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A Referendum Lesson from My Cottage Association

By Scott Proudfoot, Principal

What can the affairs of my cottage association tell us about the Scotland and Quebec referendums? More than you might think!

Because of changes in provincial law, our cottage association had to re-incorporate and update our by-laws and shareholders’ agreement. This led to a lively internal debate about how we governed our little association and whether changes should be made.
As background, I should explain that our cottage is 40 minutes from Ottawa and sits with 20 other cottages around a small lake situated between two larger lakes.

Over the three decades we have owned our cottage, the area has changed significantly. The farmland we used to see on our route has become suburbia. Older cottages on the larger lakes have been knocked down and replaced with expensive year-round homes.  There is more traffic, more homes and more people in the area.  However, our little lake remains a throwback to cottaging of fifty years ago. Most cottages are small wooden boxes with no insulation.  A few still have the original propane lights and appliances.  Cottages are opened in the spring and shut down in the fall when pumps are pulled out and power shut off.

Modernity has passed us by for two reasons.  As an association, we own a buffer of common land around the lake that cannot be developed without our agreement.  Our private road has several steep hills impassable in winter. Without year-round access, no one has an incentive to replace their wooden boxes with something more modern. 

If you want action, our lake is not the place for you. If no motor boats, clean water, peace and quiet and the occasional visiting loon are your cup of tea, it is a little bit of heaven.

Our lake is united by a desire to keep things as they are but it is hard to ignore the development pushing in from all sides. Wanting to protect the character of the lake for posterity, a group of cottagers put forward a motion that 80% of all cottagers had to agree to any changes in the route of our road (necessary to make it year around) and to sell, lease or develop any of our common land.

Some of us agreed with the intent but not the percentage.  As a matter of principle, 80% gives a minority too much control over the rights of the majority of owners.  We did not believe we had the right to tie the hands of future generations to that extent.  After a lively discussion, everyone put a little water in their wine and agreed to a 70% majority as the cut-off point.

Our association recognized most business (electing an executive, setting budgets and dues) could be handled by a 50% + one vote of the cottagers who showed up for the annual meeting.  But, some matters deserve a greater consensus.  Allowing development on our common lands and/or an all-season road would fundamentally change the character of our lake.  Because it was irrevocable, we wanted to ensure a clear majority of cottage owners were certain before taking those steps. Was 70% the right number?  Who knows but no one thought 50% + one was sufficient protection for our common interests.

If a 50% + 1 vote is not good enough to make changes to the character of a small lake, why is it good enough to break up a country?

In human history, secession is most commonly the result of civil war.  Non-violent secessions have usually occurred after plebiscites with a high margin of support.

The best way to minimize the political trauma, economic cost and potential violence of secession is by having both sides accept the inevitability of the break –up.  Then, they are more likely to negotiate what has to be negotiated and move on.  If the margin of victory is slight (50+1% of those who actually vote) a long period of costly and potentially violent instability is the most likely outcome.

Inevitably, those selling secession paint a ‘blue-sky’ interpretation of the consequences.  The costs will be minimal; the benefits many!  Voters fall for it.  During the 1995 Quebec Referendum, a Leger and Leger poll found that:

  • 25% of ‘Yes’ voters thought Quebec would continue to send MPs to Ottawa;
  • 90% of ‘Yes’ voters thought economic ties would remain.
  • 80% of ‘Yes’ voters thought they would continue to use the Canadian Dollar and 55% of them thought they would still have Canadian Passports.

But, polls in the Rest-of-Canada showed no support for any of this.  Imagine the ‘buyer’s remorse’ after  those excessively optimisticYes’ voters faced a hostile English Canada intent on pushing the costs of separation on Quebec.

But, if there is a high enough majority, secessionists have a clear mandate even if they hoodwink some oftheir voters to get it.  The other side has no choice but to come to the table.

A super majority may make secession less likely but it also supports the interest of secessionists by making independence more likely to succeed if it does occur.

So why are politicians willing to support independence based on 50+ 1 %.

In the case of Prime Minister David Cameron, he made a catastrophic blunder. He did not expect the Nationalists to do as well as they did.  His government is politically precarious and his party unpopular in Scotland. He was unwilling to face the blowback from a stronger stand.  Conversely, his Labour Opponents holds the majority of House of Commons seats in Scotland but unwilling to risk their popularity with a national election pending.   Due to a collective failure of leadership at Westminster, the UK faces years of constitutional wrangling and, perhaps, a future referendum.  It will be hard to walk back from 50% + 1.

What excuse do Canadian politicians have?

In the case of Canada, the Supreme Court has determined a ‘clear’ majority of Quebec voters must support independence before the Government of Canada has to negotiate secession.  The Supreme Court did not define a ‘clear’ majority; leaving it to the Parliament of Canada. Despite the Court ruling, there has never been a serious political debate in Canada about the size of majority acceptable for Quebec to secede. The NDP ignores the Court and still argues for 50% + 1.  This reflects their long-term and curious obeisance to Separatist cant and, now, current dependence on 55 Quebec seats.  As National Unity critic for the Reform Party, Stephen Harper was for 50% +1 in 1995.  His government‘s recent Supreme court intervention on the Henderson legal challenge to Law 99, Quebec’s Referendum Act,  suggests he has moved off that position but his exact position is unclear.  Even the Liberals, who passed the Clarity Act and asked for the court’s ruling, have not declared a number.  Since the separatist forces in Quebec are out-of-power and in disarray, the Liberals and Conservatives are unlikely to declare themselves anytime soon, especially with an election in the offing.

We now know now the ‘Yes’ leadership in Quebec was divided about independence.  If you want separation to succeed then, like Cortes you drive your boats up on the beach, burn them and tell your people to march or die.  That is what Premier Jacque Parizeau would have tried to do if he had a bare majority but he lacked the popular support and even cohesion amongst his own supporters to pull it off.  We also know that the Federal Cabinet and Federal parties had no coherent plans in the event of a “Yes” vote.  A recent interview revealed Prime Minister Chretien’s Plan B was to cling to power and ‘wing it’.

If our own and the recent UK experience teaches us anything, it is that our politicians are either conning us and/or driven by short-term political calculations.  The requirement of “clear” majority is what protects all our interests and protects us from them.

Hillwatch Inc., 45 O’Connor St. Suite 1150, Ottawa ON K1P 1A4 tel: (613) 238-8700 fax: (866) 310-4955