Clarity, and How To Get It

by Colby Cosh

I have a joke I’ve been cracking about the controversy over the Clarity Act. “It’s simple! I’m with the New Democrats: fifty percent plus one is totally fine as a standard. But I also say this: let’s make it a contest of three out of five falls. And, remember, the federalists are already up two-zip.”

It’s not a very funny joke. But the more I think about it, the more I think it’s a good joke in at least the sense of having a kernel of truth within it. The expectation for a “clear majority” on a vote authorizing secession negotiations is usually presented by federalists as a sort of mystical axiom. Even in the Supreme Court reference on the subject the idea is not really broken down logically, perhaps because it won’t do to point out that the popular will is a very slippery abstraction, an awful shuddery foundation for any notion predicated on it.

Awkwardly, these notions include, in our system of government, elections and referendums. A government seeking a democratic mandate “goes to the country” and “consults” the populace, whose conflicting interests, goals, and ambitions are smooshed together by various clumsy formulae to produce the appearance of a single consensus. Democracy cannot bear too much purely deductive analysis, though its empirical underpinnings are mighty.

One notices that our metaphors for democratic testing, our ways of choosing between candidates or policy ideas, are competitive. Did Yes “beat” No? A mathematician might say there is a strong isomorphism, an analogy of form, between democracy and sport. There is certainly an obvious analogy between a referendum and, say, a hockey game; and when we place particular emphasis on finding out whether one hockey team is better than another, we don’t usually allow the matter to be settled with a single game, in one team’s building, at a time chosen by the home team, with rules selected and enforced exclusively by the home team. It’s a question of removing signal from noise, of excluding transitory or illegitimate influence from the competition.

Those who support national unity are keen to prevent Quebec separatists from pulling off a swindle of the sort they came close to in 1995: choosing a fleeting moment of advantageous sentiment to accomplish the permanent destruction of the Canadian state, which most Quebeckers have, through many generations, supported most of the time. But the extreme opinions on neither side are tenable. Strong unitarians embed assumptions in their language to “demonstrate” that Canada is sacred and indivisible, pretending that a historical conquest somehow has the irresistible logical force of Euclidean geometry. (Which even Euclidean geometry didn’t turn out to have.) At the same time, as Colleague Wells has pointed out, Quebec would practically need much more than a one-vote margin in one referendum to earn the necessary global assent to its independence project. It would need a majority that was “clear” in the sense, not necessarily of meeting a particular arbitrary bright-line standard, but of being able to endure a difficult political struggle—i.e., a “negotiation phase” in which an appeal to force was always possible—and to still appear irreversible and convincing at the end of it. If such a situation existed, there can be no question that to permit secession would be right.

So why not a “three out of five falls” rule? The applicability of the sports metaphor is quite real: ascertaining which hockey team is essentially “better” under never-existing neutral conditions is very much like extracting a “popular will” from an opinion sample of a population. Recognize, I say, the reality that fifty percent plus one is a “majority”; sidestep the fundamentally irresolvable arguments between three-fifths and two-thirds and three-quarters as a standard. But require that 50%+1 be achieved several times over a period of years, with a slightly different electorate being consulted each time. Even the voter-eligibility criteria can vary; the case for giving minor children a vote on a question of permanent future import is, after all, particularly sound. Let the government of Quebec frame the question in one vote and Parliament do it in another. Count noses in one and ridings in another. If the moral conditions for secession exist, it should not be hard to extract not just a “Oui” from Quebec, but a resounding “Oui, oui, oui” that would convince English Canada as Slovakia convinced the Czechs.




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Clarity, and How To Get It

  1. The problem with 3/5 (although in the text you seem to be requiring 3/3) is that the first two votes can be considered negotiating ploys much as when a union is asked to provide a strike mandate to its negotiating team. Even workers that have no desire to go on strike understand it is in their interest to give “their” team a strong mandate.

    • Exactly. It would end up producing faux “yes” results. Gee, no political risk and ensuing chaos there! LOL

    • You don’t think an analogous situation already kind of exists?

  2. It’s obvious that 50%+1 can’t possibly work as a requirement.
    The supreme court requires a “clear majority”. If 50%+1 is a clear majority, then what could possibly be considered an unclear majority??
    Besides which, how does one claim a solidarity of opinion when nearly half your populace voted against the motion? We’re not talking about whether to fund x,y or z here, we’re talking about succession. Seems to me you’re going to have some considerable political instability trying to push through something like that.
    Moreover, what about the disenfranchised vote? In the last referendum it was suggested that a number of aboriginal groups had difficulty voting. How the result possibly stand up then? Seems to me that you’d have to compare the votes in favour of succession to the total number of potential voters, rather than a straight forward comparison of votes cast, in order to get around any gerrymandering.
    Ironically, even the NDP party requires a 2/3rds majority within their own organization in order to adopt basic policy positions. How is it the destruction of the country, kind of the ultimate of all policy positions, would somehow require less than what the party’s own constitution requires?
    No, this is all madness. Unless there is enough of a majority in favour, determined based on all pontential voters, this should be a non-starter. Since any goal post you set will be inherently arbitrary, standard accepted historical conventions for questions of this severity should be used, ie. a supermajority.
    Honestly, anything else is just playing with fire from multiple angles.
    And as a side note, if Quebec is divisible from Canada, then surely all the land Quebec got from joining confederation in the first place is up for division too. Fair’s fair.
    The separatists will hate it of course, but is that new? They’d be happy to cause no end of division and chaos on even the thinest wedge in order to get what they want. The rules need to be set clearly, and we need to be prepared for the fact that no matter how reasonable, the separatists are going to freak out.

  3. Though clearly tongue-in-cheek, Colby brings up a good point in a roundabout way.

    Given that a “yes” return would result in a very final result, and given that a “no” simply results in the biding of time until they can try again, this brings up the question of how often is it right and fair to have a referendum on this topic?

    I’ve considered different ways to deal with this, and having the federal government or courts mandating a limit just doesn’t work. It gives too much fodder to the separatists.

    So why not have a referendum on referendums? Let Quebecers decide how often the question should come up. Just have voters decide at election time whether they want a referendum during the next government’s term. Seems a fairly simple solution to at least that one basic issue.

  4. I think it’s just hard for people to accept, on either side, that there is no clarity when it comes to self-determination within a democratic federation.

    The SCC had it right when they discussed it: If a very large percentage of a certain facet of the Federation wants out, generally there’s a duty to listen in a federation. Certainly no more, no less.

    Your invocation of Slovakia is a perfect example: This is the kind of thing that comes from negotiations within both communities, and frustration pointing the way in some direction that benefits both. Succesful referendum #1, no matter what majority, was, and always will, just be the kickoff of that.

  5. I think it’s just hard for people to accept, on either side, that there is no clarity when it comes to self-determination within a democratic federation.

    The SCC had it right when they discussed it: If a very large percentage of a certain facet of the Federation wants out, generally there’s a duty to listen in a federation. Certainly no more, no less.

    Your invocation of Slovakia is a perfect example: This is the kind of thing that comes from negotiations within both communities, and frustration pointing the way in some direction that benefits both. Succesful referendum #1, no matter what majority, was, and always will, just be the kickoff of that.

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