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Ideas and Opinions – Why referendum?

Last Friday, a panelist on one of our morning television talk shows said, “We can’t have government by referendum.” He was commenting on a suggestion by a caller that a certain issue should be decided by a referendum. People who favor referendum know that there are issues of public importance, such as the death penalty for first degree murder, which will never reach the floor of the House for debate, even though the majority of Belizeans might think that that measure would reduce the incidence of murder and save lives.

I am advised that the European Union, which buys most of our citrus products, is against the death penalty and would be offended if the death penalty was imposed on a offender, even though it is part of our penal system. It is feared that the EU would take reprisals in the form of boycotting the sale of our citrus products, even though our products are renowned for their high quality. It would not matter whether the government was Red or Blue: this is how our governments react to the “unexpressed” threat of our European Union patrons.

So. In this case, it is not the will of the people that forms the basis in this aspect of our penal system. But, for that matter, we don’t know, for certain, what the will of the people is. No effort has been made to find out. That is why, we need to have a referendum. Tell the people the truth. Tell them about the risk, real or perceived, then let them decide with their eyes open and their hearts strong.

When I heard the panelist express that view on the TV talk show, it took me back to another time, during a meeting of the House of Representatives of 1979 to 1984. At that meeting the Honorable Philip Goldson was speaking on a matter of Public Importance and, he argued passionately that the issue should not be decided by resolution, or an aye or nay vote, but by a national referendum. In his reply, a Senior Minister on the government side said, “We can’t have government by referendum.” The idea was and is ridiculous. What he meant was that his party did not countenance the idea of direct participation in government by the people.

The fact is there has never been a referendum in Belize and there have been matters of Public Importance, not dealt with by government, which a wise and understanding government thought the people would like to express its will about, hence the enactment of the Referendum Act.

I don’t know what the issue was that the Honorable Philip Goldson wished to be put to the people to decide by voting in a referendum but, the Honorable gentleman always had the best interests of the people at heart and, he must have been confident that his cause would succeed if put to the people. There are and have been many such causes which, had they been successfully pursued by referendum, would have made Belize a better country. The odds favor that result, because where are we as a nation since we were given the opportunity to govern ourselves? Bearing in mind that we have been well endowed. “Nature has blest us with wealth untold,” wrote Samuel Haynes in our National Anthem. What have we done with that endowment? What grade would you give the performances of all the governments since Independence, taken together? Do they deserve a C+?

A nation should be able to govern itself better than a foreign government. Under British administration, there was peace and order, a disciplined, efficient and well-managed civil service, almost 100% literacy, primary education was of a high standard (it was compulsory). No one was allowed to drop out. We had a model Police Force. Policemen were feared and respected by wrongdoers and were appreciated by the rest of the populace. The criminal justice system functioned with maximum efficiency. Murderers (very few) were hung; rapists (even fewer) were flogged; juvenile delinquents were corrected (usually only once). Enough! Enough! My intention is not to extol the British. They concentrated their efforts on the things and the areas of the country that suited them in the administration of a colony.

The contents of the last paragraph are recounted only to emphasize where our leaders have failed miserably. The British neglected the infrastructure, streets and roads, bridges and communications, energy and water systems, etc., etc. They were concerned only with Belize City and the District Towns. They had little interest in developing the rest of the country or in agricultural production. Our governments have done a lot to make up for our former rulers’ neglect. That is why I would give them a C+ grade. Remember that this is an assessment of a composite of both Red and Blue administrations.

Why referendum? Because that is the way for the people to participate directly in our democracy and make binding decisions on matters of public importance which our governments have not seen fit to pursue. Two of the most urgent in this writer’s opinion are a Long term National Development Plan and an Elected Senate.

The reasons for a long term National Development Plan are many and obvious. I have already expressed my views on this subject.

Why an Elected Senate? Because its members would be responsible to their constituents and the nation and, not beholden to any political party, group or individual. For the institution to serve the nation’s best interests, Senators should be able to make decisions based on their independent judgment. For this objective to be achieved, campaign financing will have to be limited to an allocation of public funds for the purpose to each senator. How can we be sure that the candidates will play by the rules? They will, if they are honorable men. They will, if we set the right qualifications for candidacy to be a senator. I am in favor of men of advanced age, sixty years minimum. Then, the electorate will know about their private and public life. They will have a track record to determine their capabilities and the great advantage of a store of knowledge imparted by that great teacher – personal experience. What is more, they will be more likely than their younger brethren, to value greatly such things as honor and reputation and, less likely to be “persuaded” to turn a blind eye to actions contrary to the public interest.

These are only two of a number of national goals which would be fit subjects for referendum petitions to be put forward by responsible, nationalistic organizations which have the means to prepare and submit them to the proper authority for action.

It could not be considered government by referendums, if during a five-year span, there were six referendums. What about the cost? It could be expensive. Not if we had an Elected Senate. And not if the Senate elections were held mid-term. The referendum questions could be put on the usual ballot papers of the two elections during the five-year span.

The idea that people should be allowed to decide issues by referendum, constitutes government by referendum, is the position take by some politicians. What they are saying is that you gave us the power but, we don’t intend to share it with you. You trust our judgments, but we don’t trust yours. The government considers and makes decisions in the House of Representatives on hundreds of bills, resolutions and other business of state during their tenure of office. It has to make thousands of decisions in the course of administering Ministries and departments during the same period. How then can a few referendums be considered an encroachment on government’s mandate?

Why referendum? Because direct participation in the decision making process enhances democracy; because the people know best what measure will improve the quality of their lives, and because, the collective wisdom of the common people is superior to that of any other body of men and women in the nation.

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