Should we still be excited by elections?

What if a trip to a polling booth was not the only chance we got to exercise democracy?

Election day is pretty much what every Australian equates with democracy, but it hasn’t always been the case. As David Van Reybrouk argues in his excellent book Against Elections (full review in an upcoming newsletter!), democracy was never intended to be purely ‘representative’, and not only ‘electoral’ either…

There are many examples of other democratic systems already in use around the world. We will explore these further in future posts and newsletters, but here is a taster of two of the most impactful:

Direct democracy – essentially, voting on issues, rather than representatives (or, worse, parties). We have direct democracy in Australia (though rarely) via referenda. In other countries this is much more common.

  • In Switzerland, for example, representative democracy is coupled with a citizens initiative system. Any citizen of voting age can proposed constitutional amendments (‘popular initiative’) or seek a referendum on a law passed at any level of government (‘optional referendum’). (Switzerland also has a more sophisticated ‘bottom up’ federalism model, which has local cantons collecting taxes).
  • Even the United States, many states have ‘ballot initiatives’ at any given election. At the recent US mid-terms, for example, there were a plethora of initiatives asking questions on abortion, climate action, voting rights and legalising marijuana. Most of these are legally binding (or highly influential) on State legislatures.

Direct democracy can be great, where the situation is relatively simple, or where the issue is significant in the public mind and people have had access to good information to make up their minds. But it just can’t work for everything.

The problem with direct democracy is that it can be highly susceptible to reactionary, surface level responses, and is easily manipulated by misinformation (if you believe the hype, something like a direct democracy model is part of Elon Musk’s long-term plan for Twitter – which should be fun to watch).

Which brings us to…

Deliberative democracy – deliberative approaches allow a small number of people, often chosen to be representative of the population, to consider a complex issue, hear from experts and reach a view through considered dialogue.

A well-functioning parliament ought to be a deliberative mechanism, but the proliferation of political parties and partisan voting has all but extinguished this.

More effective examples involve citizens assemblies or citizen’s panels, chosen at random (but can be weighted for demographic characteristics for example). There is really strong evidence that given an opportunity to deliberate, people make better choices.

Successful examples are big and small: in Victoria some water authorities are using citizen panels to set prices, local governments are required to use deliberative approaches by the 2020 Local Government Act. Iceland held a citizen panel for its constitutional reforms, Ireland did the same for the constitutional reforms that enshrined a right to an abortion.

Expect to hear much more on this in future newsletters.

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