I remember only one thing about that March 1980 Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game. At some point during the match, the rink announcer gave us the results of a referendum in Quebec that had been designed to break up Canada: the answer was 60% negative. I was there, but I don’t remember how old I was, who the Leafs were playing, or how the match finished. What I do remember is the moment of silence after the announcement, then the cheer that rose from the Toronto crowd, and the thousands of people who stood to applaud something that had nothing to do with hockey, but everything with their lives.
Before I came to Slovakia, I never thought to question things like quorums for calling referenda, or the kind of questions that could be asked. In the way that countries bequeath the rules of the game to their citizens, it was ingrained in us that the referendum existed as a rare, non-parliamentary instrument to answer questions so grave that not even the people’s representatives could answer. Issues that only voters themselves could decide.
Over the past two decades, Slovak voters have been called on, at significant expense and even greater insult to parliamentary democracy, to give their opinions on a range of trivial matters, including: whether to ban the privatization of select energy companies, whether to stop gays from adopting kids, and whether to relieve people of the duty of paying dues to public media.
The fact that only one of seven national referenda – about joining the EU – has exceeded the 50% quorum to be valid supports the claim of this article, that referenda should be reserved for matters of true national destiny. Interior Minister Róbert Kaliňák is therefore to be praised for resisting calls to reduce the quorum for calling plebiscites.
But why, then, do frivolous referenda continue to be held? The answer is that Slovakia’s political scene is still achingly immature. In last national elections, 26 (!) parties competed, few of which were more than personal vanity projects or adjuncts to tax scams. Afterwards, even viable politicians who should have remained within the fold to reform their mother parties (e.g. Lipšic, Procházka, Miškov etc.) struck out on their own, with little to show for it. Now, with so many impotent egos begging for our attention, no wonder we are called on to support them through meaningless referenda.
Here’s an idea: Let’s call a referendum on banning all politicians from parliament, and investigating their sponsors and their incomes. That would be a plebiscite of true national importance, regarding a matter politicians themselves are unfit to decide. And I guarantee, the quorum would not be a problem.
16. Feb 2015 at 7:20 | Tom Nicholson