The last Sunday in April and the first in May, the good folk of various cantons in Switzerland gather in a plaza for The Landsgemeinde. There they do their civic duty, electing governments and deciding on laws and finances.
Believed to have originated in 1294, Switzerland is one of the few places in the world still practising pure direct democracy.
While it may seem quaint, it’s arguably one of the fairest ways to decide important matters affecting that state or district. Every citizen is equal and their opinion counts.
While we all can’t meet in Olympic Plaza, Calgary would do well to consider adopting a big city version of The Landsgemeinde by using more plebiscites.
Council is facing a number of major decisions with serious financial implications. If they choose to proceed, it could mean higher taxes for all. Should 15 people make those decisions for 1.2 million or should we embrace a little Swiss democracy?
On Monday, council will learn what are the pros and cons of bidding for the 2026 Winter Olympics. They’ll also get a chance to debate whether to make the decision themselves at all. Coun. Sean Chu has submitted a notice of motion asking for a public plebiscite on the issue, which could be added to the municipal ballot this fall.
It’s not often that Calgary council puts anything to a public vote. In May 2017, Coun. Andre Chabot wanted a plebiscite on what to do with $23 million left over in provincial tax room (It was rejected). In 2016, council decided against adding a plebiscite on secondary suites to this fall’s ballot. One of the last contentious plebiscites was in 1989 when Calgarians voted to add fluoride to the water supply. In 2011, they reversed course — without a public vote.
Mayor Naheed Nenshi suggested on Thursday that it’s too late to add the Olympic question to the October ballot. He said pro and anti sides wouldn’t have time to campaign. But that’s not the point of a plebiscite. It should be to hear what citizens think, not what some group has persuaded them to think.
Arguments against plebiscites usually cite cost and purpose.
The suggested cost of a Calgary plebiscite is $400,000 but questions need to be asked why that’s so high. It would include the cost of publicity materials but counting the votes shouldn’t add much to the workload of those already tallying votes for mayor, council and school boards. But even at $400K, that’s a drop in the city’s $4-billion budget bucket.
The other argument is that we’ve elected a council to make decisions for us. And that’s true for the thousands of both mundane and serious issues they debate weekly: secondary suites, arts funding, bylaws, road closures, development and snow removal.
The public can’t and shouldn’t wade into all of these topics. But major and contentious issues that have the potential to raise taxes considerably (such as approving public money for private ventures) or affect one’s health either positively or negatively (i.e. fluoride in the water) then, yes, the public should be heard and heeded.
It’s not just cheese, chocolate, watches and banking the Swiss have mastered. The laudable Landsgemeinde should also be imported.
*Original editorial online at http://calgaryherald.com/opinion/editorials/editorial-a-vote-for-more-plebiscites