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A: The Purpose of Referenda
One of the problems of representative democracy is that when a party is elected to govern a
country there is no way of knowing which parts of the Manifesto are supported by the majority of
the population. Elections are not fought on a single issue, so it is never clear which parts of a
government's programme have popular support.
One way of finding out whether voters support a particular policy is to ask them to vote "yes" or
"no" to a single question on that policy. A vote on a single issue is known as a referendum.
Since the electorate is asked to vote directly on a particular issue, holding a referendum is a way of
exercising direct democracy within a system of representative democracy.
i) The Use of Referenda:
Although referenda have not been used very often in Britain, they are common in some European
countries, as well as Australia and the USA.
In Switzerland, referenda are regularly used as instruments of direct democracy, and if 100,000
people sign a petition demanding a constitutional change, it must go to a binding referendum.
Norway, France and Belgium have all resolved constitutional issues by the use of referenda. In 2000,
the people of Denmark voted in a referendum not to join the single currency.
Whilst referenda are commonly used for the resolution of constitutional issues, some countries use
them to resolve moral issues, eg. in Catholic countries there have been referenda on issues such as
abortion and divorce.
ii) Arguments in Favour of Referenda:
Supporters of the use of referenda have made a number of points in their favour:
They encourage political participation and act as an educational device, i.e. the media will
educate the public politically they mobilise consent
They provide a single, clear answer to a specific question
They increase the legitimacy of major policies of the government
They can strengthen the constitution when they are used as a means of confirming the way in
which a country is governed
They can help legislators keep in touch with public opinion and can provide them with the
justification for introducing key reforms
They are needed when a country's party system is either too rigid or no longer delivers the
policy choices voters are seeking (this was the argument of The Referendum Party in the
1997 election namely, that a referendum was needed on Britain's future relationship with
the EU, as all of the major parties were in favour, to a greater or lesser degree, of further
iii) Arguments Against Referenda:
Those people who are not in favour of the use of referenda have cited these arguments:
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They are essentially a conservative tool, in that it is highly unlikely that a government would
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