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What would a wise democracy look like? We, the people, would matter

A polarising election issue in Western Australia, the Roe 8 project illustrates the need for better and more democratic decision-making. Gregory Roberts/AAP

What would a wise democracy look like? We, the people, would matter

All governments would like to overcome impasses caused by contentious issues. Particularly when they turn into a political slanging match, the result is loss of money, time and public trust.

Take the decades-old, contentious dilemma in Western Australia of whether to build the Roe 8 highway through the Beeliar wetlands to reach Fremantle Harbour, or build a new harbour in Cockburn, which would involve a different way to transport goods to port.

Communities are at loggerheads. The project affects some positively, some negatively. It’s now a key issue in the March 11 state election; the incumbent Liberals will construct Roe 8, Labor will not.

Election analyst William Bowe notes:

It’s not really clear who it advantages and disadvantages, but it will be a big issue either way.

The democratic problem

Communities feel like pawns in someone else’s game. What if governments applied more “power with” rather than “power over” the people? What if the people and communities involved learned to co-own the problem, co-design the solution and co-decide what to do?

Democracies everywhere are in trouble. Citizens are increasingly losing trust in politicians and democratic institutions. Precisely when far-reaching decisions need to be made (on issues such as climate change and inequality), democracies lack the public legitimacy to act effectively.

The political lurch to the right is one response – “we just need a stronger leader” – but this will lead us further away from a strong democracy. Instead, why not re-think and re-invent democracy?

Creating a wiser democracy

If democracy is “government of the people, by the people, for the people”, then a wise democracy would involve the diversity of constituents in collaborative problem-solving, co-deciding and co-enacting ways forward.

This was the original democracy in Athens and through Europe in the Middle Ages. Democracy was more than voting for politicians; it was a process for every major, difficult decision.

The appointment of public officials by “lot”, or lottery, was seen to be far superior democratically than by “election”, which was seen to be aristocratic. True, the Athenians limited citizenship to free, adult men, but the range of tasks given to citizens to resolve was remarkably broad.

Confidence was placed in people selected by lottery for at least three reasons.

  • First, you got everyday people in the roles of public officials.

  • Second, with time and information to resolve an issue, these citizens developed useful solutions.

  • And, third, the more you did this, the more people got involved – strengthening democracy.

Nowadays we call this “deliberative democracy”. It functions just as effectively today as it did 3,000 years ago (or better, since we no longer limit “citizenship” to adult men). Deliberative democracy stresses that if everyday people think a decision by politicians will affect them, then they should have the right to participate in making that decision.

Participation involves deliberation in an egalitarian and respectful environment. Disparate viewpoints are carefully considered, and a coherent/reasoned way forward is sought.

If all those affected cannot be involved, then a group that mirrors that population needs to be selected – one that is “descriptively representative” of the broader group. The best way to achieve that is via selection by lottery, or random selection.

For public participation in the process to be “meaningful”, governments need to commit to abiding by or being clearly influenced by citizens’ decisions. In short, a deliberative democracy process needs to be representative, deliberative and influential.

Deliberative democracy works

Deliberative democracy has been successfully applied across the globe. Examples include:

  • The Danish Board of Technology randomly selects citizens to deliberate technological issues involving ethical concerns to help draft legislation.

  • World Wide Views randomly selected participants in countries across the globe to deliberate the topic of the forthcoming COP (UN Climate Change Conference), with their combined global report presented to the conference.

In Oregon, a representative panel of citizens assesses proposals to be put to a public ballot. healthydemocracy.org
  • the Citizens’ Initiative Review in Oregon, US, enables citizens selected by lottery to deliberate to develop the “for” and “against” cases for ballot measures, which are then distributed to voters so they have succinct, useful and trustworthy information.

  • Constitutional conventions in Ireland and some European countries apply deliberative democracy processes to resolve constitutional issues.

  • Participatory budgeting in around 3,000 places across the globe empowers the people to allocate a portion (around 10%) of the budget. With citizens at the helm, community groups develop projects, local citizens vote on their preferred options, and the top priorities within the allocated budget are implemented.

Examples from Australia

Australia is at the forefront of deliberative democracy reform, though its application has been scattered and not mainstreamed. Examples include:

  • In Western Australia in the early 2000s, a Labor minister, Alannah MacTiernan, led pioneering deliberative democracy processes to resolve tough planning and infrastructure issues. These included Dialogue with the City, Australia’s largest deliberation involving around 1,000 people, with continued public participation to develop a plan for the greater Perth metropolis. This was taken to cabinet, was accepted, and is still relevant today.

  • Canada Bay, New South Wales, Greater Geraldton, WA, and Melbourne, Victoria, have pioneered participatory budgeting in Australia. The process empowers a random selection of the people to recommend the allocation of 100% of a city’s budget – operational and/or infrastructure. In each instance, the elected council supported all or most recommendations. Their constituents accepted often difficult decisions on service cuts and infrastructure changes without the usual uproar.

Participatory budgeting is a way for citizens – in this case New Yorkers – to help decide government spending priorities. Daniel Latorre/flickr, CC BY
  • Numerous Australia cities have implemented deliberative democracy initiatives, including issues such as urban planning, transport, health, and waste and the environment.

  • Research shows that local people trust the voice of recommendations from randomly selected people who deliberate over time, more than they trust the decisions of elected officials.

What’s the obstacle to reform?

So why isn’t deliberative democracy happening more often? Simple. Those in power are wary about sharing their power.

Unlike the Athenians, we don’t believe that every citizen is capable of participating in important decision-making. We assume most people are too self-interested to make decisions for the common good.

However, this is not the case, as deliberative democracy initiatives across the globe have consistently discovered. As the Athenians knew, everyday people can be entrusted to come to wise decisions if they are given comprehensive information and the time to deliberate.

Presumably, the WA election will resolve Roe 8 – for now. However, the cost will be far too high, including the “collateral damage” – environmental, economic, social and political.

What if the issue could have been resolved using “power with” rather than “power over”, with a bipartisan undertaking to abide by the recommendations of a deliberative democracy process?

For instance, 100-plus participants could have been selected by lottery to carefully deliberate over time the diverse viewpoints, the data and the trade-offs, knowing that their participation would be meaningful. By integrating social media and webcasting the deliberations, the process could have enhanced inclusiveness, transparency, public education and social capital.

Instead, we have a lose/lose situation – even the winners will be losers.

Governments for whom democracy equals voting squander their most important asset – public wisdom.