Mr. Charles-Eugene Dionne (Kamouraska):
Mr. Speaker, we have already heard many different comments on the bill respecting public referendums in Canada. First, let us look at the reasons for this decision by the government. We could dwell on some problems which most hon. members know and which are the reasons for the decisions the government made concerning this new piece of legislation. This formula of consultation has already been used in different countries. There are probably a few advantages to it, provided the many disadvantages which could arise in the style used in the drafting of the questions which will be asked are foreseen in the implementation of the rules.
The general organization of a referendum can be compared with the organization of a general election each time the elements are similar. For example, in both cases there is a national vote and the electors are the same, namely those who are on the permanent election list. The same officers will probably be used and they will probably have the same responsibilities. Finally, the details on the material organization will
have to be established in consideration of the experience acquired; it is a matter of convenience and of efficiency.
What gives value and usefulness to a referendum, advisory though it may be, is the attitude of the government of the day in relation with the issue of the referendum, namely whether or not it is prepared to give consideration to the will of the public and consider itself bound by such will. A government can always promise that it will accept the result of a referendum. That is what Mr. Wilson's British government did before the referendum on maintaining British participation in the European Common Market. In our parliamentary system, where the written constitution makes no reference to referenda, it is necessary to enact legislation concerning the holding of a referendum and the way it will be organized. That can be useful in certain circumstances. Everything depends on the events which occur and on the way in which it is used. That is what was done in countries where the parliamentary tradition is similar to ours, namely in Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. In all those instances a bill was introduced respecting a referendum on a specific matter and even spelling out the question to be put to the voters. In the newspaper Le Devoir of December 17, 1976 there was an article entitled: "Spain Referendum Lesson" summarized somewhat the inconveniences and advantages that can result from a referendum. After having pointed out that, of those who voted, 94.2 per cent voted yes and 2.6 per cent of the population had abstained from voting, it said, and I quote:
This is where some truths must be grasped and the real question put. Might the watchword to abstain not be a strategic error, all the more unforgiveable that it fed-the success of the referendum has proved it clearly-on a false perception of Spanish realities? Ideologically speaking, some will claim great democratic ideals while rejecting compromise. That position could very well be justifiable. But does one defend democracy better when proving one's weaknesses?
I point out, however, that in these times of economic problems of all sorts it may not be as advantageous as some believe to make a permanent institution of a formula that has not been tried.
If we spent more time discovering the reasons which have led to our discussing this bill, we might discover that the most ingenious means would be to solve, beforehand the problems that are likely to crop up later. I remember full well that referendums have been asked for on various occasions in Canada, all bearing on very important topics. I shall mention the suggestion made to the government that a referendum be held before the bill on capital punishment was passed. For reasons that are difficult to explain, our administrators did not deem it wise to agree to those suggestions, but the fact remains they would have given solid reasons to the legislators and so enabled them to give a better orientation to legislation in that field.
In the last few years, we have noticed that polls of all sorts have become quite fashionable. Public opinion poll firms are developing very sophisticated questionnaires to submit to their
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patients. However they are far from being ready to point out under the group "undecided" the increasing number of those who should be more properly included under the group "disgusted". I also remember reading somewhere what seem to me to be useful advice concerning referendums, namely that a policy of over-control could jeopardize the equal opportunities provided to the options involved.
In a report published in the newspaper Le Devoir on October 21, 1977, entitled "The Referendum War" by Robert Decary, the following could be read:
The campaign for the provincial referendum has hardly been launched in Quebec and already Ottawa has decided to organize its own referendum. It is fair play. Even if the contents of the bill have not yet been disclosed, it is possible that in the near future Quebeckers will be called to vote twice about belonging to the Canadian nation. No provision for the withdrawal of a province appears in the British North America Act, so it seems that Ottawa as much as Quebec could hold its own vote.
