Image for Silvertail subversives: the men aiming to change a system in which they prosper

Meet four men who have prospered hugely under our current political system, yet want to dramatically overhaul it for the greater good …

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… S​omething unforeseen has happened to Western democracy in the early decades of the 21st century, and professors and pundits around the globe are struggling to make sense of it. Seven years after the empty democratic promises of the Arab Spring, a bleak Occidental Autumn has settled over the landscape. Populism is on the rise. And the political class – statesmanship itself – is on the nose. The future of mainstream politics may depend on its capacity for renewal and reform, a point both Walsh and Luca Belgiorno-Nettis are keen to drive home.

Belgiorno-Nettis, scion of the Transfield empire founded by his Puglia-born father Franco, helms his voguishly titled newDemocracy Foundation, to which his family has contributed more than $2 million. The firm founded by his father built bridges, tunnels, ships, rigs, dams and power stations. Luca’s ideals take a different course, but are no less ambitious; he is determined to rebuild the nation’s political infrastructure.

I visit the 62-year-old Belgiorno-Nettis on a fine, late-autumn afternoon at the offices of his foundation, located on pier 8/9 at Sydney’s Walsh Bay. Built originally to handle wool exports, the old wharf has morphed into a warren of architects, designers and tech types in expensive jeans. An architect by training, Belgiorno-Nettis is right at home. But his dress style – pale suit, moccasins, and striking eyewear with a tint of Vesuvian red – is more euro-corporate than creative.

Before our meeting, he sends me a national survey of 1071 people, taken for newDemocracy in March, in which 54 per cent agreed that “the current political system is broken and isn’t working”. An even larger proportion – 71 per cent – felt that “everyday people should play a bigger part in government decisions that affect their lives”.

The survey revealed support for Belgiorno-Nettis’s big reform idea: citizen juries of randomly selected people asked to debate, deliberate and recommend policy to arms of government; in short, to participate in the political process. It’s an extension of the criminal jury principle that wisdom resides in the informed ordinary citizen; the proverbial man on the Clapham Omnibus.

Belgiorno-Nettis would like to see a “citizens’ senate” to supplement (at least in the first instance) rather than replace the existing upper house. Thirty-one per cent of his survey sample said that they needed more convincing about the citizen jury idea. And that is precisely what Belgiorno-Nettis intends to do …

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