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A lesson from Italy on the futility of referendums

A recent referendum there shows how, if you ask people to answer a stupid question, most will refuse to do so

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

23 April 2016

9:00 AM

As we prepare in Britain for our momentous referendum in June, Italy has just had one. It happened last Sunday while I was on holiday in Tuscany, and it was about as futile an exercise in democracy as there could be. Italy has lots of referendums. They come in two kinds. First, there is the constitutional referendum, which is used to approve any change to the constitution that has been passed twice by both houses of parliament. Then there is the popular referendum, which is held by popular demand to request the abolition of the other kinds of law that parliament has enacted.

Constitutional referendums are rare. Since the famous one of 1946, when Italians narrowly voted to abolish the monarchy and replace it with a republic, there have been only two, both of them in this century and both concerned with the devolution of powers to Italy’s 20 regions. But there is to be another one this October to approve changes to the country’s bicameral system of government, in which the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate are now both elected and conduct legislative battles on equal terms. Reforms just approved after a long parliamentary struggle would downgrade the Senate to a status resembling that of the House of Lords and strengthen the powers of the Chamber of Deputies, thus, it is hoped, making Italian governing and law-making less sclerotic.

Constitutional referendums seem perfectly sensible. Popular referendums are the problem. There have been 17 of them since 1974, all of them promoted by people hoping to undo legislation that parliament has already approved. They would be difficult to imagine in Britain, where parliament is supposed to be sovereign. But in Italy there is hardly a law that is safe from being called into question. Getting a referendum organised is not easy. It requires a request from at least five of Italy’s 20 regional councils, or a petition signed by at least 500,000 registered voters, each signature verified by a court. Nevertheless, referendums have been held not only on moral issues such as divorce and abortion, which is understandable, but also on such matters as the management of water services, the right to place electricity pylons on private property, the system for appointing the heads of state banks, and so on.

Still, no referendum has attracted more criticism than the one last Sunday. This was about drilling for oil and gas within 12 miles of the Italian coast. Italy imports about 90 per cent of its energy needs, so is always looking for ways to increase its domestic production. But environmental lobbyists have already obtained major restrictions on this. The government, for example, isn’t granting any more drilling concessions in either the Mediterranean or the Aegean seas; all it wants to do is to renew existing licences so that drilling can continue at the present sites until the reserves are fully exhausted. The question in the referendum was simply whether the government should be allowed to do this.

This was a highly technical question on which it would have been surprising to find much interest among the Italian population. And, indeed, there wasn’t much. The prime minister, Matteo Renzi, claiming that failure to renew the licences would lose 11,000 Italians their jobs, urged voters to boycott the referendum. This was because the law states that no popular referendum is valid unless 50 per cent of the electorate plus one other voter turns out to cast their ballot. The turnout on Sunday was just over 30 per cent, so drilling can effectively continue.

It is unusual for a head of government to urge voters to abstain from voting in any poll; more often it’s the other way round. But Renzi heralded the low turnout as a victory for himself, as indeed it was to some extent because the referendum, called on the initiative of nine regional councils, was partly motivated by a desire to embarrass him. Renzi proposed a toast to the 11,000 workers he said would now keep their jobs and condemned the referendum, which cost €300 million to organise, as a complete waste of money.

Italians have traditionally always voted in large numbers, seeing it as their duty. There was a turnout of 87.7 per cent in the referendum of 1974 that resulted in the retention of divorce. In the referendum of 1981, in which the legalisation of abortion was upheld, the turnout was 79.4 per cent. Now, on the issue of drilling at sea, it has fallen to 30 per cent. This shows that if you ask people to answer a stupid question, most will refuse to do so. It also shows that too many referendums weaken people’s commitment to democracy instead of strengthening it.

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