OPINION | Political courage in short supply? No problem, just call a plebiscite

·6 min read

This column is an opinion from Max Fawcett, a freelance writer and the former editor of Alberta Oil magazine.


Political courage seems to be in short supply these days, whether it's Republicans in the United States refusing to acknowledge the reality of Donald Trump's election defeat or provincial leaders here in Canada avoiding the more stringent measures that are needed to flatten the latest COVID-19 curve.

But when it comes to political cowardice, few acts can top the decision by Calgary's city council to punt on a proposed reduction to residential speed limits — one that would almost certainly save lives and money.

Rather than doing the obvious (something that Edmonton's city council voted 9-3 in favour of), council will revisit the issue in February, when they'll decide whether to put it to the public in a plebiscite in the fall.

Holding a plebiscite on something like reducing speed limits in residential neighbourhoods is a bit like asking voters to cast a ballot on whether puppies are adorable or babies smell good.

According to a report from the City of Calgary, reducing the speed limit in residential neighbourhoods from 50 km/h to 40 km/h would prevent approximately 300 collisions a year, as well as avoid $8 million in societal costs that range from property damage and hospital bills to loss of work due to injury.

And none of these figures can account for the cost of losing a loved one — say, a young child — in an accident that didn't have to happen.

You might think, given these realities, that a plebiscite would be a waste of everyone's time. Politicians are elected to make decisions and they don't come much easier than this one.

But what if seeking the consent of Calgarians isn't really the point of the plebiscite?

Weaponizing direct democracy

After all, as University of Alberta political science professor Jared Wesley argued in a recent Alberta Views dialogue with Ted Morton, direct democracy is often weaponized for entirely undemocratic purposes.

"At best," he wrote, "referendums allow elected officials to shirk their responsibility to negotiate and define the common good. At worst, they allow politicians to manipulate the public to achieve much narrower partisan, regional or ideological ends."

But even if Calgary city council finds its courage in February and actually votes on the proposed reduction to residential speed limits, next fall's municipal election could still have an assortment of plebiscites on provincial matters, such as an Alberta police force and the province's place in the federal equalization program.

Some local officials are already sounding the alarm about the impact that those plebiscites could have on municipal elections across the province.

"It would just drown us out," said Barry Morishita, the mayor of Brooks and the President of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, in a June 2020 CBC story. "There is no other way to put it."

That doesn't seem like an accident. After all, for a government that seems to view everything through the lens of combat, and which has found its most effective opposition coming from municipal leaders, particularly the ones in major cities like Edmonton and Calgary, this seems like a logical fight to pick.

While directly attacking those leaders could potentially backfire, encouraging people to turn out and vote against federal government programs — even ones they don't completely understand — seems far more likely to succeed.

And being able to pursue this political agenda under the guise of supporting direct democracy does have a certain Machiavellian brilliance to it.


Then again, Machiavelli would warn about the risk of being hoisted by your own petard.

While holding provincial plebiscites in a municipal election may serve the UCP's near-term political interests, that format may not be nearly as constructive when it comes to the looming conversation about potential new revenue measures.

Finance Minister Travis Toews has repeatedly indicated that, once his government is done cutting costs and slashing the salaries of doctors, nurses, and other public servants, it will turn its attention to the revenue side of the equation — and potentially a provincial sales tax.

"I think it will be important to review the province's revenue structure to determine if it's the appropriate, the most efficient structure that we can have," he said during a recent appearance at an Edmonton Chamber of Commerce event.

But as Jason Kenney said in a letter to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation earlier this year, any move to implement a sales tax will have to be approved by the voters in a plebiscite.

"As long as I am premier," he wrote, "Albertans will have the final say through a fair referendum vote on whether a hypothetical sales tax should be introduced."

And given how enthusiastically conservatives have salted that particular political field in the past, it's hard to imagine anything ever growing there — even if the province suddenly needs that harvest to survive.

The problem with plebiscites

Indeed, even in a comparatively pro-tax place like Metro Vancouver, a 2015 plebiscite that asked voters whether they'd be willing to pay an additional 0.5 per cent sales tax to fund new transit infrastructure failed miserably.

Despite having the backing of a large group of local mayors and the tepid support of both provincial parties, the "No" side won convincingly, carrying 61.7 per cent of the vote to the "Yes" side's 38.4 per cent.

Therein lies the problem with plebiscites, and the politicians that turn to them most enthusiastically.

Yes, they allow elected officials to avoid having to make certain decisions on the public's behalf, especially ones that might not be immediately popular. But they also box those same politicians into a much smaller political space, one where they've set an expectation that anything even vaguely controversial will get put directly to voters.

For some elected officials, constraining the range of a given government's policy space and ambition might be a good thing. But for a public that is contending with everything from climate change to the economic fallout from COVID-19, to say nothing of a failing state to our south, those sorts of constraints could do far more harm than good in the future.

Right now, we need leaders who are willing to actually lead — and take the political risks that come with that.

When Calgarians go to the polls next fall, they should remember that. And if there are pointless plebiscites about things like residential speed limits on the ballot, maybe they'll serve as a useful (and unintentional) reminder to that effect.

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