From time to time there is talk in Australia of parliamentary reform. Former prime minister Tony Abbott has called for constitutional reform to remove the double dissolution process. Periodically there is interest in fixed parliamentary terms for the Commonwealth parliament. This debate also canvasses whether those terms should be three or four years.
Part of the argument around the need for reform — and in support of such proposals — is that a fragmented Senate impedes the government's program. For some, this represents an interference with democracy represented by a 'mandate' held by a government to prosecute its legislative agenda.
As for fixed, or four year terms, the argument is that the current political cycle is too short, and that this hampers government's capacity to govern. On the other hand, those against fixed terms argue that four years is too long to be stuck with a 'bad' government.
I wonder however if this discussion misses the point about what might be 'wrong' with our political system, and our system of governance.
While there are valid reasons to be concerned about the capacity of a government to govern in the current brief election cycle, and in dealing with what some describe as a 'hostile senate', the networked world we presently inhabit calls into question the way in which politicians might be accountable to the public in the first place.
This suggests the need for a different discussion. In particular, rather than focusing on changes to a system of governance derived from a different era, we should be asking what are the implications of emergent technologies on the way in which we are governed. Such questions include the way in which we vote, how political parties and lobbyists seek our vote, and how we hold politicians accountable.
Every election now we hear televised panellists speculate on the introduction of e-voting. Delays in determining clear election winners, and the loss of WA senate ballots in 2013 in particular, usually bring forth a call for e-voting which is seen to be faster and more convenient.
"Rather than focusing on changes to a system derived from a different era, we should be asking what are the implications of emergent technologies on the way in which we are governed."
The technology for e-voting exists, and a number of countries use it. Forms of e-voting have also been trialled in some Australian elections. Overall however, apart from concerns about hacking and security, there remain questions about 'scrutiny and verifiable evidence integrity' of e-voting itself. In other words, we have not yet guaranteed how we would build an electronic system that is open to public verification.
Despite its ostensible public support, the public needs to be aware of the complexities of e-voting before we enter into discussions about adopting it. This is part of a necessary broader public awareness of governance through technologies.
Australian voters are used to corflutes, bunting, how-to-vote cards, billboards, and TV and radio advertising. In recent campaigns however, social media has played an increasing role both in candidates getting their message out and in citizens engaging with candidates.
The old one-dimensional broadcast form of advertising has given way to a networked conversation. However, where this might have begun as a means of freeing the citizen to interact with candidates, it has recently taken a more worrying turn.
An increasing number of reports indicate that political operatives in the US leveraged Facebook to manipulate users' timelines to favour Donald Trump. Cambridge Analytica uses so-called psychographic techniques to tailor a political message to a single Facebook user, relying on data harvested from that user's own Facebook use. The company is now reportedly in Australia for talks with the Liberal Party.
Unlike the US, voting is compulsory in Australia. Therefore, the extent to which such a program might influence Australian voters is open to question. Regardless, the ubiquity of social networks and big data — and their capacity to be deployed to understand and influence an individual user — is a relevant consideration in whether and how to regulate political campaigning.
Finally, we need to consider the question of political accountability. Arguably this lies at the basis of existing calls for reform. The Trump ascendancy and Brexit are both examples of what has been described as a widespread malaise with the political class. Voters feel that their governments do not adequately represent them. Richard Cooke in The Monthly describes the 'fading high-water mark of a particular version of parliamentary liberalism predicated on rhetoric'. Being clever with words to sell an overarching vision of society will no longer reach the people. Perhaps this goes as much to systems of governance as the lack of an articulated social vision.
The present system of political accountability relies on periodic elections. But what if we could have real-time accountability? The Pirate Party uses an online system it refers to as 'liquid democracy' to engage all its members in policy making, providing 'quantified feedback that shows ... where the majority lies on a given point'.
Advancing this idea of direct democratic participation, some see blockchain technologies as the next iteration of liquid democracy. Blockchain technology creates an online ledger that records participant transactions in a way that is auditable by the participants, making it verifiable. It would allow direct real time involvement in the democratic process. It may also allow for voters to hold politicians to their promises.
Blockchain enthusiasts Don and Alex Tapscott maintain that where politicians make promises encoded on blockchain technology, citizens can track the progress towards implementing those promises via the online ledger. Others, however, maintain that the technology is still a long way off being suitable for this purpose. Despite this, Australia Post, now actively seeking a role for itself in e-voting, has proposed blockchain voting in a Victorian parliamentary submission.
The technology may not be ready, and social attitudes and political will might be lacking. But the point remains that if we are to consider change to our governance structures, we must consider digital contexts for implementing the democratic ideal. This may itself call for a clearer vision of our democracy and its institutions.
Kate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice.
Illustration by Chris Johnston
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17 April 2017
You argue that "we must consider digital contexts for implementing the democratic ideal".
When you look at the influence of Facebook as did 4Corners recently, or consider how Trump uses Twitter to bypass traditional media, and many other trends your viewpoint is very compelling.
But I vaguely recall a quote that says whether your vegetables etc are delivered in a jaguar or on the back of an old truck, it is the contents of what is being delivered that will improve your health not the mode of delivery. Perhaps if you were dying and needed the delivery of medication most urgently delivery speed becomes a factor and perhaps we are at the point in many parts of the world.
