In a democratic society, there is an expectation placed on those in governance to carry out the people's will in a reasonably practical manner that ensures that a balance is met between the desires of the electorate and what is in the best interest of the country. Unfortunately, what governments deem the best course of action sometimes goes inherently against the mould of public views and deviates so far from the usual course that citizens feel slighted and caught off guard by government's lack of consultation.
Where decisions concern policies that would directly impact the taxpayer's pocket, national spending and issues that affect human rights, there is a school of thought that suggests more than consultation might be needed. As the rightful equal owners and beneficiaries of a country's resources, citizens should have a say in decisions that could change or alter society's fabric.
In 2016 when the UK government found itself in a quandary over its decision to leave the European Union, a public vote or referendum was issued, giving the public the power to decide. Simply put, a referendum is a popular vote where the electorate votes on a specific political question or issue, usually of a contentious nature or one that has garnered differing views. This is known as direct democracy, and in contrast to votes cast at an election that is made in relation to parties or individual candidates and generally reflect voters' preferences over a range of different issues, referendums are usually based on matters of public policy or those that are of primary political importance such as whether to amend a country's constitution or impact human rights such as gay rights.
Typically, referendum questions usually have a "yes" or "no" answer but can have more than two possible answers. For example, one of the most popular referendums in recent times was the British exit referendum in the UK, which asked the public, “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” The result, 51.9 per cent of the votes cast were in favour of leaving the EU, making it arguably one of the most controversial moves of our time and a political and international law nightmare. Yet the views of the people took supremacy.
The referendum model in the UK isn't unique, as many societies embrace this decision-making instrument and see referendums as an essential part of their democratic fibre. Importantly referendums allow the public to have a direct say on changes to the law without leaving all the power in the hands of the elected few.
Referendums can be held with an election, in a stand-alone poll, or by postal vote and has a plethora of regulating instruments, similar to an election, that ensures its validity. Over recent years the use of referendums has garnered widespread support. This could be in part to increasing voter apathy and disenchantment with traditional forms of democracy. When voters feel unheard by the elected powers in charge, direct democracy can help to re-engage voters and enable them to feel heard in an ocean of political debauchery and noise.
Referendums are also a powerful tool used to resolve political problems, particularly for incumbent governments where a governing party is in conflict on an issue. As much as we all want to feel heard concerning government policies and views that might affect us, the electorate needs to be better informed about the ins and outs of all issues and the potentially devastating effects of a government's actions. Take, for example, the 2016 Colombian Peace Agreement Referendum, where voters in Colombia rejected a landmark peace deal with Farc rebels voting 50.2 per cent against it. One writer suggests that this scenario highlights both the seductive attraction and grave perils of referendums, as voters can be seduced by false promises based on fantasies of an ideal outcome. One of the most striking or potentially telling arguments against referendums is their potential to fly in the face of democracy.
Opponents argue that if the executive has the power to determine when referendums are held, they can be used as a political tool to suit the needs of the governing party rather than the interests of democracy or the need for change.
In TT and several other islands in the region, referendums are often regarded as a tool for political suicide. One author, when commenting on the failed constitutional referendums held in Grenada and Antigua and Barbuda, described the region as a "graveyard of referendums" and went on to lament the stalemate position most countries of the region found itself in when attempting to replace the Privy Council with the Caribbean Court of Justice.
Yet even with the stake we claim on democracy, TT and most of the Caribbean region fail to participate in direct democracy on issues like constitutional reform and joining international treaties, leaving many to question whether this has something to do with fear of the outcome.
Our direct involvement in the decision-making process doesn't ruffle most citizens. Still, others believe that citizens ought to have a much greater say in the decision-making process for controversial issues.
So, consider this, should democracy reflect a complete delegation of power, or should some level of control be maintained by giving citizens the continued right to decide?