Canada has suffered through but survived two referenda within the Province of Quebec, each of which asked the voters to say “Oui” or “Non” to convoluted questions purporting to empower the provincial government to separate from Canada if the “Oui” side obtained a majority. The great political fight over the future of Quebec and Canada started in the mid-1960’s and is still faintly heard today. The first referendum was in 1980, the second was in 1995. The separatist Parti Quebecois (PQ) hid their intent by calling the sought for status “sovereignty-association” and insisting that Quebec is already a Nation, not a province. They also insisted that while separating from Canada, Quebec would acquire a host of new powers and benefits while keeping those it enjoyed as a province Canada. In other words, having its cake while eating it. In the lead up to the narrow loss of 1995 the separatist leader Jacques Parizeau compared the long struggle to a stint in a dentist’s chair and said that if Quebecers had second thoughts after a Oui vote it would not matter because they would be trapped like lobsters in a pot. Upon narrowly losing the vote Parizeau denounced the result as the product of money and the ethnic vote.
One might think that over the course of more than 50 years a separatist movement would formulate a coherent list of grievances that would be addressed by the break-up of the existing political unit. One would be wrong. The PQ never produced a truthful accounting of how Quebec suffered as a Canadian province. Likewise they never produced a credible list of tangible benefits they could acquire if only they could shake off the yoke of the Federal government. Their entire movement was and is based on a miasma of historical grievances and modern myths. They were asking Quebecers to vote for a rosy undefined dreamworld with all upside and no downside. Their campaign and the uncertainty it generated led to tens of thousands of Quebecers leaving the province, hundreds of businesses re-locating to Ontario, decades of an undervalued Canadian dollar and higher interest rates. The financial cost of the separatists’ pursuit of their fantasy is incalculable.
The one tangible benefit of that 50+ year visit to the dentist is that Canada has wrestled with this existential question without descending into a civil war. It could have been otherwise. The Front du Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) conducted a bombing campaign for a few years in the late 60s, culminating in the kidnapping of two individuals and the murder of one of them. All Canadians were horrified by that and a mutual understanding developed that political debates (even seemingly interminable ones) were much more preferable to violence.
So referenda, as part of the political, non-violent approach to dispute resolution have a role to play in that they give opposing objectives an opportunity to be peacefully resolved.
The trouble is in two forms: The wording of the referendum question when it comes to big issues not easily encapsulated in a form that will fit on a ballot and the threshold for victory.
Quebec’s first separatist referendum in 1976 was conducted under the premise that a 50% plus 1 Oui vote would result in Quebec leaving Canada. The Scottish National Party’s referendum in 2015 was run with a similar threshold for the separatists to claim victory, as was Brexit. The Brexit question seemed to be succinct and clear. Most importantly, both sides seemed to agree what it meant. Brexit is the only separatist referendum of the three to succeed. The Leave side won and the easy road to a more prosperous future was taken. Or not. What was at the time hailed as a “decisive” 52%-48% statement that Britain should leave the EU has turned into a three year slog that will – or will not – end within ten days as Britain departs the EU without having negotiated anything to smooth the process. There is no consensus within Britain as to what should be done and no clear method for making a choice. It is what can only be described as a mess. Whatever the leave voters had in mind we can safely assume it was not this.
Referenda are promoted by their advocates as the ultimate expression of democracy. This is often accompanied by a preference for 50% plus 1 as the threshold for victory. Referenda are useful for clear cut yes/no questions such as legalizing a substance or activity. It could be argued that referenda on such matters is an abdication of political leadership by those in power but it is democratic. Where referenda are not so helpful are for questions with broad interpretations and deep levels of detail that need to be worked out afterward. In those circumstances each person voting for change does so based on a unique perception of the end result. The only side that has a consensus for their outcome is the side supporting the status quo. The voters are figuratively choosing between current realities and signing a blank check. That uninformed decision cannot be democratic.
There is another way. Parts of it could be seen in the PQ’s 1995 referendum to separate Quebec from Canada. For round two, the Canadian Government first stated that only a clear question would be honored upon a majority voting Oui and later stated that a simple 50% plus 1 majority would not be enough to separate Quebec from Canada. The PQ leader, wanting his lobsters trapped in his pot, insisted both measures were "undemocratic" and that a narrow Oui win would have to be recognized by Canada. Fortunately his theory was not tested. In 1995 a narrow win for Oui would have produced a crisis that could have gone anywhere.
An even better process is available. First, for referenda on complex or existential questions the threshold to claim victory for change must be high. Canada still has not specified a threshold. Hopefully they won’t need to. Second, the process must include a second referendum on any negotiated terms for the new status. This ensures that those who want change know exactly what they are voting for. These two mechanisms, agreed upon in advance are more likely to lead to a smooth and mutually agreed upon outcome for all concerned.
But Mr. Cameron didn’t arrange for any of that in 2016 and the result is what we see today. The UK teetering on the brink of irrelevance and economic chaos. All for the sake of trying to appease a few Conservative cranks.