It is a clear indication of a sick political system when two levels of government can in turn and each in its own way legislate in the same field; and this is no doubt a further reason to treat the "patient" and to make sure that under the new system, such a situation cannot be repeated. But for the moment, we will have to live with the system and submit to the rules of the game.
In 1942, we had some kind of public consultation in the form of a plebiscite. Many certainly remember the reactions to the announcement of that plebiscite.
The "yes" won nationally by 63.7 per cent to 36.3 per cent. So the country as a whole agreed to release the government from earlier promises. The kind of crisis that followed stirred many Canadians and changed several ideas. It is often when two nations are fiercely opposed that one can measure their vitality. I mentioned that kind of consultation, which was not a referendum strictly speaking, in order to show that one must be careful when holding a public consultation in a country like ours. Since the events that took place in Canada in 1976, all citizens and their governments were led no doubt to reconsider carefully their convictions and their position.
In an article published in Selections du Reader's Digest for the month of May, 1977, and entitled "Confederation in Danger" I read the following by the hon. member for Halifax (Mr. Stanfield) who sits in this House, which I think is quite relevant and I quote:
We must choose between the blind pursuit of our individual interests and the common good. We must give up the narrow-minded visions we have of Canada at times and consider everyone's needs and desires.
And he went on:
The direction taken by political leaders will be of prime importance because it will provide leadership; yet, they can do nothing without the support of every Canadian. The federal government will have to consider the consequences of its actions in the various areas of the country; Canadians for their part will have to try to ponder the effects of their statements, their actions and their individual reactions.
The article ends on this:
Maintaining Canadian unity always had a price. We must be prepared to compromise, to make concessions, even reluctantly. The fate of our country depends above all on our moderation and our will to survive. We are now going through a difficult test and we will know shortly if we are worthy of our heritage.
I have already stated in this House that our duty as legislators would be to allow all Canadians to live as heirs instead of
being perpetually indebted. If the government would really try to find an effective remedy to cure that sickness called fear of the future instead of legislating on referendum issues, we would avoid many difficulties, most of which result from our ineffective financial system. When we consider the damage caused by this system which produces indebted heirs, we find many causes which should be understood so that we can put some order in the present confusion.
However, I recognize that in the history of some countries many referendums have been held, sometimes on constitutional issues or to find a solution to controversial matters. Between 1911 and 1928, six referendums were held in New Zealand on prohibition and the sale of alcoholic beverages. Since then they have used that kind of popular vote many times.
In the United States, they held referendums at the very beginning of that nation. At the declaration of independence in 1776, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island had their constitution approved by a direct vote. In 1778, Massachusetts was the first state to have recourse to that practice for its constitution which was rejected in public meetings across the land. Some authors maintain that it was the first time legislation was subject to a popular vote by way of a referendum.
On November 12, 1933, Adolf Hitler held a plebiscite at the same time as a general election. This election was held to obtain approval for a unique list of candidates to the Reichstag and the referendum to get approval for the withdrawal of Germany from the League of Nations. As a matter of fact, Hitler often used a referendum to gain support for his foreign policy. After his rise to power, he used the referendum essentially to show the other countries that his teams had the general support of the population.
We could ask ourselves this question: Of what use would future referendums be? Of course, they would be used to answer or to try to answer questions or problems about which the government must make decisions, but which could cause electoral embarrassment among a large sector of the population. We must recognize that a government must often take certain action which goes against the interests of certain groups. The concept of referendum could therefore be used to justify unpopular policies. Thus, in certain conditions, a referendum could become a strategy much more than a democratization of power. There are many problems too complex for a referendum to solve.
Let us consider for instance our energy problems; they are so complex that the experts themselves do not agree. Should we use a referendum to determine whether or not to develop nuclear energy? The citizens would not know what to decide because they are all more or less afraid of radiation. It would be difficult to use the results of a referendum to develop a long term energy policy. Just as if doctors asked their patients to choose their own therapy and medication.
