Founder's Messages

A summary of writing from our founder and principal funder which gives an insight into the motives and outlook of the organisation.

Speech by Luca Belgiorno-Nettis.
For the Queensland Public Service Commission and the Eidos Institute.

Queensland Parliament House, 27/7/2017


Democracy can be described as a process that best integrates knowledge with political will. Democracy is about public policy development and implementation. Firstly, it involves the aggregation of knowledge - domain expertise – and secondly, that aggregation requires alignment with the broader community.

Today, however, we expend too much effort on public candidates, instead of on public policy. We have erroneously conflated candidates with policies, by way of elections. And now, the election contest - that hitherto reliable engine of democracy – is starting to splutter and spurt. Respect for elections, and candidates especially, is plummeting. Even in affluent Australia (with compulsory voting and proportional representation - and now leading the world for continuous uninterrupted economic growth) trust in our political actors is falling. Fifty years ago, the majority of Australians trusted their politicians. Today barely a quarter do. These sentiments are repeated in virtually every western country, in survey after survey: politicians don’t rate much higher than car salesmen.

I think one of the most potent images for the state of Western Democracy is Donald Trump as the King with No Clothes. In the United States (as in the UK and France) the first-past-the-post electoral system is one of the most unrepresentative voting models on earth. And yet they still persist with it, because it’s supposed to make for effective government. The winning candidate is lucky to garner 25% of the vote. No wonder their peoples are so disaffected, especially in the US. But the problem is not the politicians, or the political parties. It’s the system. Yes, we could extend our Federal parliamentary term to 4 years, but that’s really just tinkering around the edges.

In the last Australian federal election, barely 40% of the electorate supported the LNP in the primary vote. Yet, whether it’s LNP or Labor, the winning party still pretends to command a majority mandate. What is plain is that the traditional forces of the Left and the Right are largely anachronistic. And so new parties and independents are rising up, to fill the credibility gap – all entreating us to believe that there can be no more deserving than themselves. Many think this is business-as-usual: this is what democracy does best, allowing new candidates with broader appeal, to take the place of the old, and that it’s likely to lead to more representative, coalition governments. After all the Swedes, the New Zealanders and the Swiss have workable coalition governments. However, there’s no guarantee that such coalitions are indeed workable, especially in bigger democracies. I think the smaller countries have an innate tendency to swim together to protect their patch, surrounded as they are by larger fish. In any case, I think all of these experiences, from Scandinavia to Switzerland, should be reviewed, and the lessons learnt. My contention is also that the underlying political system - with its divisive, ideological, campaigning dynamic - could be up for review as well.

Almost 40 years ago two groups - one in the US and the other in Germany - started using citizen juries type to understand what community attitudes were on any number of subjects from town planning laws to local budgeting. So began the practice of deliberative democracy to tap into the community in a deeper way than focus groups or Town Hall meetings, or surveys.

There are many good elements to our democratic system: the rule of law, the separation of powers, the freedom of the press, the freedom of association etc. The politicians themselves are usually well-meaning and talented. The conventional wisdom is that elections are democracy’s definitive and incontrovertible template, and that nothing could be fairer than having the public adjudicate on a robust contest between high-conviction candidates. This contemporary political condition is a kind of electoral fundamentalism – a mindset captive to the dogma of free and fair elections: no matter how unrepresentative and divisive they obviously are.

The three pioneers of western democracy founded their legitimacy on elections: the British with their Westminster model; the French, with their proclamation of Fraternitè, Egalitè, Libertè; and the United States, with Abraham Lincoln’s version: Of, By and For the People. We all remember that it started with the Athenians, but have forgotten what made their system worthy of the name they gave it. The Athenians did not have elections: their politicians were selected by lot, from the whole citizenry - rich and poor. Demokratia was intrinsically representative and deliberative, and the ultimate anti-power device. There were no election contests - no winners, no losers. No explicit ideological differences to divide the society.

But as elections became ingrained in our modern psyche, sortition – the formal name for random recruitment - has rarely been considered as an alternative. Of course it continues in criminal juries today, but is still regarded as an inferior model for political representation, however equitable. The standard refrain is: ‘It’s not meritocratic’. Yet, in the last 5 to 10 years, sortition is finding favour again in. The Irish marriage equality referendum arose from the 2012 Constitutional Convention that was made up of 99 members, 66 of whom were randomly recruited. In South Australia last year, a citizen jury of 350 passed judgement on a high level nuclear waste facility.

Citizen juries are scalable from municipal to state, to national levels. The areas of application are flexible, from relatively minor issues up to and including major policy questions. It’s a useful device to test ‘public opinion’, because the considered view of the silent majority - via a jury – is a more reliable gauge of public will.

We can transform our ailing democracy, moving incrementally from small trials to larger structural ones. For example, we can deal with one law – as with the current Irish Citizens’ Assembly on abortion. We can enhance the deliberative quality of referenda – for example, as in the US, with Oregon’s Referendum Review, where citizen juries deliberate and make recommendations to the broader community, prior to the ballot. We could trial a Citizens’ Senate, as an experiment to replace the Upper House of a bicameral legislature.

We can re-invent our spluttering, cantankerous combustion engine. There are other, better models to road test. We could actually have a Citizens’ Convention to study them all, and recommend options to our politicians. I’m confident that we’d all surprise ourselves…pleasantly!