A Referendum on Referendums?

June 14, 2013

2-minute read

With the deadline for Regina's wastewater privatization petition fast approaching and rumours of signatures gathered close to 19,000, the City of Regina is beginning to sweat a little. According to the Leader-Post, City clerk Joni Swidnicki has asked the province to boost the number of signatures needed to force a referendum on the wastewater treatment plant by requesting that Health Ministry figures be used instead of 2011 census information. The result would be that the threshold for signatures would rise from 19,301 to 20,750 with less than a week left before the deadline. While Mayor Michael Fougere has publicly claimed that he is not concerned about the referendum stating that "if the citizens of Regina want another vote on this issue, no problem," the actions of the City would seem to suggest otherwise.

So with all of this talk about populations, thresholds and signatures, it is perhaps an opportune time to both recognize the tremendous efforts of the organizers of the petition and to also question the current referendum system as currently constituted. Indeed, contrary to the City's recent request, if anything the threshold for signatures should be lowered. 

To briefly summarize, the Regina Water Watch Coalition seeks to force a City-wide referendum on the proposed Private-Public Partnership (P3) for the City of Regina's new wastewater treatment plant.

(I do not want to dwell here on the wealth of evidence that illustrates all of the potential flaws of the P3 model, which has been forcefully argued by others, for instance see here and here).

In order to force such a referendum, petitioners are required under the Cities Act  to gather signatures equalling 10 percent of the population of the city requesting the referendum. For the City of Regina, with a 2011 census population of over 193,000, petitioners are thereby required to gather close to 20,000 signatures in order to initiate a referendum.

That all seems pretty straight forward. Of course, the threshold for initiating popular democratic mechanisms such as referendums or recalls should be high so as to ensure we are not inundated with regular votes on every conceivable issue. That's why we elect representatives. However, with the wastewater issue potentially triggering the first City-wide referendum in almost twenty years, is the threshold perhaps too high?

There are reasons to question the current rules of the referendum system as currently constituted. The most compelling is that the only persons that can currently sign petitions for referendums (and vote in the subsequent referendum) are adult citizens who are residents of the City. If that is the case, then shouldn't the threshold for initiating a referendum be a percentage of voters rather than total population? Depending on who you consult, Regina is thought to have between 193,000 to a little over 200,000 persons residing in the city. But according to last year's municipal elections, only 158,315 of them were registered voters. Ten percent of that number would be a little under 16,000, a number already far surpassed by the Regina Water Watch petition. To put it another way, with only 51,103 votes cast for mayor last year, if the Water Watch petition was a mayoral candidate, it would be running a close second to Mayor Fougere's 21,685 total votes in the 2012 election.

It seems disingenuous to base thresholds on total population, but then restrict who can actually participate to a smaller segment of that population. The current system should either base its thresholds on the persons who can actually vote, or better yet, allow all residents of the City - regardless of age or citizenship status - to have a say in what happens to their city.

Simon Enoch

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