In summary, referendums are political strategies much more than they are an effective means of popular participation in
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the affairs of the state. Even if white papers are published on the subject, this does not necessarily mean that the intentions of the government are as pure as driven snow. We sometimes hear about separation and even subdivision. We must not forget that there are citizens with separatist ideas throughout the country. Fortunately, there are not that many of them at the present time. Flowever, at the proper time, it would be wiser to keep the debate on a conversational level, which could eventually lead to a Canadian union based on new and realistic concepts.
It is too late to rewrite the history of our country but we could find a formula of agreement in our modern Canada which would allow us to carry on together, to work in harmony and to develop our enormous potential of resources. Perhaps we could try to develop a few minds which appear to me far too proud to recognize the rights of others at the appropriate time. It is not because we lack legislation in our country, we might even have too much of it. The referendum bill might just be one more law out of many which, most of the time, are written in such a way that they cannot be understood.
Lately I had the opportunity to read in Le Devoir of March 29, 1977 an article about the new government in France and I want to quote an extract of a speech which was given by the French president on that occasion where he attributed to the new government the two following tasks, and I quote:
-First of all, our economy being on the way to recovery, we must pursue in that direction as it is vital for France and for the French. Your standard of living and your jobs depend on that recovery.
Then we must launch a 12-month action program accompanied by specific objectives. This program will have to meet the concrete areas of concern of the French and contain simple measures, explained in plain words easily understandable by everyone."
That is what we forget to do here when we write our bills. They are always very complicated. I remember drawing the attention of the members of the House to the fact that our laws are written in style which is far too complicated. We would need to seek formulas easily understood by everyone.
On April 4, 1978, Le Droit of Ottawa reported the first part of a speech made by Mr. Gerald Beaudoin, a member of the Pepin-Robarts Task Force on Canadian Unity. He was invited to comment on the constitutionality of the referendum. I quote a part of his speech on constitutional jurisdiction:
In 1969, under the Bertrand government, the Quebec legislature studied an organic bill on a consultative referendum. The Levesque government tabled its referendum bill in 1977. The constitution definitely grants a legislative assembly as well as the central government the authority to pass legislation respecting referenda on issues which come under their respective jurisdictions.
In the last few years much has been said about the constitution of Canada, now to amend, now to repatriate and more recently to renew it, emphasizing what it should be and seldom what it was, stressing the distribution of powers and educational and linguistic guarantees without realizing that we were reducing the 147 initial clauses of this act down to 4 or 5.
The constitution is more than a cluster of powers or rights which may be amended, repatriated or reformulated. It also means a political way of life, a choice of institutions, an almost
invisible structure within which every citizen exercises his rights and without which he might have no right at all or exercise them differently. The constitution is the basis and the guarantee of social order.
We should take a more comprehensive and concrete approach to this and provide a more specific framework for the discussions which have been at a standstill for far too long. Our institutions have been set up only to serve the people that founded them and when they have become obsolete it is time to amend or replace them so that they get closer to their objective.
After 110 years of Confederation, Canada is facing the vital need and the moral obligation created by the parties concerned to reassess its attitude and position in a modern world. Our task now is to build the kind of Canada we would like to live in, not one which is imposed upon us from the outside, this does not imply a rejection of our past, but rather a positive, forward-looking attitude and a progressive, humanistic outlook.
Our past is gone by. The present quickly ebbs into the past. We must build the future, not only our own but that of our country and our fellow citizens because only in the future shall we be able to find gratification for our present yearnings and desires. History has decided that Anglophones and Francophones should share the same country as partners, albeit unequal, who have survived in the midst of many difficulties. All Canadians, within and without Quebec, can overcome their fears, prejudices, frustrations and resentment and learn to live together in a true spirit of brotherhood. In our country two races, two glorious histories are living side by side with just one common future. Every Canadian has the duty to make sure that our hopes will be fulfilled.
Topic: GOVERNMENT ORDERS
Subtopic: CANADA REFERENDUM ACT