Brendan Wintle and Sarah Bekessy
Picture Suzette. She is economically conservative and socially progressive. Suzette believes in fiscal restraint, reducing debt, deregulation, humanitarian treatment of refugees, reducing carbon emissions and the benefits to society of tax-deductible donations to environment groups. You can see the difficult choice she faces on election day. No single political party will adequately represent her views in parliament. Our party-political system of democracy is failing Suzette and most Australian citizens. A digitally driven direct democracy will be more democratic than the corruptible, self-interested party system we currently endure.
The Irish plebiscite on marriage equality reveals an alternative future for democracy; one driven by the views of citizens on individual issues. Even Peter Reith (www.abc.net.au/news/2015-06-09/former-finance-minister-calls-for-plebiscite-on-gay-marriage/6531526), someone who gained so much from the party system, is advocating citizen decision-making for issues too hot for the party system to handle. Modern technology now makes a ‘direct democracy’; a ‘people’s parliament’, a plausible and practical alternative to the representative party system that consistently fails to adequately represent citizens’ views.
The most famous direct democracy existed in Athens in the fifth century BC. Unless you happened to be female, young, a slave or foreigner, citizens had a say in government on an issue-by-issue basis.
The thread of democracy persisted through Ancient Greece to the modern day. But in large, dispersed populations there was no practical way to maintain direct democracy as it was originally conceived. So rather than voting on issues, we now vote for parties that represent us on a range of issues.
The problem, of course, is that the policy platforms of two or more major parties are unlikely to completely accord with the values held by individual voters. By electing a party you are instantly trading between your values with respect to economic management, social justice, environment, and many other complex issues. Political parties are complicated, cumbersome, corruptible machines; blunt instruments for developing and implementing public policy that represents the views of citizens.
A further problem is that the primary goal of political parties is to gain election or re-election. The end result is policy tailored to the opinions and needs of a handful of voters in marginal electorates. Combined with the impact of heavy hitting lobby groups, representative democracy has come to represent the views of a very small proportion of citizens.
The problems with representative democracy run deeper. Giving over power to representatives reduces our responsibility to be fully informed. At only a few points in the political cycle are political parties strongly motivated to engage citizens with their policy agenda, and even then it tends to be focused on superficial, often divisive issues, with a the primary aim of political point-scoring and little attempt at mature, informative debate.
For the first time since Athens in 400BC, we have the capacity to garner the opinion of the entire public on a regular basis. Modern technology can connect individuals with decision-makers as they were connected in the ancient Greek Assemblies. While there will be many challenges to instituting a peoples parliament, the enormous potential for reclaiming that democratic ideal should motivate us to overcome them. Modern technology allows us to revisit the idea of a ‘peoples parliament’ and the benefits would be immediate.
Imagine how different the Australian political landscape would be if issues characterized by immense public support for change, but sluggish policy by the major political parties were progressed through plebiscite. Would we have achieved marriage equality, would we have improved public transport, a meaningful resource rent tax, action on climate change, would we still have a tampon tax? Action in the form of change or reform around these issues would be rapid and popular. Not weighed down by the power of vocal and effective minority lobby groups.
But there will be many challenges to this democratic paradigm. Apart from vested interests of the current parties that occupy positions of power, large philosophical hurdles must be overcome. Would we self-destruct in a frenzy of self-interested tax cuts? Would the tragedy of the commons undermine all that is good about open democracy? We think not. Take the debate about the parental leave scheme as an example. The lukewarm reception to Tony Abbott’s former paid parental leave policy reveals that the public is capable of sophisticated responses. The desire for resources to be directed to childcare rather than generous direct payments to parents suggests a preference for measures that allow parents to maintain their productive contributions to society.
There would be many technical and practical challenges. Not everybody is connected to the new digital age. How would we ensure that non-technology savvy people aren’t left behind in the new democracy? Finding ways of allowing everybody to contribute to the people’s parliament without having to visit the ballot box on a weekly basis is a challenge that must be overcome. Which issues are big enough to warrant a public vote, and which are small enough to be entrusted to the executive? Obviously we want a people’s parliament, not a people’s bureaucracy, so drawing the line between major political issues and the day-to-day business of government is a tough challenge. Who decides which issues go to a public vote, who will be our head of state?
The answer is that we cannot completely do away with elected representatives. We would still need a regular electoral cycle to allow the public to eject the executive if they are not sending the right issues out to plebiscite at the right frequency. But imagine if our elections were about this, rather than about whether or not we should ‘stop the boats’! It is time to totally re-set the political compass and renew our democracy with a digitally enhanced people’s parliament.
The biggest challenge to all of this, or course, is getting politicians to vote it in.
A digitally enhanced people’s parliament is a great idea. Thanks Brendan and Sarah for a thoughtful reflection on its potential.
Unfortunately, it’s an idea that is unlikely to take off for the foreseeable future because of the many vested interests that would lose out if the existing system were transformed (as you say, the pollies first and foremost).
What is needed is some safe arena where this form of direct democracy could be trialled in order to demonstrate its value. Maybe it could be deployed by a city council to better engage local rate payers in local decisions relating to local issues. The trial should try and avoid decisions surrounding contentious or deep seated values and aim to explore how this type of system might operate in the real world. It would enable us to better appreciate the consequences and advantages of people’s views feeding directly into decision-making processes.
David, I am not convinced that trialling this in a safe arena will reveal much that we don’t already know. In Switzerland, many issues are voted on by plebiscite and it seems to work well. So we can learn from other people’s experiences in that regard. But we need to trial this model perhaps on a smaller scale on a wide range of issues, including contentious ones to know how we would resolve problems when they arise. The other problem we need to solve with this new model is the difference between ‘issues’ voting (e.g. marriage equality) and long term strategic policy directions. If every decision is put up for a vote, we may never be able to work out longer term strategies. So we would need to design a decision model which maps out ‘forks in the road’ which may represent different values in society on which a citizen plebiscite can vote. How certain policies, decided by vote, are implemented may then become something for an elected parliament to deal with.