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Ber Cowen

Israel needs a referendum

(via Twitter)
(via Twitter)

Over the past month or so, those of us watching from overseas have seen the judicial overhaul crisis gripping Israel, with a government ramming through a very unpopular judicial reform to the dismay of multitudes of protesters who feel that their countries democratic character is being taken away from them.

To be honest, I don’t see why Israel can’t look to other countries to see how they handle such issues, to learn from them and apply it in their own way.

It’s generally understood that in a democracy a governments role is to manage the country and make decisions. Even if not necessarily every decision is indeed the will of the majority, on ‘small matters’, we understand that is not possible to get the input of the people on everything in real time, so we rely on the mandate provided by the election and the government is trusted to act in the interest of the majority if it wants to be re-elected.

However, there is the day-to-day management of the country and then there are major changes which are an entirely different story. Highly divisive or fundamental changes to the charter of a nation must be brought to the people to decide in a referendum.

Examples for this are the Brexit referendum in England which was highly divisive as well as an issue relevant to the fundamental character of that nation, and the current Voice to Parliament for Indigenous Australians referendum in Australia which is not divisive but still a matter relevant to the constitution.

Some key benefits of going to a referendum for major or structural changes are the following;

The mandate to go ahead with a specific change is undoubtedly there. It is very hard to dispute the results of a referendum
It requires the cases to be made and information to be granted to the people as to what the change is and how it compares to other countries or precedents (most people don’t understand the actual changes here and therefore take at face value that they are losing their democracy)
It requires moderation and compromise on either side as only a reasonable proposal would be likely to be accepted by the majority of the people
It avoids the feeling of helplessness and frustration from the affected people as they will be able to vote on the matter
It grants stability to a country because the fundamentals of its character cannot be changed by a single government alone, which may have been elected on an entirely different platform
Finally, and most importantly, it avoids frustration and violence, and replaces it with reason and debate

I have no doubt that there are plenty of constitutional lawyers in Israel who can look at other successful Western democracies that have successfully managed this process, in a robust yet reasoned and non-violent way.

The first and main step would be to define which matters are ‘day to day’ affairs of the government upon which it relies on its election granted mandate, and which matters are the fundamental issues that needs to be sent back to the people, such as changes to the system of governance itself, a final peace deal with the Palestinians etc.

However, without having this two-step system, i.e. a constitution and then regular legislation, we don’t have a clear method of resolving such heated debates and crises in the future as well as the present, so it will be well served to find a way to establish such a structure.

About the Author
Ber Cowen is a Business Analyst with a multinational company in Melbourne Australia, and has a Master of Business (Supply Chain) from Monash University.
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