Ten years ago, in 2004, I decided to jump off the merry-go-round of political party fund-raisers. I found both the rubber chicken and the political offering equally unappetising. My Liberal and Labor party hosts, on the other hand, seemed perfectly articulate and competent.
Yet for me, they came across as salesmen more than statesmen. When I asked once whether there might be a better game plan, my host’s retort was Winston Churchill’s: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." Churchill damns with a challenge: “that have been tried”. It’s probably true that, in the modern era, other forms of government have failed, but I asked myself, why stop there?
If the actual work of politicians is to negotiate our differences and facilitate consensus, then I think, today, they are failing us miserably. But it's not their fault. They’re not "bad people" – they are simply responding intelligently [as does the voter] to an adversarial political framework that discourages dialogue and consensus.
The main engine of our political framework is the election contest; fund-raising is just a necessary subset. The core problem, in my view, is not fund-raising. For as long as there are elections, campaigns will need to be funded, with private and/or public money. The discussions and legislation constraining fund-raising and influence peddling are crucial within the current framework; but why are we not addressing the adversarial core?
Because, I suggest, we all believe election contests bring out the best and brightest, providing us with great statesmen and stateswomen. No matter that much of the game is manufactured difference, and that the ideologies have largely become obsolete, and that party memberships are at all-time lows, it’s the charismatic leader who prevails. Can’t we see that the king has no clothes and the posturing often divides rather than brings us together?
There will always be ways around funding laws. Ban one form of donation and a new form will arise: it’s the politicians themselves who recognise the pragmatic need for funding, lobbying and advertising, playing both poacher and gamekeeper when drafting new legislation. In addition, the arguments often revolve around the sacrosanct freedom of speech right. The recent High Court ruling on the NSW party-funding legislation made this very point.
On the other hand, suggesting elections are the problem is tantamount to sacrilege. In all the theatre of our media-driven, political drama, we’ve lost sight of the original and true genius of democratia: the jury. Today, we worship a seducer and an impostor – "a poll dancer" – twisting and teasing, writhing and squeezing.
In 2005, James Spigelman, the then chief justice of NSW, had this to say about elections and the jury: "The jury is a profoundly democratic and egalitarian institution. Selection by lot has two distinct advantages. First, it operates on the principle that all persons to be selected are fundamentally equal and that, in the relevant circumstances, it is invidious to say that one person is more qualified than another. Secondly, selection by lot prevents corruption of the system."
With the help of research colleagues, we have been investigating better models of government: all based on the jury. The jury, in our view, is more representative, more deliberative and, surprisingly, more effective. We’ve done several projects that prove this over the last few years.
In 2012, the NSW government Public Accounts Committee commissioned us to facilitate community input into an energy inquiry. Citizens from across NSW were selected at random and invited to participate. From those who responded, 54 were chosen, again at random. That "mini-public" was cross-checked with the population at large to ensure demographic consistency in terms of age and gender; with approximately equal men and women and an equivalent bell curve of age representation.
The jury met for about six days over a ten-week period, listening to presentations from expert practitioners (regulators, industry, CSIRO, etc). In addition, they engaged online and downloaded relevant information, such as submissions and hearings. They registered more downloads than the Public Accounts Committee members do.
At the end of the process, the Australian National University research paper found the jury added value to the final parliamentary report because it provided a nuanced picture of community attitudes on energy issues. The citizens’ jury had less political baggage, less need to point-score among its members and was more open to various propositions put to it by the experts.
In this crowded and complex world, I think we need better and more effective ways to reconcile our differences. The advantaged communities are likely to be those reaching agreements – considered, informed and advocated – not just by politicians, but by the broadest spectrum of everyday people. Let’s take Churchill’s line as a challenge: let’s trial something new. Perhaps we could start by asking a jury of citizens, not just politicians, how fund-raising, advertising and lobbying might be regulated better? It would set a benchmark for Australia, and the world, in democratic reform.
Luca Belgiorno-Nettis is founder of the newDemocracy Foundation.