newDemocracy News | December 2015

Ideas, not Ideology

The turmoil of the Civil War in 17th century England was the crucible for great political and philosophical upheavals. John Locke’s Enlightenment ideas of individual freedom and the importance of scientific (i.e. rational) thinking changed forever the way people looked at themselves with respect to their government. It was the Enlightenment ideals which formed the basis of Thomas Jefferson’s American Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Bill of Religious Freedom – two revolutionary documents that set the course for the new American Republic.

Enlightenment thinking has been central to all western politics in some form or other yet the idea has been manipulated and taken to extremes.

Jeremy Bentham, a contemporary of Locke’s, and an early Utilitarian thinker believed that the greatest happiness for the greatest number was the ultimate measure of right or wrong. According to Bentham, for any decision, the relative amount of pleasure verses pain i.e. the total ‘utility’ of an act, was a measurable quantity. Thus making a particular choice, be it personal or political, clearly determinable by quasi mathematical principles of utility maximization.

Surprisingly to many, Karl Marx was also an Enlightenment thinker. He believed that labour was the only economic determinant on which an economy should be based. When workers were no longer exploited, ultimately a government of persons could be replaced by an administration of things – that is to say that, with the final triumph of equality and reason, all political and moral problems would be turned into purely technological ones.

The late 20th Century American political philosopher, Robert Nozick was  an ultimate libertarian. He believed that there are only individuals – no society, no social contract. The role of the state is only to enforce property rights and protect citizens from harm. The state cannot be involved in any redistribution of goods as it is contrary to individual liberty and may violate consent.

These three thinkers were extremists. Their ideas became ideologies whereby they manipulated any situations to fit their beliefs.  Extreme views can be useful as intellectual exercises as they allow us to gauge where our values lie on the spectrum of ideas. Those who ascribe to an ideology tend to sit firm on the spectrum and cannot/ will not counsel alternatives.

Tony Abbott, unfortunately for his Prime Ministership, was identified by an ideology expressed with the three word slogan. He is an intelligent man yet it was only this immutability that the public was permitted to see. Barrie Cassidy, a respected journalist and television presenter, wrote of Abbott’s ‘missed opportunity’ in a piece in the Drum (30/10/15) “Tony Abbott’s ideology laid bare: Just fight, fight fight1

His successor was widely accepted with relief for being a man of ideas – in fact his mantra appears to be that “all ideas are on the table”. He believes that compromise and pragmatism are essential in even the most tragic and seemingly unresolvable  situations such as the war in Syria. A large proportion of media comment notes Australians are relieved that ideas may now have trumped ideology. As Mark Beason (Professor of International Politics, UWA) states, 2 somewhat exuberantly at least initially, 

I’ve been feeling uncharacteristically optimistic about the future of the country. Like most Australians, it seems, I’m infatuated with Malcolm Turnbull. My unaccustomed euphoria has been brought on by the fact that we now have an unembarrassing leader who can speak in complete sentences, is clearly smart, and is seemingly open to new ideas. Be still my beating heart.

However for Beason and many others, there is also concern that with the ideologues in Turnbull’s party still sitting around the table, ideas will not be as fearlessly defended and the limitations of the existing system will resurface.

So what does it tell us when a clever, thoughtful, well-informed politician gets the chance to lead and flunks it? Why is it that even someone with real political skills and a capacity to win converts across the normal political divides can’t actually deliver when it comes to doing something really difficult?

… even the best of leaders are hostage to the two-party system that still provides the only vehicle from which to reach the pinnacle of power in this country.

After the shortest of political love affairs, I find myself relapsing into more familiar scepticism about our collective ability to address important problems, no matter who’s running the place.

This newsletter must not be viewed as a criticism of one particular side of politics. Although the above comments were written with Abbott/ Turnbull in mind, every sentence could be read as reflective of the Gillard /Rudd period when the leaders were wooden, the Labor Party showed little vision and the Government was beholden to the ideology of parts of the union movement.

Both, indeed all, sides of politics can become slaves to a particular ideology. At newDemocracy, we have shown that randomly selected citizens are capable of generating and assessing ideas whilst not being held captive to ideology. Certainly some members of a randomly selected panel will come in with fixed mindsets. However the sampling of the group and the randomness of ‘everyday’ people allows a citizens’ jury to find common ground agreement. The ideas are not hostage to an ideology.

If we cannot overcome key policy hurdles over the coming five years, will we hold to the suggestion we can “just elect better people” or may we start needing to ask the question “How can we govern ourselves better?”

I had advised you in the last newsletter that newDemocracy Founder, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis was to speak in London in October, as a guest of the leading UK think-tank, ’The Policy Network’. The forum has now been rescheduled for January 12th. The panel discussion entitled: ‘ What can Britain learn from Australian democratic innovations?’ features newDemocracy and a number of MP’s and Lords. It’s great to see that the home of the Westminster system is open to discussing more inclusive and deliberative models of government. More details can be found here:

Iain Walker, Executive Director has been in great demand around the world, speaking firstly at the World Forum for Democracy in Strasbourg and then at the Library of Alexandria for the Democracy for the 21st Century conference being held in conjunction with the Club of Madrid where he will contribute a session on the implementable and practical innovations in democracy.

Iain’s trip and topic in Strasbourg was unfortunately timely just after the Paris bombings. The invitation came months ago to explore the potential for randomly selected juries of citizens to agree the extents of ‘freedom laws’ (surveillance and intelligence parameters) they could live with.

It was noted that this is a policy area with such a potentially significant political impact at the ballot box that voters have become cynical as to the motivations of elected representatives on all sides. The use of a jury as a complementary measure to inform a parliament was presented as an option which would expand the range of options available to a government, while simultaneously increasing public trust beyond simple party lines. Notably, the responding rapporteurs including Robert Spano, Judge at the European Court of Human Rights, noted that citizens’ involvement at this ‘rule making’ level is an ideal complementary measure with strong practical potential.

More information, including the full audio of the session, is available at

The newDemocracy Foundation has had a great year  – several  successful projects and many new supporters.  We finished off the year with a nDF Grandstand event – a little party and some inspiration – four speakers offering their inside perspectives on citizens’ juries  (more of that in another newsletter).


We look forward for even more juries as well as the publication of four research papers next year. Thank you for your support – keep talking about us and our ideas. 

Manuela Epstein




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