Image for Democracy is sick – long live democracy

About 25% voters have now abandoned the major parties and we have a political class that is seen by many as being “out of touch” and lacking in integrity.

Hardly surprising when we have a system that allows and encourages secret donations that inevitably influence policy outcomes. 

We have a Senate where an extremist who was elected with only 77 first preference votes can block Government legislation.

Political power brokers manipulate “tickets” to make their competitors virtually un-electable.

And on it goes.

So, you ask: “What’s new?”

Well, for a start social media is new. It’s now a primary “news source” and many people rely on it for keeping in touch with what’s going on in the world.

That is: keeping in touch with what their “friends” reckon is going on. A vicious circle. “Fake news” is real.

“Alternative facts” are no joke. Prejudice is taking the place of opinions based on facts and informed analysis.

Lobby groups and political gamers of all stripes – including “enemy agents” - are becoming more and more sophisticated at targeting vulnerable voters using complex algorithms and analytics. The good, the bad and the evil.

The changes have been incremental and insidious but democracy is ailing. It needs more than just a shot in the arm …

It needs a transplant.

Government and politicians need to regain trust.

The word “democracy” can be translated as “people power” and the original Greek form of “direct democracy” had no elected representatives: the citizens would vote directly on important issues.

A bit like the system they still have in Switzerland where in the last 120 years they have had 240 referendums. As I write that I can almost hear the groans.

You can relax, I’m not suggesting we decide every piece of legislation by referendum. We could, however, introduce a system where “ordinary people” are directly part of the decision-making process.

What I’m suggesting is not new or original and it’s usually referred to as participatory or deliberative democracy and often makes use of “Citizens’ Juries”.

So how does it work and what is a Citizen’s Jury?  Well it’s not complicated and various models have been used in different countries including here in Australia.

Just like trial juries that sometimes make life-changing decisions for individuals, Citizen’s Juries are randomly selected from the general population.

They don’t have special skills or qualifications. They are “ordinary people”. 

Typically 20 to 100 individuals are invited to participate; depending on the importance of the issue being considered. They are paid a reasonable amount for their time and can decline if they don’t want to participate or for some reason can’t. 

How exactly these deliberations are structured varies but the idea is for the Citizens’ Jury to arrive at a consensus that everybody involved can live with. The participants are first given relevant information by stakeholders, experts and others with an interest in the issue being considered.

Exactly the kind of people who would make submissions to a Government inquiry. This would usually be in the form of documentation, letters, interviews and presentations.  They are then tasked with discussing the issue, coming to a consensus and formulating recommendations for Government to use in decision-making. 

Having done this they have no further role. And this is one of the important factors that set them apart from the political class.

It’s not a step on a career path, they don’t have to consider the next election, who might be jockeying for their job and stab them in the back.

And they are not beholden to the wishes of major donors.

Elected Government then has to make the final decisions but a clear direction has been provided by direct representatives of “the people”. 

It’s easy for Governments to ignore submissions made by interested parties or people “with an axe to grind” but it would be a brave and foolhardy Government that rejected outright the recommendations of a properly convened Citizens’ Jury without being able to provide very good reasons.

The NewDemocracy Foundation here in Australia has been promoting this form of decision making, have conducted considerable research in this area and have convened Citizens’ Juries to consider a number of issues.

For those of you interested in the topic a visit to their website is well worthwhile: https://www.newdemocracy.com.au/

Participatory or deliberative democracy can work at any level of government.

Here in Tasmania issues such as the state Government takeover of Taswater, reform to the Local Government Act and the proposed State Planning Provisions would be good candidates for deliberation by Citizens’ Juries. 

Rather than having such issues debated solely by politicians Citizens’ Juries could be convened and make relevant recommendations without being influenced by political ambition or vested interests.

Any political party that made a commitment to introducing a genuine process of Participatory Democracy would be taking a step towards healing the sickness that is threatening the current system.

They would be seen to be introducing greater transparency and accountability into the decision making process and, hopefully, would be suitably rewarded by voters.

*Pat Synge has long been interested in how best to conduct “community consultation” to achieve positive outcomes. Concerned about the influence donations have on Government policy he co-founded Funding & Disclosure (Inc) ( http://www.fundinganddisclosure.org.au/ ) to lobby for changes to political donation laws.