Addressing the democracy deficit



A recent survey by Ipsos found that across 28 countries, there is broad support among half the population for 'socialist' politics, in this case meaning support for policies such as taxing the rich, free education and healthcare, and a universal basic income.

stylised crowd of peopleIn Australia, 88 per cent of people agree that education should be free and 89 per cent said that free health care is a human right. You don't need Cambridge Analytica to tell you that policies like substantial funding for Medicare, schools and welfare through raised taxes would be a vote winner.

And yet, the Turbull government plans to make tax cuts the centrepiece of its budget. The Labor party is doing a little better, but also has a disconcerting preoccupation with returning the budget to surplus.

The systems theorist Stafford Beer argued that 'the purpose of a system is what it does'. In this case, the purpose of representative democracy appears to be to facilitate the smooth running of the economy in the interests of big business, even though the majority want something radically different.

There is a growing sense that politicians have appointed themselves as the adults who tell us the awful truth that, like Father Christmas, sharing and welfare are childish fantasies; we need to be practical and realistic. But maybe — 50 years after the struggles of May 1968 — to be realistic, we must demand the impossible. Impossible that is, for politicians who are subject to regulatory capture.

This problem is often called a democracy deficit — the rift between politicians and the people they are supposed to represent. This leads to disengagement and surprise results at the polls, such as the election of Donald Trump and Brexit, fuelled at least in part by a desire to discipline the political class.

A common response to voters behaving badly is to call for qualifications on the franchise, such as education, or the outsourcing of public policy decisions to experts. Instead, I'd argue the opposite: the problem is not democracy, it is the deficit. It is not that too many people have a say in how society is run, but rather not enough.


"Citizens panels and juries will not be the appropriate decision-making process for every kind of issue, but then again neither will parliament, with its backroom deals and complex preference flows."


If we want to address the problem of disengagement, we need to experiment with different ways to give more people the capacity and means to deliberate on important policy questions. One such example recently took place in Ireland with the establishment of the Citizens' Assembly — 99 citizens, chosen at random but designed to be a broadly representative sample of society, charged with considering specific areas for reform.

At first, it might have looked like the shirking of responsibility, or a dangerous delegation of important decisions to the great unwashed. But on reflection, it shows how everyday citizens are sometimes better placed to drive social change than career politicians.

The Citizens' Assembly demonstrated how considered deliberation, in consultation with experts, among people with no personal or political agenda, can serve as an antidote to electoralism. It is the reason that Irish people will consider a referendum on the eighth amendment at the end of the month. Whatever you think of that policy, it is hard to see how it could have gotten on the public agenda without this kind of non-partisan mechanism.

There are other experiments closer to home, including the People's Panel run by the City of Yarra for example. The Panel was asked to provide input on issues such as housing, employment, the built environment, and accessibility.

There are many of these kinds of panels and juries happening at a local level, and councils have found them to be an important way of getting input from constituents and building trust in elected officials. These processes should serve as an example that could be scalable and give us confidence to consider expanding the role of the public in public policy making.

The other obvious example was the plebiscite on same sex marriage. While this was not the product of a citizens' jury, it was another form of extra-electoral democracy. It is understandable that people felt upset that this issue was being put to the public, when politicians should have represented their electorates without the need for a costly postal survey. But I would argue that there was also value in the process. Politicians on both sides of the partisan divide had failed the electorate, and involving the public through a plebiscite served as a circuit breaker that forced them to do their jobs.

Tensions remain in these kinds of experiments: a commitment to universalist democracy will always conflict with the demand of self-determination. This was another objection to the plebiscite: why should a majority of millions get to pass judgment on the rights of a subsection of society?

This is a reasonable and worthwhile debate to have, particularly in the context of issues like Aboriginal affairs or refugee rights, for example. Citizens panels and juries will not be the appropriate decision-making process for every kind of issue, but then again neither will parliament, with its backroom deals and complex preference flows.

