Six unusual referendums that have taken place around the world

With another three or four referendums announced for May , it can feel like we’re being bombarded. But at least they centre on important decisions. Robert Hume looks at six of the more offbeat that have taken place internationally

One decision that the country may have to vote on this May is a proposal to establish a unified patent court — a court dealing with patent and intellectual property law which all member states of the European Union can use.

This is one of four referendums likely to take place on this as of yet undecided day in May: the controversial same-sex marriage referendum, the reduction of the voting age to 16, the dropping of the age limit for presidential candidates and this patents court.

But across the world, referendums aren’t necessarily about major political change like new EU treaties or voting reform.

Here are some of the more zany :

Should there be car-free Sundays? (Switzerland, 2003)

With the number of cars in Switzerland having reached 3.7 million, the time had arrived for one such initiative. As part of a “soft mobility programme, it was proposed to close roads to private cars on four Sundays each year — one Sunday every season — from 4am until midnight. Only buses would be allowed to run.

No: 62% (though in Zurich 51% voted for it).

Should animals have the right to be represented in court by lawyers? (Switzerland, 2010)

Switzerland has some of the strictest animal welfare legislation in the world. Being social animals, goldfish and budgies cannot be kept alone; and dog owners have to take training courses to learn how to care for their pets. In spite of this, say animal rights groups, many instances of cruelty go unpunished. “Humans accused of animal cruelty can hire a lawyer but animals can’t,” said Antoine Goetschel, a lawyer who hit the headlines when he argued (unsuccessfully) on behalf of a pike that had “suffered excessively” while being caught by an angler. Goetschel proposed a nationwide system of state-funded lawyers to represent animals in court.

No: 71%

Which of these four songs best reveals our nationality? (Australia, 1977)

Results: (a) “God Save the Queen” (19%), (b) “Advance Australia Fair” (43%), (c) “Song of Australia” (10%), (d) “Waltzing Matilda” (28%). Surprisingly, though, only one option is fully Australian. “Song of Australia” was written by London-born poet Caroline Carleton; and the winner, “Adance Australia Fair”, by Glaswegian composer Peter Dodds McCormick. The only homegrown option, (“Waltzing Matilda”, which came second in the poll) is a song about sheep stealing. Maybe some voters would prefer to have answered “None”.

Should a smack, as part of good parental correction, be a criminal offence? (New Zealand, 2009)

The biased nature of the question in this citizens-led postal ballot referendum drew widespread criticism from the public and parliament. People answering the question were drawn to answer “no”; after all, how could something described as “good” be “criminal”. Prime Minister John Key described the question as “ridiculous” and refused to vote.

No: 88%

Should a policeman be allowed to patrol while carrying a ventriloquist’s dummy? (San Francisco, 1993)

Police officer Bob Geary took literally his chief’s requirement that officers should make themselves “highly visible”, and try to earn the trust of local civilians. Ordering a wooden dummy from a ventriloquist catalogue, he practised in front of the bathroom mirror before taking the doll — which he called “Brendan O’Smarty” — to entertain children while on foot patrol in North Beach. Much to the embarrassment of the police, Geary launched a campaign “to save Puppet Officer Brendan O’Smarty”; he collected 10,000 signatures, and put it to a referendum. The measure got through by a whisker; and the cops remained a familiar sight, patrolling together until they retired in 2000.

Yes: 51%

In public toilets, should loose toilet paper hang over or under the roll? (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, 1997)

Toilet paper orientation produces strong opinions on both sides. Hang the loose end over (in front of) the roll and it becomes easier to see and grasp.

It reduces the risk of accidentally brushing the wall with your hand and transferring nasty germs. You can also fold the last sheet, proving the toilet has been cleaned — very important in public conveniences. On the other hand, hang it under the roll and it looks tidier and reduces the risk of pulling too many sheets off.

Ahead of a municipal election in Saskatoon, computerised voting machines were given a trial run. Promoted as a fun exercise to familiarise the public with the new equipment, some citizens hoped it would get to the bottom of the problem. As one local newspaper explained: “a lot of people want to know what others think about it”.

Over: 80% Under: 20%



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