Introducing the Referendum Bill 2012, Premier Paula Cox noted that “democracy is not a spectator sport”.A bill establishing procedures for national referendums, including the promised one on gaming, has been passed by the House of Assembly.
She said the legislation: “Does mark a watershed moment and does provide the framework for putting power in the hands of the people.”
She explained that two previous referendums held in Bermuda required separate legislation to be passed for them.
The first was on capital punishment in 1990, when 78.4 percent favoured retention of the death penalty. The second was on Independence in 1995, and saw a 73 percent vote against breaking ties with Britain.
The new law means legislators will no longer have to pass a separate law each time a referendum is decided upon. It sets out the general parameters for them to be held in each case and is, according to Ms Cox, “based on tried and true electoral processes”.
Only registered voters can participate in a referendum.
The bill was passed with some amendments to the wording over how referendum questions shall be taken to be answered, in terms of yes votes, no votes and undecided votes.
Ms Cox moved the amendments to avoid any doubt over the issue.
According to the amended bill, a ‘yes’ vote will have happened if 50 percent or more of Bermuda’s registered voters vote in the referendum, and more than 50 percent of them mark their ballot ‘yes’.
A ‘no’ vote will have happened if 50 percent or more of Bermuda’s registered voters take part and more than 50 percent of them mark their ballot ‘no’.
A referendum question will be taken to be unanswered if less than 50 percent of registered voters vote, or if the voting patterns are such that the requirements for a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ result are not met.
Ms Cox said the principle behind the new legislation is “informed choice” and Government is committed to fairness, transparency and propriety in the conduct of referendums. The bill allows the Premier to set up an “ad hoc committee” if she wishes to advise on any matter relating to a particular referendum.
Ms Cox indicated that the national debate on gaming may be the first issue put to a referendum under the new act.
“The bill does provide a sound framework to hold any referendum, including the referendum to be held on gaming as promised in the Throne Speech,” she noted.
Attorney General Kim Wilson said in a speech to a United Nations seminar on decolonisation last month that the legislation will also help pave the way for a fresh referendum on Independence.
Leader of the Opposition Craig Cannonier welcomed the legislation. However, he said his party wishes to go one step further, and have “citizen’s initiative” referendums. Those are brought forward by the people rather than by the Government. Mr Cannonier said this would increase faith and participation in the political process.
His party colleague Grant Gibbons noted that under the new bill, power to decide the referendum question and the timing of the vote remains in the hands of government, not the people.
He also expressed concern that just one-quarter of the electorate could decide an issue as weighty as Independence.
“It certainly is not adequate when it comes to an issue such as Independence. The British Government says it has to be a clearly expressed majority of the people,” he said.
“Most of us believe we need some sort of super majority in order to carry an issue like that.”
Charles Swan of the United Bermuda Party welcomed the bill. However, he also sounded a note of caution that a referendum could be decided if just 26 percent of the electorate voted for or against something.
“That’s maybe something we want to reconsider or look at,” he suggested.
Later in the debate, Ms Cox indicated that the rules can be customised for individual referendums, “including even with the percentage of the participation”.
The bill was passed as amended.