For and against referendums

For and against referendums

Advantages

  • Direct democracy - referendums give the public unmediated and direct control over a policy, making sure that the public's view is clearly articulated, not distorted by those who 'represent' them.
  • Political education - by widening debate on an issue, referendums create a better educated electorate, who have a stronger incentive to think and act politically.
  • Responsive government - referendums make governments more responsive between elections by forcing them to listen to public opinion, and allow public opinion to be expressed on a particular issue, which cannot be done during elections.
  • Reduced government power - provides a check on government power, as the government has less control over the outcome of a referendum than it does over Parliament. Citizens are protected from an over-powerful government.
  • Constitutional changes - it is appropriate that constitutional changes be approved by public referendum, as they affect the way the country is governed, so are more important than ordinary laws. This ensures any newly created public body has democratic legitimacy.

Disadvantages

  • Ill-informed decisions - the general public are less informed than elected politicians, and have no political experience. The public's interests are therefore best protected by 'government by politicians' rather than self-government.
  • Weakens parliament - referendums undermine parliamentary sovereignty, and are decisions that are not made on the basis of deliberation and debate.
  • Irresponsible government - governments are elected to govern, so should make policy decisions and be accountable for said decisions, instead of handing over responsibilities to the public.
  • Strengthens government - governments decide when and on what issues referendums are called, they frame the question and they dominate the publicity campaign. This creates an automatic bias.
  • Unreliable views - referendums provide a gauge of public opinion at a given time, therefore being an unreliable guide to public interest and an inappropriate means of approving constitutional decisions that will have far-reaching, long-term implications.

Evaluation

Referendums are overall a good tool for democracy, as they make constitutional decisions more legitimate and provide a check on government power, however they are vulnerable to ill-informed votes and may be an inadequate method of approving constitutional changes that will have a very large impact.

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