If raging public controversies like the Southern Forest Irrigation Scheme has demonstrated anything, it’s the difficulty of including different points of view in decision making.
That’s the fundamental challenge of liberal democracies, isn’t it?
Winston Churchill famously remarked that democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.
He was talking of representative democracy, of course, the system of government where everyone votes for a person to represent their interests in parliament, where the party with the most votes on the floor of the house gets to govern.
Churchill was right, it’s a vastly better system of government than dictatorship, but of course the fundamental problem with representative democracy is that whoever you vote for a politician wins.
It’s a sad fact that politics, with its wheeling, dealing and subservience to vested interest, is almost guaranteed to get in the way of finding the best solutions to social and environmental problems, producing results that are far from perfect.
The failure to do anything meaningful about climate change – an existential threat to the planet and its people – is a damning indictment of the failures of Australia’s parliamentary democracy.
If only there was a way of taking the politics out of decision making about public policy but still keeping the process democratic – government of the people, by the people and for the people.
Well one group of Australians is convinced there is. It’s called New Democracy and it has a couple of rather surprising members.
New Democracy thinks that government, or rather, governance, would be more representative of the people and more effective if it worked more like the jury system and less like a parliament.
Juries are randomly selected from the population to hear criminal cases against their fellow citizens. The hear the evidence for and against the accused, weigh it up, and come to a decision about their guilt or innocence.
It’s an old idea that accused people should be judged by a selection of their peers, and by and large it works pretty well.
New Democracy promotes the idea of governance by sortition – a process also known as Demarchy.
Their idea is that a citizen’s jury of 12 people should be randomly selected from volunteers who put their names forward to serve on committees to develop policy on complex topics.
The jury would hear the evidence from a range of experts and take the time (around six months) to develop policy.
It’s vital that the information presented is as neutral as possible and that jury members strive to put their biases and perspectives aside in favour of carefully analysing the information presented to them.
The idea of democracy has roots going back to Buddhism and ancient Greek civilisation and the parliament of Iceland, the Althing, dates back 1,000 years.
Demarchy, by contrast, is a modern idea that was developed by Australian academic John Burnheim, though there are examples of government by sortition dating back to ancient Athens.
As I said, there are a couple of surprising people working within the New Democracy movement – former New South Wales Premier, Nick Greiner, and former WA Premier, Geoff Gallop.
They’re working on ways to turn the principles of demarchy into practical reality in places like the Byron Shire Council and the ACT government.
All around the world democracy is under attack from demagogues trading in lies and misinformation, silencing opponents and destroying free speech.
Journalism is gradually becoming a criminal offence in too many countries, including Australia, where journalists can face jail time simply for doing their job.
Polling suggests Australians’ faith in our political system and democracy is falling.
One poll conducted in 2018 found that less than 41% of Australians are satisfied with the way our democracy works. That’s a sharp fall from the situation in 2013 when 72% of us were satisfied.
We’re clearly looking for something better.
So would policy making by sortition always produce perfect policy that satisfied everyone’s interests?
Probably not. But at least we could be satisfied that the process was transparent and democratic, and that it was developed by people just like us who’d carefully examined the best evidence and acted on it honestly without undue influence by vested interests.
That’s more than we’re getting right now from our political representatives.