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VIEWPOINTS: Voting pressure pointless without peace referendum

Don G. Bates — March 1984

The Canadian peace movement is in serious danger. The harder we work on the coming federal election, the more we risk seeing the peace issue self-destruct.

The reason is quite simple. We can probably influence public opinion, but we can probably not influence the outcome of the election. Each voter must use one ballot to reflect his or her views on many subjects. Nothing in Canada’s past experience or current polls suggests that the threat of nuclear war will override voting based on local and domestic issues. And unless the political climate changes dramatically, most voters will not be able to combine a favoured candidate; and a concrete commitment to furthering peace in a single vote.

The result could be worse than mere failure to influence the election. By working hard before the election we will almost certainly make peace appear to be one of the main election issues. The peace movement will seem to have had its say. But if the Progressive Conservatives achieve the healthy victory currently predicted for them, in spite of rather than because of their stand on the peace issue, the peace movement will appear to have been thoroughly repudiated at the polls. The setback to our morale, and the loss of credibility in the public’s eyes could be devastating.

Even if a majority of Canadians do vote on the basis of this issue, the outcome could be just as bad. Parliamentary governments, even with very large majorities, do not usually capture a majority of the votes.

Take Margaret Thatcher’s landslide victory in Great Britain last June. With 44% of the popular vote (down 4070 from their previous election victory) her Conservatives won 61 % of the seats in the House of Commons. To put it another way, 56% of the voters chose parties whose nuclear weapons policies are decidedly different from those of the Conservatives, yet the Conservatives emerged with a clear majority of the House of Commons seats. Meanwhile, both before and since the election, British polls have indicated that a large majority oppose, for example, deployment of cruise missiles in England.

The March election in West Germany, last year, tells a similar story. In fact, it is doubtful if any NATO government, at present, can point to clear evidence that it enjoys a mandate from its people for the deployment of Pershing and cruise missiles. Yet national elections have not reflected and are- not likely to reflect, this lack of popular support.

One possible solution to this problem is to urge the present government to conduct a national referendum along with the federal election. The question? Should Canada be a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone?

The results could not be binding on the incoming government, of course, but everyone would have a clearer idea of where Canadians stand on nuclear weapons than would be the case if we only had election results to go on.

If the three federal parties are sincere in proclaiming that peace is a non-partisan issue, there should be support in the present Parliament for such a referendum. If, as critics of the peace movement claim, the media has made us visible out of all proportion to actual public sentiment, the referendum would help, as the election will not, to clarify this. On the other hand, if we do indeed represent public opinion, ‘that too would become manifest only if a referendum is permitted to separate this issue from all the rest.

Personally, I do not believe that the three parties are sincere about the non-partisan character of the peace issue and that they will find all sorts of excuses for rejecting the idea of. a referendum. But, for a number of reasons, we should press for it anyway.

First, calls for a referendum would test the sincerity of the claims by all three parties that the peace issue is non-partisan. Secondly, by promoting the idea we at least remind ourselves that we do have a problem: the election is not likely to be sensitive to our issue and our efforts could even wind up appearing counterproductive. Thirdly, by raising the question of a referendum, now, we are declaring to the public that we do not necessarily expect the election outcoQ1e to be an accurate measure of the national will in this regard. Such a declaration would help a lot to soften the impact of an election that erroneously appeared to repudiate our position. Finally, even if we failed to get a formal referendum legislated by the government, we could organise a ‘people’s referendum’ by setting up voting booths at selected polling stations across Canada.

Promotion of this idea among some of the national peace coalitions has prompted mixed reaction. Spokespersons are unanimous that the problem exists and that it is serious. A number of people favourable to the idea point to a number of benefits from such an approach that space does not permit to be spelled out here. Opposition, on the other hand, focuses on three points.

One problem is the principle of ‘government by referenda’ itself. Admittedly, referenda are not, generally, a good basis for deciding national policy. Supporters respond, however, that we are considering here the continued existence of Canada and perhaps of the human race. Such an extraordinary issue requires extraordinary measures. Governments are daily influenced by far less democratic means – opinion polls.

Others have been reluctant because the effort needed to promote the idea; at this late date, might detract from the heavy commitments already made to other projects. Efforts to promote either a formal or, even more so, an informal referendum could have this effect. But it is also true that the idea is consistent with and would focus all the other major peace activities now being organised across the country.

Whether of not the referendum idea is workable, the fact remains that we have a problem. We must be looking, now, beyond the next election and building the roads and bridges that will take us into 1985, without our being badly sidetracked on polling day.

If we do not face up to this threat, we may ruefully discover a new significance of ‘The Day After’ – the day after the election!

Dr. Don Bates is a professor of the History of Medicine at McGill University, Montréal. He is also on the Canadian Committee of the Peace Petition Caravan