The embarrassment that is the US election, Putin’s consolidation of power in Russia, our own government driven by pandering to marginal MPs have all given rise to many articles questioning whether representative democracy works any more. The problem, of course, is what would you replace it with. A huge number of surveyed Americans are willing to countenance the army taking over or an authoritarian leader. In more centered countries like Australia we seem to end up staring wide-eyed at the Churchillian conundrum…
Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…
The core of the problem in all cases seems to be that the nexus between the governed and those doing the governing is broken. There is perhaps no clearer example of this than the mess the Federal Government has created around same-sex marriage. There’s no question that every poll has the majority of Australians in favour of allowing same-sex marriage – yet the Government insists on a plebescite. Annoying as that is, the maggot that undermines democracy is when our representatives then say they won’t feel they have to follow the will of those they represent, that they will vote their conscience regardless.
Now, that approach is hardly new. It’s basically the view of representative democracy espoused by Edmund Burke and others – which you could characterise as ‘ you elected us to make decisions for you, not to listen to you’. What has changed in more recent times is the rise of the professional politician – people who have to remain in power not just because of their beliefs, but because it’s the only job they have got. That gives our representatives drivers which are not our own – we do not have shared goals. Representative democracy is broken.
It is hard to argue against the statement that representative democracy is broken when we see generational passing of power, when we see decisions that run clearly counter to the common feeling of the polity, and when we see people prepared to vote for simplistic answers, such as Trump or Brexit, just because doing something different might make a difference to the status quo. So let’s just agree there’s a problem.
Is it possible to use technology to address some of that? The obvious thing might be to use technology for more direct participation. Put matters to the vote and allow the populace as a whole to vote on them.
Before we go any further; yes, I saw what happened with the census. But let’s not confuse people stuffing up one process with what technology is capable of doing. Facebook shows it is absolutely possible to get 100 million people voting on which is the cutest cat. Although I’m being facetious in citing that as comparable, there is no question that, if we had the will, we could safely use technology for voting.
If we, the people, do not feel we’re being adequately represented by those we elect; and that just changing the individual characters we elect is not changing the system. The only way to strengthen the link between governed and those who govern, to make people feel involved in government’s decisions, is to actually allow people to be more involved. Until recently direct participative democracy has been impossible because it didn’t scale: Counting millions of ballots is obviously impossible on a regular basis. Technology utterly changes that – the practical issue of giving people information and counting their votes can be dealt with.
The big danger that leaps to mind is inconsistency in decisions. People making decisions that run counter to the country’s international obligations for example. So perhaps the way to attack things is a combination of elected representatives providing continuity and direct voting. For example, you might have a certain number of direct votes adding up to a representative vote. Or you might have the direct votes act as the house of review, or vice versa. Tie this in with drafting rather than electing Senators for an interesting twist. Perhaps you make the general vote non-binding, but it’s at least going to highlight how often the elected representatives ignore us. There are pros and cons to each approach and even after thinking it through for some time (as I ate breakfast!) I have no easy answer. It is worth contemplating through.
It is worth contemplating. Returning to Churchill, what we have is the best system of those that have been tried. So if we accept it’s broken we’re not going to fix it by looking to the past. We’re only going to fix it by doing something different and looking to the future and realistically that means the use of technology. Technology is rapidly democratising access to information, to powerful tools, to services – perhaps it’s time that we use technology to democratise democracy.