When a referendum doesn't make sense

When significant change is in the air, there can be a natural reaction to say, "Let's poll everyone and see if a majority agrees." But sometimes, that doesn't make sense. Especially when anticipation of that change may bring rise to feelings of fear, perceived loss of status, or a conflict with long-standing tradition among the majority population. In cases where the proposed change is congruent with human rights, and is in the best interests of the health and safety of a population, great leaders need to lead. A referendum may be a very bad idea ...

Here is a simple case study that demonstrates this clearly. In 1955, a referendum in Sweden asked the population whether they wanted to switch from driving on the left side of the road, to driving on the right side of the road. The referendum result was that 83% of the population voted to stay driving on the left-hand side. Citizens voted this way despite the fact that many deaths resulted from head-on collisions of left-hand vehicles on narrow Swedish roads, all Sweden's immediate neighbours (including Norway, Denmark and Finland) already drove on the right with approximately 5 million of their vehicles crossing the borders annually, and Sweden was already manufacturing right-hand vehicles that were built for export (but many were ending up on Swedish roads). Driving on the left was an anachronism harkening back to days when people travelled on horseback and wanted their right hand free to greet passers or hold their swords in case of attack; moving to driving on the right began to happen with the rising popularity of horse-drawn carriage teams when the driver wanted to guide the reins with their right hand. But despite all data and reason ... the majority feared a change from the status quo.

Sweden's government leadership went ahead and decided to make the change to right-hand side driving, despite the referendum results and expressed fears of the population, for the sake of the population's and visitors' safety. It was a complex process as they had to create new government departments, public campaigns, innovative products, and even held a song contest to facilitate the transition. On September 3, 1967, or "H-Day," Sweden made the change-over which proceeded quite smoothly despite fears. Accidents and deaths were reduced immediately following the change. See this Wikipedia entry on Sweden's "H Day" and this 99% Invisible episode on H-Day, including video of the changeover.

Kungsgatan, Stockholm, on Dagen H, September 3, 1967 (Source: 99% Invisible, H-Day)

Kungsgatan, Stockholm, on Dagen H, September 3, 1967 (Source: 99% Invisible, H-Day)

As we consider legislative reforms in Canada that are in the best interests of giving voice to the disenfranchised, honouring the rights of minorities, and upholding our cultural value of egalitarianism ... let's reconsider if referenda are the best way to achieve this, or if we can avoid "the tyranny of the majority" by having our democratically-elected leaders collaborate with each other in a bipartisan spirit to do the right thing for all Canadians.