Citizens' assemblies are one of many possible ways in which we can see the potential of involving more people in public policy decisions. We should look at how they might be implemented in other social settings, and how they might be both representative and accountable.

We need to consider methods of public decision-making that are more powerful than voting every few years. In an age in which the average voter is increasingly seen as the source of the problem, we should remember that there can be real value in trusting everyday people, especially in circumstances when traditional top-down politics has failed.



Lizzie O'SheaLizzie O'Shea is a lawyer and writer. He book on technology, politics and history will be published with Verso in 2019.

Topic tags: Lizzie O'Shea, democracy, same sex marriage, Ireland



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A new voice that cuts through to the issues. Well written. I look forward to more.

Frank | 08 May 2018  

Your article feels like balm to my jaded spirit. Every good idea I hear about finds my head tilting sideways with a sardonic lift of an eyebrow while the response "That'll never happen" either escapes my mistrusting mouth or sits trapped inside, adding fuel to my pessimism. Shaking head. How on Earth did the people of Yarra etc get those systems going? Which politician is going to be enthusiastic about agreeing to something which might affect their perks? 88% of Oz wants fairness to prevail! Setting aside the inherent racism in that word "fairness", how can we set about giving it a go? I'm approaching the end of my life. I fear for the future of my treasured descendants and theirs. I would die a happy woman if there were indicators that they would have breathable air, drinkable water, a nourished and healthy Land, all because people's capacity to think well towards the benefit of all of us, is at last being attended to, enacted, & maintained. Keep at it Lizzie.

Bev Henwood | 08 May 2018  

From someone who has just been knocked back (without explanation) for a volunteer community position on a local government advisory committee related to indigenous reconciliation ... I concur wholeheartedly with you Lizzie. It seems that the best this committee can do is, if there is disagreement ... they agree to disagree! That's it! Jaded spirit indeed Bev, when so much more could be achieved! I think I'll just go "fishing"!!

Mary Tehan | 08 May 2018  

A fascinating piece, thank you, Lizzie! It links well with your topical treatment of surveillance capitalism a few issues back and reminds me of the theoretical work being done by John Keane for the Democracy Project at USyd. Democracy, whatever the horrors of Trump and the rise of right-wing populism, is all we have in what Fatima Measham invitingly calls the 'Chattersquare'; yet it is far more than that, giving people a voice that would otherwise be driven underground or ignored to the imperilment of the common good.

Michael Furtado | 08 May 2018  

Interesting summary of systems of government all of which have been tried over the last couple of hundred years including monarchy, dictatorship. citizens assemblies, plebiscites, referenda and elected peoples' regional representatives overseen by an elected upper house of government - all tainted by various philosophies. All of these at various times in history have dominated, some following violent revolution by the people. (France and Russia, for example). Most have failed as the societies they promoted evolved with the realisation of their governance failings and impositions on human freedom. The most enduring of all has been the current system which we follow in this country, probably because it doesn't control or kill its citizens in pursuit of a particular philosophy for all. Rather than revert to some of the failed systems of the past, such as pure socialism, communism or capitalism, perhaps we should repair and evolve the system we have. That would require, however, a return to cleaning out the self-interest which has progressively polluted it. For example, the modifications of the people's will by the bribery of vested interests through lobbyists, the dominance of party philosophies in selection of representatives for parliament and the system of preferential voting which is nothing more than a primitive bartering system in the interests of party vested interests. We should be wary of returning to the failed system of communistic socialism which much of today's social engineering seems to promote - it proved itself as a system which was prepared to destroy millions of innocent human lives in its quest for the imposition of its philosophy. It doesn't work. Why not fix what has worked well and restore it to its erstwhile purity?

john frawley | 08 May 2018  

A large part of the disengagement of ordinary citizens and interest groups is that they are massively outgunned by lobbyists with huge budgets and purchased access to policy makers in government and opposition. What hope has the average Joe got against the money and connections of the large corporations? Stop that rot for a start for a more even playing field. But then again we do have the best government money can buy.

