“Around the world, confidence in representative democracy is under siege. Citizens are moving beyond cynicism to disengagement, and the potential for further decline is clear.”
With these words the new Democracy Foundation opened its submission to an inquiry into the conduct of the 2018 Victorian state election.
The foundation, founded in 2004 by Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, managing director of Transfield Holdings, is a Melbourne-based political reform research group aimed at developing new ways to restore trust in public decision making. It is not a lone voice.
This year the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) joined in with a substantial report on innovative citizen participation OECD: Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions 2020 saying it had collected evidence that supported the idea that citizen participation in public decision making can deliver better policies, strengthen democracy, and build trust.
The report began: “The increasing complexity of policy making and the failure to find solutions to some of the most pressing policy problems have prompted politicians, policy makers, civil society organisations, and citizens to reflect on how collective public decisions should be taken in the twenty- first century.
“There is a need for new ways to find common ground and take action. This is particularly true for issues that are values-based, require trade-offs, and demand long-term solutions.”
Every person chooses
One way of approaching this is through the concept of direct democracy, where instead of having elected representatives decide on initiatives or policies, every person in that community or country has the opportunity to choose what happens.
Although practised in ancient Athens a couple of millennia ago, direct democracy is a rare thing in modern times.
Switzerland is one example where, at the municipal level, cantons and federal state citizens have more power than in a representative democracy.
Any law enacted by the nation’s elected legislative branch can be vetoed by a vote of the general public.
Direct democracy has rarely, if ever, been practised in Australia, where political scepticism and community disengagement is as much an issue as anywhere else in the world.
With its history of failed referenda, there seems to be little political appetite to ‘take it to the people’ - and be bound by the result.
Decisions for the community
One recent exception has been in Coober Pedy, where state government-appointed administrator, Tim Jackson decided there were a number of issues he needed to put to the community directly.
“There are certain decisions the community needs to make that I believe citizens should make.
“Not the day to day issues, which can be made by an elected body on behalf of the citizens, but the really fundamental questions such as taxation levels or the voting system.
“These are significant decisions on the way the community is run.”
Jackson determined there were four significant issues he wanted the community itself to consider: the rate levels they were prepared to pay; the possible sale of the town’s electricity and/or its water assets, if financially sensible to do so; and if it wanted the term of the administration continued until the next scheduled council election in November 2022.
Jackson said community consultation and education were fundamental requirements to any successful direct democracy process.
He used the council’s monthly newsletter, public meetings – with average attendance of around 60 people out of a total community population of some 1800, and a number of one on one meetings with residents to sound out the citizen voice.
Cases for and against the proposals were prepared and, as a result of the consultation process, the wording of the questions to be put to the community were redrafted and refined.
Jackson also ran the whole process past the state’s Electoral Commission and Office of Local Government, whose feedback was also taken into consideration.
In the event, each of the four questions were voted on by around 35 percent of the 985 on the Coober Pedy electoral role who chose to vote, consistent with most local government elections.
Voters take the responsibility
Jackson was pleased by the outcome.
“I’m very hot on accountability and my view is that citizens also need to be accountable, especially on really significant decisions.
“It’s not just about holding government accountable.
“Ultimately you can’t just walk away and say everything is someone else’s responsibility.
“Some decisions need to be retained by the voters and not delegated to someone else.
“But for that to work there has to be education, you need forums for debate and for people to be better informed.”
Direct democracy, he believes, is also more likely to be a tool for local government than for dealing with national issues, largely because of the logistics, time and cost involved in scaling up the process.
What further convinced him of the value of the exercise was the response he had from his community.
“People kept saying to me, do you mean to say you will do what we tell you to do? And when I said ‘absolutely’ they were flabbergasted that I would be bound by whatever they decided.
“A lot of them thought this was just like another referendum, going through motions, wasting their time.
“I found that an indictment on our political system, so much scepticism they felt no longer engaged.
“This is a way to get people engaged again, to feel empowered, to put their hands on the levers at least for those fundamental issues.
“The community should definitely pull the big levers.”
The newDemocracy Foundation said it was an issue that was particularly salient in light of the coronavirus crisis as governments make efforts to restart their economies and begin to make structural changes in light of the need for physical distancing. Such changes are driven by values and involve many trade-offs.
As governments face increasing pressure about lockdown exit strategies, transition measures, and long term questions about our future societies and economies, deliberative processes such as citizens’ assemblies, or putting the issues directly to the community, could help them take these hard decisions with greater legitimacy.
Perhaps there is an instructive lesson to be learnt from a tiny community in outback Australia.