Lack of balance in referendum a threat to democracy
An impression is frequently conveyed by nods and winks that the “No side” is eccentric, vexatious and unrepresentative, and that the inevitable inequality of arms between the sides is itself an expression of the democratic will.
But, in all such situations, the “No side”, regardless of motivation, is fulfilling a vital democratic function: that of protecting the Constitution from possibly inappropriate change or unjustified attack by powerful and/or monied interests.
The “No side” in a referendum is comparable to the defence in a criminal trial, in that it offers an interrogation of the Government’s case. Until the moment when the people agree to adopt any proposed change, the Constitution as it stands remains the “will of the people” and must therefore be regarded as having at least as much claim to a defence as any proposed amendment has an entitlement of advocacy.
Ironically, it is the duty of the Government – among whose functions is the protection of the Constitution – to protect the rights of those who seek, in any given instance, to defend the Constitution as it stands. We have seen much in recent times of how this works in practice.
In the recent referendum, the Government was joined on the “Yes side” by the parliamentary Opposition, virtually all the media, the Catholic bishops, international philanthropists and sundry vested interests.
These campaigners had access to apparently unlimited funds for advertising, posters, leaflets and other means of promulgating their arguments. (This is altogether separate from the issue at stake in the recent McCrystal case, which dealt with the additional factor of the Government’s illegal use of public monies to promote a Yes vote.)
The “No side” had no funds, no formal organisational backing and not a single poster the length and breadth of the land.
It is obvious that this situation is potentially detrimental to the integrity and coherence of the Constitution and the wellbeing of our democracy.
The condition of our economy is among the more visible evidence of the dangers of leaving the defence of the prevailing “will of the people” to an under-resourced assortment of committed and concerned citizens entirely dependent on the good conscience of media operators to get their arguments across.