When you look at accountability and the snaky, opaque trail of lobbyists' influence, even in Canberra; when you look at social justice issues; when you look at what happens in the US when people don't have mandatory voting, when you look at the referendum in Turkey, what is the dominant takeaway idea?
Basically it is about how much do people really care about issues that affect their lives and what are they prepared to do about it?
It is a rather gloomy theme but Yeats wrote something like: "The best lack all conviction and the worst are full of a passionate intensity."
Money, power, dictators (Turkey, North Korea, Assad) rule the day. Impoverishment, powerlessness, fleeing persecution, cynicism are the options for the powerless.
I want to believe more in your thesis - and in Egypt some years ago, Twitter was a huge factor in harnessing mass participation which shows the power of your ideas in practice - but the underlying realities remain so chilling.
Roy Chen Yee
17 April 2017
“This may itself call for a clearer vision of our democracy and its institutions.” Democracy is only an imperfect proxy for truth, relying on two suppositions. One, because there is no one truth in most of the issues that come up in politics, it is hoped that a numerical majority containing a diversity of motives will have the luck and probability of hitting the right answer. Two, most of the issues are not so important that the consequences of a mistake made by the majority in one election cannot be corrected in the second-chances provided by a series of frequent elections. But some matters have a long-term significance. Should the United Kingdom have removed itself from the inter-generational womb of the European Union? Should the power to bind or loose many future British generations blithely be given to a one-time exercise by a single generation? Or are there cases where once a consensus of values is lost, democracy will only hasten the fracturing of the consensus, with more efficient electoral technologies only hastening the fracturing?
18 April 2017
e-Participation = absolute democracy.
Imagine the abolition of all parliaments and replacing them with weekly on-line voting. It would save the nation $trillions and be far more democratic. The week leading up to a vote would be used by the media to present the objectives, pros and cons, then when electronic on-line ballots open, voters enter their Medicare number and vote yes or no. A computer counts the vote over night and it is reported by the media next day. The public service prepares the information and acts on decisions. A politician's role would change to become scrutineers of the process. No more time wasting and abuse of privileges!
18 April 2017
Brexit, Roy, was not a failure of democracy, rather it was a failure of direct democracy. The problem that you raise (of the tyranny of the majority) is the the reason many nations have constitutions, bicameral parliaments, federal structures, the separation of executive and legislature, and of both from the judiciary. The requirement to get agreement in multiple forums is a powerful protection against foolish decision-making at the centre. Brexit should never have been the subject of a referendum. The question should have been decided by the UK Parliament (both houses) in conjunction with the devolved assemblies in Scotland, Ulster, and Wales. But the UK has no constitution, is not a federation, English MPS dominate the UK's parliament, and English voters dominated the referendum. The real concerns of Scotland and NI counted for nothing in the eyes of the English majority.
Roy Chen Yee
20 April 2017
“The problem that you raise (of the tyranny of the majority)….” Ginger Meggs, the problem is the tyranny of the present over the future. The question is whether, if an irreversible issue has very long-term significance, one generation at a single point in time, by itself, should be presuming to speak for its descendants. Your proposal for how Brexit should have been polled is less democratic than the mechanism actually used. At least, the referendum involved all the eligible voters of the UK at a single point in time, not just some elites at a single point in time. But is ‘at a single point in time’ sufficient? Another example of an irreversible issue is a referendum for the independence of a colony. As we know from hindsight, the majority in many colonies, believing in a comradeship between skins of the same colour, enthusiastically voted for independence from a colonial power and promptly saw their new nations go downhill. What would the present day residents, mired in grim realities, think of the romantic foolishness that their ancestors deployed at a single point in time? The Philippines could have had Trump instead of Duterte.
20 April 2017
Some great points, but the discussion needs to go further.
A major concern is the assumption that an ill-informed vote matters as much as a vote from a well-informed voter. Is there a way to address this without being elitist?
How in the 24 hour news cycle and silos of like minds do you get differing perspectives explored and discussed in depth by a wider audience?
Is direct democracy worth it if the voters are ill-informed?
I'm inclined to go with an approach where key decisions are made by a smaller group which properly explores the issue. That could be parliament, except they have degenerated into being about having and holding onto power (and serving vested interests), not what is best for the country.
With compulsory voting, the candidates rely on 3 word slogans to grab the unengaged voters in the middle.
With optional voting, the candidates rely on motivating people to vote - easiest with extreme views, harder if your moderate preference seems certain to win.
How do we tackle housing un-affordability? This remains a problem because of US COLLECTIVELY, who will howl down any politician who proposes real measures to reduce home prices.
20 April 2017
Roy, representative democracy of the sort that I have described is not less democratic, but rather less direct. But to address your main point, yes, I think I understand what you mean by the tyranny of the present - there are plenty of examples from which one might choose. But what is your solution? No change? No democracy? Or is it a theocracy?
21 April 2017
Rather than tinker, we ought to follow the Scandinavian models and re-write our Constitution to suit our time.
They have all retired their upper house and made rules for multi-party cabinets in a non-adversarial parliamentary system.