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Forget democracy, we need a new way to govern

Date

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis

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.

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.

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.

26 comments

  • This whole proposition fills me with horror. Anyone who has had any experience of community decision-making knows that it leaves our parliamentarians for dead when it comes to cronyism, nimbyism, corruption, bullying, vested interests, etc.

    Commenter
    Stephen
    Date and time
    April 23, 2014, 12:28PM
    • So the fact that the author says that those things haven't occurred in the trial they've run eluded you did it?

      I heard about this scheme on the radio a year or so ago and was very impressed with the early findings.

      Commenter
      Westminster Yabby
      Date and time
      April 23, 2014, 2:45PM
    • @Westminster
      If you look closely, you'll see that the trial run by the author was one in which the outcomes had no practical effect on the "jury" participants (it was only a parliamentary committee report, and parliamentary committees are generally nothing more than a harmless way of keeping backbenchers busy and making them feel important).

      When it comes to real decisionmaking, whether it's the timing of the school fete or the awarding of a contract, self-interest and other venal concerns invariably come to the fore. The existiing parliamentary system, however imperfect, is the best means of keeping those forces in check.

      Commenter
      Stephen
      Date and time
      April 23, 2014, 3:42PM
  • There is another lady, I think Carson, who has been advocating policy juries for a number of years.

    I would like to add the advent of super computers as a means to help deliberate decision making. Put in the parameters and let it rip. May be interesting to see what results it may throw up.

    Commenter
    Neil
    Date and time
    April 23, 2014, 1:07PM
    • Thanks Luca. Couldn't agree more. Democracy has outlived its usefulness in the English speaking world. It may be functioning as originally intended somewhere on the planet, but I know not of it. Where do I join your organisation?

      Commenter
      Tim
      Location
      Pyrmont
      Date and time
      April 23, 2014, 1:08PM
      • Hooray, I have been waiting for this discussion to start - improving the system. We should take Winston's challenge, as the system as it is has many problems, that seem to be getting worse. The growth of a class of professional spinners with expertise on playing the system is but one symptom.
        I really like the idea of the citizen's jury. However, the need for linked up long term planning that involves many issues seems not to be covered by this system. Or could large plans and long term major objectives be decided in the same way? Also, will the population as a whole accept these decisions if they disagree and have not had any input?
        Sad that at 1pm I am the first comment. Perhaps people are not dissatisfied enough with the status quo to consider these questions.

        Commenter
        Feeblebunny
        Location
        Warringah
        Date and time
        April 23, 2014, 1:09PM
        • I think democracy as we know it has stopped functioning long
          ago. What I would suggest is that the country is divided up so
          half is run by the conservatives half by labor/green coalition.
          That way if someone is unhappy with the way things are done
          no need for an election just move to the area controlled by the
          other mob.

          Commenter
          greven
          Date and time
          April 23, 2014, 1:19PM
          • Great thought piece. This is an area that needs lots of New thinking and bold ideas as the system is flawed. There is so much disillusion with the current system. Sometimes if the system isn't working then a revolution its needed.

            Commenter
            diffa
            Date and time
            April 23, 2014, 1:48PM
            • I completely agree that democracy doesn't work. In fact, it never worked fully, correctly or even really effectively - as Churchill said, it was lousy but better than anything else tried so far.

              But there are two huge problems getting in the way of change. Firstly, there is no clearly articulated alternative model, and secondly there is no political will to change either by current politicians or by the people. The first problem has been addressed by countless individuals and groups, but there is no single emerging alternative or even a set of reforms to create Democracy 2.0. The second issue of no political will is even bigger, because it undermines the first problem. The people fear change, and would rather keep 'the devil they know' than take a risk. And the politicians have a vested interest in not changing because change could make them far more accountable and force them to work more closely with the people to whom they would be accountable (rather like normal jobs).

              We all know, even if we don't admit it, that democracy is a poor and rather corrupt model of government that only works for those that can influence the system to their advantage. But it is those people who can influence it, people like Rupert Murdoch and other powerful business interests, who will try to prevent change.

              History shows us the major political change doesn't happen without a lot of pain and bloodshed. If we want it to happen, we will have to fight for it.

              Commenter
              WillD
              Date and time
              April 23, 2014, 2:35PM
              • Doesn't the old adage hold that the problem with trial by jury is that it it is not trial by a jury of your peers but of 12 people too stupid to get out of jury duty?

                Commenter
                Spaniel
                Date and time
                April 23, 2014, 3:56PM

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