Michael D. Breen | 08 May 2018  

Don't forget Kevin Rudd's 2020 summit in early 2008 (I am not a big fan of Kevin, but I think this was one of his good ideas, and he should have kept it going with later sessions and new people). And all should read "I'm right and you're an idiot" by James Hoggan. The following is an extract from my comment to "Abbott spruiking coal is a win for renewables" by Greg Foyster (Eureka Street, 16 April 2018). {{The book is ... sub-titled "The toxic State of Public Discourse and how to clean it up" ISBN 978-0-86571-817-3 (p'back) 978-1-55092-612-5 (ebook). ... Hoggan is a public affairs consultant, and the comment provoked a ten year mission to explore why public discourse was so corrupted by so many people including our politicians. }}

Peter Horan | 08 May 2018  

Thanks Lizzie for a very thoughtful article. Personally I believe we need many more opportunities to discuss issues and to be informed about the issues before we try to make decisions. This should take place much more in a climate were people listen to each other and are open to learn as well as able to agree to disagree. I also believe we have a tendency to try to answer questions before we give ourselves a chance to understand the question. I am reminded of the old Snoopy cartoon where one is carrying a sign "Jesus is the answer" followed by Snoopy with a sign "But what is the question?"

Bill Armstrong | 08 May 2018  

Great article! But as a side comment, I fear that those who so loudly champion us having a republic, I can't see that of itself fixing any of the woes referred to. Another thing not addressed here, is that one major weakness in the current state of politics is that among those many politicians espousing the benefits of technology and urging the young to study STEM subjects, there are hardly a couple of them with any STEM background themselves, and few with any real business experience. Among other things, this makes them prey to vested interests and lobby groups all wanting to secure their patch. This is a source of a vast gap between political policies and the real needs of the citizens as a whole, not to mention also the environment.

Dennis | 08 May 2018  

I would like to see the Senate 'reformed'. I would have the Senate populated by the winners of The Australian of the Year, with a retirement age of 70. All of those people would have achieved something outstanding, whether in the community, business, sport, health etc, fields. Wouldn't it be great to have Senators who were there not because they were party hacks being rewarded for tribal loyalty, but people who had devoted themselves to something greater than themselves? A nice broad range of people selected from amongst our best.

Russell | 08 May 2018  

I think it was Winston Churchill who rightly said that Democracy was the worst form of governance except for everything else that has been tried. So careful for what you wish for Lizzie. A major problem in Australia is what might be described as "sectional interests". Retirees don`t want a penny taken from their incredibly comfortable arrangements; Catholics don`t want the special deals done over decades diluted by funding fairness, those with private health insurance don`t really want an equitable health system etc etc. And in general Australians don`t want Scandinavian level of tax to pay for the Utopia they may in a very general sense claim to support...until it becomes personal. All of this might be what John Paul 2 described as "social-structural sin".

Eugenew | 09 May 2018  

Quite a few of the above comments take issue with the author's proposals for revamping democracy and putting it at the service of a more just and merciful society. One in particular - John Frawley's - is an encomium to the British system of the so-called separation of powers that we have inherited and which relies on a supposed evolution of institutions to accommodate the democratic impulse, Frawley's Hobbesian nightmare being the revolutionary upheaval that once led to the emergence of communism, now deceased, in Russia and a system of democracy in France that he appears to condemn as 'socialist' and which is superior to many of the institutions we have inherited to accommodate the dire necessity for democratic renewal that we now face and as listed by O'Shea. The most crucial need for reform is in our adversarial judicial system (as opposed to the investigative one, instituted by the Code Napoleon). Anyone who has followed the shocking maltreatment of IRA prisoners in the UK would know that they were framed by the police, while our super-Home Office Ministry invests powers in the Minister that make his Office virtually unaccountable to public scrutiny, especially on the question of asylum seekers.

Dr Michael Furtado | 11 May 2018  

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