The greatest underused asset in politics is people; ignore them at your peril. Luca Belgiorno-Nettis

Conventional wisdom holds that the common sense of everyday people finds its voice in elections, and referendums. However, it’s apparent that political campaigns are banal popularity contests at best, and toxic, divisive, ideological battlegrounds at worst.

The French philosopher Emil Cioran said: “Ideas should be neutral, yet man animates these ideas with passions and follies, and thus are born ideologies, doctrines, and bloody farce.”

Elections foment animosities, and there’s a growing group of political reformists who think that if we don’t change them out, we’ll have even more fractured societies.

Democracy is not elections, or referendums. We’ve completely lost sight of how political representation was originally conceived – not through elections, but by lot: no campaigning, no fundraising, no elections, no angry divisiveness. Take a look at how the Greeks defined democracy.

The average punter has virtually no influence on the affairs of state, so he or she won’t spend any real time or effort studying public policy documents. That’s an intelligent decision. They’ll vote for whoever – or whatever – they think is best or least worst. That’s opinion polling, aka the popular vote. It’s not considered or informed decision-making.

On the other hand, when people, randomly selected to represent their community, are tasked with making a critical decision for themselves, and their fellow citizens, they make the effort.

This month, Australia concluded its biggest ever public deliberation. A two-thirds majority of the 350-person jury of South Australians agreed not to proceed with a high-level nuclear waste facility that had been mooted for their state. During the jury process, expert witnesses, as selected by the citizens themselves, were invited to present and inform.

Over six days of face-to-face meetings, the citizen jurors struggled. Eventually they split, but always without vituperation.

From the time the royal commission report was handed down earlier this year, the South Australian government has been trying to listen, very carefully, to its community.

But now it has stopped listening, even after the citizen jury concluded their deliberations. A referendum has now been floated as a way to finally determine the question; never mind the most recent lessons from the Brexit experience. The jury tried to find common ground. A referendum won’t.

Should the South Australian Premier, Jay Weatherill, proceed with a referendum, the government could at least do what Oregon does: append the jury’s findings to the ballot paper.

The jury’s considered decision should not be ignored by the government. The greatest underused asset in politics today is the common sense of everyday people – when they deliberate.

If one acknowledges that democracy is principally about social cohesion, then elections – and referendums – are failing us miserably. Citizen juries in Australia, and around the world, show how we can do democracy more productively, and more collaboratively.

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis is founding director of the newDemocracy Foundation, which designed and oversaw the citizen jury process for the South Australian government.

Scroll to top