Sunday, April 21, 2024

PETER WICKHAM: Plebiscites, Public Competence 2


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THE PREVIOUS VERSION of this article sought to build a case against the referendum on the basis that people often “get it wrong” because they are unable to appreciate the complexity of the issues. This argument would, of course, imply that elections are the preferred poll in which the public should participate, while leaving more complex and sensitive decisions for elected politicians. 

Ironically, the US election took place in the interim and demonstrated the extent to which this process can also be perverted which should provoke a separate reflection on the shortcomings of those exercises. Notwithstanding, I will focus on my other key concern which is that some issues are such that it is inappropriate to expose these matters to a public vote that could fail.

Into this category would fall the recent referendum in Hungary on mandatory EU quotas that would have required Hungary to accept thousands of asylum seekers. Thankfully, the voter turnout was low enough to de-legitimise the exercise; however, the central issue behind the vote is no less offensive. Effectively, the EU’s quota system mandated that Hungary accept asylum seekers in much the same way that that all other responsible European states had; however, the Hungarian government was uncomfortable being told to accept these refugees who did not share the Hungarian ethnic or cultural background. The government therefore offered the referendum, against which they campaigned in the hope that the vote would have provided an “air-tight” basis for avoidance.

There were, of course, legal issues; however, I am more concerned about the morality of using a population in this way and moreover the sentiment the referendum is intended to reinforce. Clearly, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has no interest in consulting his population but wanted to dodge what should be a humanitarian obligation. His German counterpart Angela Merkel also faced this crisis, but instead opened her country to one million migrants.

Those of us who understand the reality of their migrant crisis appreciate Merkel’s bravery and admire her leadership, while the actions of Orbán appear lacking in the human compassion. The fact that he gained the support of 98 per cent of the population might appear to vindicate his decision however, he also politicised a matter of human rights which is unacceptable.

The simplest understanding of human rights is that these should be entirely removed from popular support which is the foundation of the referendum. Individual rights are entrenched beyond the reach of a simple majority for a good reason and indeed these rights have grown to become part of EU law for similar reasons. The obvious intention is that some matters are so fundamental that a government, no matter how well-supported should not be able to “tinker” with these, even with the cooperation of a misguided population. Hence in much the same way that a referendum on the reintroduction of slavery is as unethical as one would have been to end it, the Hungarian referendum seems to have crossed ethical lines in that is sought to circumvent a EU human rights initiative.

Ethical concerns also arise in scenarios when a question is put and the population gets it “right”. This was the case with the Irish referendum on gay marriage in 2015. This matter ended well; however, if properly understood the question of who should be allowed to marry arises from one’s understanding of the state’s right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, which is also a matter of human rights. Arguably therefore, it is also unethical to take this matter to a popular vote since it has the potential to subjugate the rights of the individual to the will of the majority. The Irish referendum is often seen as demonstrative of the extent to which the will of the people need not be feared; however, a similar vote in Bermuda rejected both gay marriage and civil unions which could put Bermuda’s interpretation of human rights at odds with the UK interpretation to which Bermuda should be aligned.

Although unethical, this Bermuda strategy is politically popular and emerged in Trinidad and Tobago where former Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar committed her government to a path of non-discrimination against persons based on sexual orientation, while promising a referendum on the repeal of the buggery laws. Similarly, her counterpart in St Vincent and the Grenadines placed a constitutional ban on gay marriage (akin to the US Defence of Marriage Act) and constitutional protection for the death penalty in a referendum that ultimately failed.

Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES). Email:


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