Canada Kicks Ass
Paying Attention To Wording A Key Plebiscite Lesson


JaredMilne @ Sun Jan 13, 2019 11:34 am

In last week’s budget debates, council approved funding for a storefront library despite the results of the plebiscite from last October’s municipal election where voters decisively rejected the idea of further planning for a branch library.

Members of council justified their actions by saying that voters told them during the election campaign that they were opposed to building a branch library specifically as proposed, but not additional library space (St. Albert Gazette, Dec. 1).

The councillors’ positions would be more justified if the city had stuck with the original wording for the plebiscite question, which specifically laid out how much money the library project would cost.

Unfortunately, the previous council amended the plebiscite question to remove any reference to costs. As a result, the plebiscite merely asked voters if they wanted to continue with branch library planning, which the voting public rejected. The Gazette has since published several letters from irate residents asking why we are proceeding with any kind of library planning, given the plebiscite results.

In our case, the plebiscite question was so broad that it led to voters arguably rejecting any and all planning for a branch library, at least for this term. Despite council’s justifications that they have funded a “storefront” library rather than a “branch” library, I’m not sure exactly what the difference between them is, since a storefront library is still a branch of the main one.

As far as I can tell — and I say this as someone who supports expanded library space — the public clearly stated that library planning has to stop for this term.

Mayor Cathy Heron commented in the Dec. 1 Gazette that she regretted supporting the plebiscite because of how confusing and difficult to interpret the question was. That arguably stemmed from how broad the question presented to the public was, simply asking if branch library planning should continue or not.

If the question had used its original wording, council would have a much stronger basis for their actions in supporting a storefront library. As it is, an interpretation of the plebiscite results that says all library planning has to stop is just as valid as one that says residents don’t want a library for a particular cost. The backlash displayed in the Gazette’s letters section speaks for itself.

The whole saga illustrates how tricky referendums and plebiscites can be. The questions posed to voters in Quebec’s 1980 and 1995 separation referendums and the 1992 referendum on the Charlottetown Accord were considerably more detailed than the questions St. Albertans had to answer in last year’s election. They specifically referred to agreements and proposals that politicians had already made, which voters had to then accept or reject. When the referendums failed, they did not always prevent the politicians from taking other actions. In 1980, Pierre Trudeau used the referendum’s defeat as a basis for renewing his constitutional negotiations.

In the end, the lesson here may be that plebiscites should be as specific as possible, particularly when the public is faced with a stark yes/no question.