, in ways similar to those described above.

Part 2

The Case For Direct Democracy

Referendums and initiatives represent democracy in its purest form. They allow citizens themselves to decide on important issues without the intervention of elected representatives. Direct democracy can be likened to a pressure cooker: before the steam pressure builds to the danger point, the release valve pops up and the pressure is released. Anger and frustration, directed at politicians who aren't accountable or political institutions which aren't working, build up to the point where voters feel they must do something directly. At that point citizens circulate petitions for the holding of initiatives or referendums to take control over their own destinies.

Introducing citizen-initiated referendums into Canada's political life would have the effect of reversing the growing sense of powerlessness and anger that permeates the country - as well as the 'voter apathy" that results from voters Knowing their opinions are ignored. If citizens had the opportunity to participate directly in the law-making process, if they believed their votes really counted for something, their feelings of powerlessness and anger would dissipate. Moreover, unlike politicians who look only in the short term toward the next election, voters would vote with an eye to the longer term - to the future of their children. At the same time, the referendum system gives laws a greater legitimacy. People would be more apt to obey legislation that has the clear, direct support of the majority of voters. They would know that the government was acting in accordance with the popular will.

Pros and Cons

Despite direct democracy's benefits, it has its detractors. Some of the more common objections are listed below, followed by short rebuttals.

1. "Direct democracy runs counter to our traditional Parliamentary System."

No doubt similar arguments were raised when the secret ballot and universal suffrage were first proposed.

This argument ignores the continuously evolving nature of the parliamentary system. Since Magna Carta was signed in 1215 when King John agreed to share power with a small group of barons, the system has evolved from absolute monarchy, to rule by landed aristocracy, to what we have today: constitutional monarchy within which Parliament is supreme and elected by universal suffrage.

Implementing direct democracy would be a further step in this evolution and would further diffuse direct political power from the few to the many. As well, one must remember that any laws allowing referendums at the provincial or federal levels would have to be passed by Parliaments and could be revoked by them.

2. "Direct democracy would weaken or replace representative government."

Not so. Direct democracy would not weaken or replace representative government, it would enhance it. Indeed, as long as a legislature truly represented the will of citizens, there would be no need for initiatives or referendums. But direct democracy would stimulate government to do the job it was elected to do.

3. "Voters are not smart enough to vote on complicated issues."

At general elections - whether at the federal, provincial or municipal level - voters must choose among a variety of policies and politicians that are long on promises, short on specifics and clouded by previous experience of promises unfulfilled. A referendum is held on one issue which is more easily understood. Moreover, citizens also have the option of voting against referendum questions, a marked advantage over their present powerlessness to vote on major issues of policy.

4. "Citizen-initiated referendums would result in the tyranny of the majority."

Any measure passed by referendum would be subject to the same safeguards as any other piece of legislation: common law, the Canadian Bill of Rights and the written Canadian Constitution (which includes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms).

5. "The wealthy would have undue influence in swaying referendums."

It would be far, far more difficult to buy the support of or sway the opinions of the entire voting population than to do the same with a relative handful of elected politicians. The power of lobby groups is directed at and designed to influence a small elite of politicians and permanent officials, not the public at large.

6. "Special interest groups would use referendums to promote their own agendas."

There is nothing wrong with citizens banding together for the purpose of promoting issues and there is nothing wrong with them seeking to put those issues to a vote. That's what citizen-initiated referendums are all about. Of course, just because a special interest group can gather enough signatures to force a vote does not mean it would automatically become law. The ultimate decision would rest with the majority vote in a secret ballot.

Part 3

Referendums In Canadian History

During the Meech Lake Accord negotiations, Prime Minister Mulroney dismissed referendums by saying that they "are not the Canadian way". On the contrary, direct democracy is a fact of Canadian history. Although there is no provision in the Constitution Act for national referendums, all that is needed for a referendum to take place is Parliamentary approval.

In fact, two national plebiscites have been held in Canada since Confederation. One, held in 1898, gauged public attitudes on prohibition.

The second and better known example dealt with the issue of conscription during the Second World War, when Prime Minister Mackenzie King sought to be released from his promise never to conscript Canadians for military service. Accordingly, Parliament passed the Dominion Plebiscite Act which allowed a vote on the contentious issue. The debate over conscription raged across the country, and when the vote was finally taken in 1942, the people opted to release King from his promise. That was the last national plebiscite in Canada. In 1978, the Liberal government of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau did introduce legislation called the Canada Referendum Act, which would have allowed for national votes on constitutional issues. The government did not proceed with it.

