True democracy needs facts

By Victor Bowman – Prince George Free Press
Published: May 18, 2012 5:00 AM
Updated: May 18, 2012 5:50 AM


Direct democracy seems like a great idea.


The basis is that the citizens of any society should have the privilege of deciding all the significant directions we wish our society to go. A purely direct democracy would essentially do away with the need to elect representatives at the national, provincial or civic level. We could decide every issue by referendum.


As great as it sounds, there are some disadvantages. In a democracy the will of the people should reign supreme. That assumes that we can always find a decision that will satisfy the majority of citizens involved. It would also require the citizens to inform themselves and vote on a factual basis rather than an emotional basis.


Where the theory fails in our modern, often complicated world, is the failure to understand what we are voting on. There are few of us who can spend the time and effort to understand all sides of the question. That is not to say the citizens are stupid, it is just means that none of us can be an expert on everything.


We then look to others we can trust to supply the expert knowledge we need. Often the question is complex and relying on the expertise of others is a matter of trust. Trust can be used by others to convince us to follow their opinion without them giving us all the facts. Sometimes our trust is used by others to convince us to make a poor decision.


In British Columbia, we are dismantling the HST while other jurisdictions are adopting it or trending in that direction. The process is going to cost us a lot of dollars that could well have been used for health care, education, grants to municipalities to repair failing infrastructure or other positive uses of our tax dollars. Think of it as you avoid the potholes.


The effort to get rid of the HST will provide future generations with a wonderful example of what can happen. A former premier, who had resigned from office in disgrace not many years before, led the charge to end the HST. He was aided in his efforts by others who were more interested in the thrill of the power of direct democracy than in debating the facts. As we made our bed, we shall lie in it, lumps and all.


Closer to home is the citizen uprising against the proposed dike project. Similar to the HST it was led by armchair experts who felt they knew better than hydrologists, engineers and other with real expertise. Another triumph of opinion over fact.


It makes sense to find out a few facts before scrawling one’s name on a petition. Your buddy may have strong opinions, but are they based on fact or just opinion? In the case of the Nechako dike project proposal there was little interest in the information available to the public. If individuals had informed themselves, then the common belief that dredging the river would solve the problem would not have been the alternative. It just doesn’t work.


It is great to have citizens interested in the affairs of our community. Along with that interest, there is an obligation to find out the facts before committing ourselves to any action. Good decisions arise from a knowledgeable base.