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OPINION: Plebiscites Are a Scapegoat for Governance Inaction

In democratic governance, where the vote of the people is meant to guide policy, lies a troubling trend that threatens the very essence of representative democracy.

The rise of plebiscites as a convenient escape route for municipal leaders unwilling to make tough decisions - or try to get their own way - marks a dangerous shift in our political landscape. As the once-sharp edge of democracy dulls, we must confront this troubling phenomenon and reaffirm the principles of leadership, accountability, and governance.

Democracy, indeed, is a double-edged sword. On one side lies the promise of empowerment, where the will of the people reigns supreme. On the other, the responsibility of leadership, where elected officials are tasked with making difficult decisions in the best interests of their constituents. Yet, as days turn into weeks and months, it becomes increasingly evident that this balance is tipping in favour of the latter—a tilt towards passivity, indecision, and evasion.

Across the municipal landscape, the term "plebiscite" has been echoing with unsettling frequency.

On Calgary Council a group of councillors seeks to delegate zoning decisions to a public plebiscite.

To this scribe, this is a failure of leadership. Instead of grappling with complex issues, elected officials are passing the buck to the very constituents who entrusted them with power. They cloak their inaction - or their attempt to get their own way - in the guise of democratic participation, offering plebiscites as a panacea for their own indecision or being on the losing side of the issue.

But let us be clear: plebiscites are not a substitute for leadership—they are a symptom of its absence. When politicians shirk their duty to govern, they betray the trust of those who elected them. We, the citizens, cast our ballots with the expectation that our representatives will have the courage and conviction to make tough choices on our behalf. If they are unwilling or unable to do so, then what purpose do they serve?

I speak not as a dispassionate observer but as an engaged citizen, one who has exercised my democratic right in countless elections. Like many others, I have stood in line at the ballot box, hopeful that my vote would contribute to the selection of leaders who possess the integrity and fortitude to navigate the complexities of governance. Yet, increasingly, it seems that these hopes are misplaced.

The recent trend towards plebiscites as a means of avoiding tough decisions is not an isolated phenomenon. During the last municipal election in Alberta, the Province posed various questions to residents, from daylight savings time to equalization payments. While seeking public input has its merits, it should not serve as a substitute for leadership.

In Calgary, the proposal to hold a plebiscite on blanket zoning is particularly concerning. Zoning decisions are inherently technical and require expertise to navigate effectively.

Handing such decisions over to the general public, who may lack the necessary knowledge and understanding, risks producing outcomes that are detrimental to the city's long-term development.

Moreover, plebiscites can be inherently flawed. They often oversimplify complex issues, reducing them to binary choices that fail to capture nuance. Furthermore, they can be influenced by misinformation, special interests, and emotional appeals, leading to outcomes that may not truly reflect the best interests of the community.

In the face of these challenges, it is imperative that we reaffirm the principles of leadership, accountability, and governance. Elected officials must be held to account for their actions—or inactions—and must be reminded of their duty to govern in the best interests of their constituents. Plebiscites should complement, not replace, the decision-making process of elected officials.

If the politicians we elect are unwilling or unable to make tough choices, then perhaps it is time for them to step aside and make way for those who can. Democracy requires leadership, not evasion; courage, not complacency. It is time for elected officials to reclaim their role as stewards of the public trust and to govern with integrity, courage, and a steadfast commitment to the common good.

In conclusion, the erosion of leadership represented by the rise of plebiscites as a scapegoat for municipal inaction is a troubling trend that must be confronted head-on. As citizens, we must demand accountability from our elected officials and insist on governance that is bold, principled, and accountable to the people it serves.

Only then can we ensure that the blade of democracy remains sharp and true.

1 comentario

13 mar


I think a distinction needs to be made between

  • citizen initiated plebiscites, where a specified, regulation determined, number of residents have formally expressed a desire to weigh in on a council decision; and

  • council initiated plebiscites where the elected officials have abdicated leadership and the responsibilities they assumed taking office.

While the results of the first often frustrate me, and tend to stir high levels of emotion with varying levels of facts, they are at least the expressed wishes of the interested eligible voters.

The second, proposed by politicians or administration who do not have the courage and backbone to provide leadership, are a sop to "democratic ideals" while basically covering the arse of those who, once elected, refuse…

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