Direct democracy has played a greater part in the political history of the provinces, especially the Western provinces. In the early part of the 20th century many Westerners grew disillusioned with party politics which they believed did not represent their interests. The result was a growing interest in referendums.


Alberta enacted its own Direct Legislation Act in 1913 to provide a mechanism for public participation. The law allowed for citizen-initiated legislation so long as it did not involve the spending of public money. Any proposed law needed the support of 20 percent of the electorate. If the legislature did not pass such an initiative it was put to the people in a referendum.

Also, the law mandated that once a law was passed by the government, it would not become valid for 90 days. If during that time, a petition containing the signatures of ten percent of the electorate challenged the law, it would be put to a referendum.

In 1958 the Alberta government decided to repeal the Direct Legislation Act on the grounds that it was unconstitutional, despite the fact that the law's constitutionality was never questioned. Indeed, constitutional authorities say the Direct Legislation Act's constitutionality was implied by a ruling in 1916 of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which then functioned as the highest court in Canada.


Contemporary with Alberta's Act was Saskatchewan's Direct Legislation Act, introduced in 1913 and passed with the support of both the Liberals and Conservatives. The Act permitted a percentage of the electorate - 30 percent - to initiate their own legislation and to approve or reject laws passed by the legislature.

While speaking for the Bill, Saskatchewan Premier Walter Scott declared that "while the people may make a mistake, the risk is not as great now as in times past. Owing to the spread of democracy and education, the time is coming when all the people will be competent to express opinion on public matters".

After the Bill received Royal Assent a special referendum was held to let the people decide its fate.

Unfortunately, due to a low turnout of voters caused by poor organization and communication, the law did not receive the required support of 30 percent of the electorate and it was repealed.


In 1916, Manitoba enacted the Initiative and Referendum Act. This Act provided an opportunity for Manitobans to submit laws to the legislature through a petition containing the signatures of eight percent of the electorate. If the legislature did not enact the proposal it had to be put before the voters in a referendum. If the people supported the proposal, it became law.

The Act also provided that five percent of the electorate could petition for the repeal of any Act of the legislature, other than an emergency measure.

In 1919, however, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council ruled that since the Act permitted the creation of laws without Royal Assent, it infringed on the constitutional position of the office of the Lieutenant Governor and therefore Canada's Sovereign.

British Columbia

While the Manitoba legislation was undergoing judicial scrutiny, British Columbia introduced its own Direct Legislation Bill in 1919.

It provided that an initiative or a referendum could be requested by 25 percent of the voters including at least ten percent of the voters in at least three-quarters of the electoral districts. Money bills were exempted.

While the Act was being debated in the British Columbia legislature, a government MLA named J. S. Cowper defended the proposed law by arguing that "any man who believes in trusting the people to do the right thing and that the power to do it should be placed in their hands without having to wait until any government's five years of office are up should not be opposed to such a measure".

The Bill was passed, but never received Royal Assent. The government feared that it, too, would be ruled unconstitutional, though that remains in doubt. Unlike Manitoba's law, the British Columbia Direct Democracy bill required that any initiative passed had then to be passed by the legislature.

Direct Democracy Today

Today the provinces of British Columbia, Alberta, New Brunswick and Newfoundland all have provisions in their respective electoral laws that allow plebiscites. The Yukon, Prince Edward Island, the Northwest Territories and Quebec have separate laws providing for plebiscites. The Quebec government has stated its intention to hold a second plebiscite on its future status in Canada at the end of 1992. Plebiscites are also used at the municipal level in Canada: in Alberta, the Municipal Act allows for citizen-initiated referendums.

Part 4

Direct Democracy In Other Parts Of The World


Australia, like Canada, is a parliamentary democracy and member of the Commonwealth. Unlike Canada, however, Australia has a provision in its constitution for national referendums. Any amendment to the federal constitution must be approved by both houses of Parliament, by an overall majority of voters and by a majority of voters in four of six states. Referendums are also used at the state level.

Since the turn of the century, Australians have had an opportunity to vote on 36 constitutional amendments. They have also had national referendums on conscription and the national anthem.


The Swiss have been using referendums for centuries. Their system is unique; they can vote on virtually anything. They can amend the constitution, accept or reject government foreign or domestic policy and introduce their own laws. Anyone with 100,000 signatures on a petition can sponsor an initiative to demand changes to the constitution and anyone who can gather 50,000 signatures on a petition can call for a referendum on a law passed by the federal government. The final result in both cases, of course, is subject to a vote by all citizens.

