- civics education should be extended to everyone
- direct democracy is intriguing but embryonic
- politicians should engage more closely with their constituents
- citizen orientation would benefit all electorates
- citizens’ assemblies work around institutional inertia
So what’s to be done?
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Some of these claims get recycled to support even more outlandish and less accurate positions. Some of these can even end up part of major political speeches and policy commitments. Managing public expectations starts with a trusted, reliable base of information that is credible and neutral.
There is a gap between what we have today and the governance we’d prefer to have. How do we repair democracy, rollback democratic decay? If you’ve ever watched civil engineers at work, you’ll know that there is more than one way to build a bridge.
Extend civics education
In time, not very much time at all, it will be the decisions of the children we teach today that will shape the world.
One simple idea is to teach civics more intensively at schools. In the middle school curriculum, civics fall somewhere into that gap between legal studies, economics and history. Most students will also make a trip to Canberra to visit the various federal institutions, as well as visit the Museum of Australian Democracy.
In New South Wales, some primary students have the option to take ethics classes each week instead of scripture. This challenges them with such knotty questions as, “Should we eat whales?” and “Is it ever okay to break a promise?”. None of these classes attempt to prescribe best practice responses. Instead they are opportunities to think deeply about the topic and engage in reasoned, respectful debates with one’s classmates. This is the opposite of the tweeting emotional messages into the void, and exactly the skill we need as adults to deliberate the big hairy issues. Unfortunately this is only available in New South Wales and is not available to all children in every school. Given our mandatory voting requirement, it should be.
On a related note, the Governance Institute of Australia has released its fourth annual Ethics Index and highlights the fact that there are plenty of adults that could benefit from ethics education too.
To compel a man to furnish funds for the propagation of ideas he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.
- US president 1801–1809
While we all need to vote in Australia, how important is it that we inform ourselves enough to be able to vote knowledgeably? There is no requirement that we do so. Is this akin to needing to attend school but not needing to understand anything? We require bar workers to be certified in the responsible provision of alcohol. We require drivers to be able to drive. In situations where our activity might cause harm to someone else, we make sure everyone is aware of the risks and responsibilities. We have professional members of parliament (who take an oath of allegiance to Elizabeth) between us and the eventual outcome, and any risk of poor governance is not attributable to one single voter, so the same risks do not apply to our current voting process.
The technique of allowing voters to indicate their preference electronically often comes up when talking about modern democratic innovations. If we dispensed with MPs and citizens could vote on motions proposed by others, how would that work? Would we want to risk being led into a conflict with a neighboring country by having an uniformed majority vote “Yes” on their phones? Can we say that today’s news media is sufficient to guide the national conscience? As I outlined in Part 2, the answer is ‘no’. This is why organisations such as Mivote which advocate for a more direct form of democracy require electronic voters to inform themselves on issues that they vote on:
Unfortunately, despite all the good intentions and brainpower behind it, I have yet to see direct democracy get off the ground anywhere in the world. I suspect it is an idea whose time is yet to come.
MPs in conversation with constituents
In some ways, the electoral process itself occludes deeper flaws in democracy. Voters take comfort in their ability to remove individual politicians when they err, yet this possibility leaves underlying structures largely free from critique, improvement and enhancement.
One commendation for solutions like Mivote (along with Flux and Online Direct Democracy) is that they give us citizens a say in democracy between elections. At the moment in most electorates around the country, there is arguably inadequate consultation between MPs and their constituents. Although there is a legal requirement that local councils consult with residents, there is no requirement that federal MPs do so.
Ex-treasurer Joe Hockey was my local MP for many years but our relationship consisted of my reading Joe’s printed letter once a year listing his achievements. His replacement, Trent Zimmerman sounds a little more accessible, listing the following touch points:
- Forums for residents, held during working hours
- Community surveys
- Regular mobile offices in shopping centres to allow residents to meet and talk without the need for a formal appointment, and at major festivals
- Participation in community events
- Open door policy
To reverse democratic decay, it’s going to be important for all MPs to preserve open two-way communication lines with citizens of all ages and backgrounds. Unguided, politicians tend to listen to wealthy businesses and organised groups. If ministerial resources are stretched to the point where only the squeaky wheels get oiled, we’re doing ourselves a disservice. Digital tools such as Politizr, CitizenLab and NextDoor could be helpful in gathering all the voices into a coherent choir.
Orienting new residents
A good citizen is someone who cares enough to inform themselves before they cast a vote.
Have you ever moved to a new (part of) town and received a personalised message from your local council and your state and federal MPs inviting you to engage with them and join the local community? Perhaps it’s a sit down lunch with other new residents at a reputable local cafe? Or a chance to join a monthly webinar with the MP in Sydney or Canberra? Or an invitation to join the official Facebook groups for the area? No, neither have I. While this orientation process is normal in welcoming new employees to businesses —“this is your company email address, here’s the colour printer, here are the fire exits and here is how our intranet works” — it’s not being done in civil society.
By and large, we move houses a lot more than our parents did. New jobs, schools and marriages account for a lot of these moves. Each time we move, we disconnect from one community and need to connect to the new one. In an earlier era, a common faith might have tied us together with anyone anywhere, or a local pub, or a shared enjoyment of “Hey Hey It’s Saturday” (the most popular TV show in the 1980s when there were only two channels to choose from in some parts of the country). Government in Australia still revels in paper-based communication, electoral rolls, rate notices and on-demand transactions. The relationship feels more like the one we might have with a letter box or bank rather than one we enjoy with a school, a company or a club. (This is not the best time to have a bank-like relationship with customers.)
To rebuild trust in politicians, existing government institutions need to reach out and engage in community-building, drag us out of our heads-down, working, streaming, social media-heavy existence. My own local council is trying hard to do this, but still lacks an on-boarding process which would be simple to set up. Consequently democratic participation is a ‘narrow church’, especially within communities where English is not the first language.
The obsession of our short-term politics, focused daily on point-scoring and blame-shifting, has essentially killed off mature, longer-term, policy leadership, development and implementation.
In the same way as juries pull a random group of citizens together to resolve a criminal justice matter, in Australia and beyond citizens assemblies are being used to deliberate and solve knotty problems such as how to address man-made climate change.
It is precisely because we have democratic decay that these alternative bodies are spawning — to build consensus where the electoral process consistently fails to produce leaders who can lead us through a tough nationwide change. (FDR / Churchill / JFK anyone?) They are ideally suited to the big, hairy problems which require an informed and collective decision which will affect everyone.
Some critics argue that we shouldn’t rely on new bodies just because our existing institutions aren’t up to the task — that we should fix our existing institutions instead. The problem with this is that the majority of people that have the authority to fix the institutions — parties, parliament, and legislation — are caught inside them and have even less incentive to change than you and me. As Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a person to understand something, when that person’s salary depends upon not understanding it.”
I for one am happy that citizens’ assemblies achieve some progress, even if the only progress is the enlightenment of the participants. Life to too short and the inertia is too great. What is the last big decision that we as a nation made? How does that compare with Jacinta Ardern’s list?
In Part 4…
I’ll get into elections as well as what we’re doing at democra.me to join the dots and reverse the tide of democratic decay.