The United States

While not used on the federal level in the United States, referendums are used extensively at the state level.

As of this writing, 23 states in the United States and the District of Columbia allow citizens the power to initiate statewide legislation. In addition, the voters in 25 states have the power to originate referendums by popular petition. Direct democracy is especially popular in the State of California, where it has been part of the political scene since 1911. In the 1990 state election, Californians had an opportunity to vote on 18 different initiatives. The best known example is Proposition 13, passed in 1978, which forced reductions in property taxes, and sparked similar tax revolt referendums across the United States.

Part 5

A Suggested Format For Canada

A Referendum Act at the federal level might be drafted along the following lines:

A petition would be addressed to the Attorney General of Canada. It would be required to contain signatures amounting to at least three percent of registered voters which had been collected within six months. Petitions would contain the text of the proposed law (which might be for a new law, or to repeal existing laws), and it would then be the duty of the Attorney General to rule on the validity of the signatures within one month of the petition's presentation.

Once so certified, a national referendum would be called and held within three months. Upon approval by a simple majority of the votes cast, the proposed law would be submitted to the Governor General for Royal Assent.

The Act might also require that any amendment to the Constitution be put to national referendum for approval or rejection, along the lines of the Australian model.


Canadians have always cherished the freedom inherent in democracy: many have fought for it -many have died for it. The time has come to take the next step in the centuries-old evolution of democracy. The time has come for direct democracy. Canadians must gain power over their own destiny through the power either to initiate legislation or to pass judgment on laws already enacted. Direct democracy works. It works in Australia, Switzerland, the United States and it can work again in Canada. Canada already has its own tradition of direct democracy to build upon. We invite all Canadians, who share our commitment to direct democracy, to join our campaign today to make it happen.


Appendix A

Provisions in the 1913 Alberta Law for Initiatives and Referendums

(These clauses are extracted verbatim from "The Direct Legislation Act")

3. The Legislature, with reference to any Act, may declare that it shall not come into force until the ninetieth day after the close of the session during which the same is passed.

4. Any number of electors being not less than ten per centum in number of the total votes polled at the general provincial election then last held, may address a petition to the Lieutenant Governor in Council (provided that the said petition must be signed by a number of electors in eighty-five per centum of the electoral divisions in the province equal in number in each electoral division to at least eight per centum of the votes polled in the said electoral division at the election then last held for the purpose of electing a member of the Legislative Assembly), praying that any Act or any part of parts of the said Act, the operation of which is deferred under the provisions of section 3 hereof be referred to a vote of the electors.

5. When any such petition is presented under the provisions of section 4 hereof the operation of the Act therein referred to shall be and is hereby further deferred until a vote of the electors is taken thereon and the result of such vote finally determined as hereinafter provided.

6. Any number of electors being not less than 20 per centum in number of the total votes polled at the general provincial election then last held may present to the Legislative Assembly at any time before the expiration of the time for the presenting of petitions to the Legislative Assembly, a petition. . . praying that a proposed Act, a copy of which shall accompany the said petition, be enacted by the Legislature;

Provided that the said petition must be signed by a number of electors [as stipulated in section 4 above];

Provided however, that no such proposed Act shall be considered by the Legislative Assembly which provides for any grant or charge upon the public revenue or which is not certified to by the Attorney General as being in his opinion within the legislative jurisdiction of the Legislature of Alberta.

7. Every proposed Act presented to the Legislative Assembly under the provisions of section 6 hereof and which compiles with all the requirements of the said section shall unless it is enacted during the session at which it is presented without amendment or with only such amendments as shall be certified to by the Speaker as not constituting a substantial alteration therein, or as not changing the meaning intent or effect thereof, be submitted to a vote of the electors...

Appendix B

Provisions in the Australian Constitution for National Referendums

Section 128.

This Constitution shall not be altered except in the following manner:

The proposed law for the alteration thereof must be passed by an absolute majority of each House of Parliament, and not less than two nor more than six months after its passage through both Houses the proposed law shall be submitted in each State to the electors qualified to vote for the election of members of the House of Representatives.

And if in a majority of the States a majority of the electors voting approve the proposed law, and if a majority of all the electors voting also approve the proposed law, it shall be presented to the Governor General for the Queen's assent.

Appendix C

Provisions in the Swiss Constitution for Initiatives and Referendums

Article 89

1. Federal laws and federal decrees must be approved by both councils.

2. Federal laws and generally binding federal decrees must be submitted to the people for approval or rejection if 50,000 citizens entitled to vote or eight Cantons so demand.

3. Paragraph 2 shall be applicable also to international treaties which:

a) are of unspecified duration and cannot be denounced;

b) provide for adherence to an international organization;

c) entail a multilateral unification of the law.

4. By a decision of both Houses paragraph 2 shall be applicable to other treaties.

5. Adherence to collective security organizations or to supranational bodies shall be submitted to the vote of the people and the Cantons.

Article 89 (addendum)

1. Generally binding federal decrees whose entry into force ought not to be delayed may be put into effect immediately by a majority of all members of each of the two Councils; the period of validity is to be limited.

2. If 50,000 Swiss citizens entitled to vote or eight Cantons request a popular vote, the decrees put immediately into effect shall lose their validity one year after their adoption by the Federal Assembly if they have not been approved by the people during that period; in that case, they may be renewed.

3. Decrees put immediately into effect which have no constitutional basis must be approved by the people and the Cantons within one year after their adoption by the Federal Assembly; failing this, they shall lose their validity after the lapse of this year and may not be renewed.

Art. 120

1. If one section of the Federal Assembly decides on a total revision of the Federal Constitution and the other does not consent or if a hundred thousand Swiss citizens entitled to vote demand the total revision of the Federal Constitution, the question whether such a revision should take place or not must be submitted in both cases to the vote of the Swiss people.

2. If in either of these cases the majority of the Swiss citizens casting a vote give an affirmative answer, both councils shall be elected anew in order to undertake the revision.

Art. 121

1. Partial revision may be carried out either by means of a popular initiative or in accordance with the forms laid down for federal legislation.

2. The popular initiative consists of a request, presented by a hundred thousand Swiss citizens entitled to vote, aiming at the introduction, setting aside or modification of specified articles of the Federal Constitution.

3. If by means of a popular initiative several different provisions are to be modified or introduced into the Federal Constitution, each one must be the subject of a separate initiative request.

4. An initiative request may consist of a general proposal or take the form of a complete draft.

5. If such a request consists of a general proposal and if it meets with the approval of the Federal Chambers, the latter shall prepare a partial revision along the lines of the proposal and submit their draft to the people and the Cantons for adoption or rejection. If the Federal Chambers do not approve of the request, the question of partial revision shall be submitted to the decision of the people; if the majority of the Swiss citizens casting a vote decide in the affirmative, the Federal Assembly shall undertake the revision in conformity with the decision of the people.

6. If the request is in the form of a complete draft and if it meets with the approval of the Federal Assembly, the draft shall be submitted to the people and the Cantons for the adoption or rejection. If the Federal Assembly disagrees, it may prepare its own draft or recommend the rejection of the proposed draft and submit its own draft or recommendation of rejection together with the draft proposed by the initiative to the decision of the people and the Cantons.

The above text was transcribed from the pamphlet "Direct Democracy: How We Can Control Our Politicians" published by "The National Citizens Coalition" which was not copyrighted (the publication is titled "NCC1" and I purchased 20 of these at $1.00 each so that I could circulate them amongst friends and relatives). The following contact information was taken from the back cover. Please contact either of these organizations for more information AND please support them financially so that they can continue to get the word out in Canada.

The National Citizens' Coalition

The National Citizens' Coalition is Canada's foremost organization for the defense of our basic political and economic freedoms. We promote free markets, individual freedom and responsibility under limited government and a strong defense.

Founded in 1967 by the late Cohn M. Brown, the NCC is a registered non-profit corporation and is independent of all political parties. We have more than 39,000 supporters across the country who share a belief in "more freedom through less government". On principle the NCC neither seeks tax-deductible status for contributions nor will it accept any government funding. Officers are Cohn T. Brown, Chairman; David E.T. Somerville, President; Peter Coleman, Treasurer.

The National Citizens' Coalition
Suite 907, 100 Adelaide St. W.,
Toronto, Ontario M5H 1S3

Albertans For Responsible Government

Albertans for Responsible Government is based in Calgary and is dedicated to restoring direct democracy in Alberta.

Under its Director, Mark Waters, ARG's aim is to mount a grass-roots campaign to persuade the government of Alberta to pass legislation providing for citizen-initiated referendums. A project of The National Citizens' Coalition, ARG is funded solely by voluntary contributions from interested Canadians.

Albertans For Responsible Government
Highfield Post Office, Box 40039
Calgary, Alberta T2G 5G5

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Neil Rieck
Kitchener - Waterloo - Cambridge, Ontario, Canada.