The poverty of voting

A post by John Burnheim.

About ten months ago, John Burnheim wrote to me in terms I’ve reproduced on this blog previously. John was one of the early movers in academia exploring the limitations of electoral democracy with his book Is Democracy Possible published in 1985 and then decades later with his book last year The Demarchy Manifesto. After a long academic career, he’s still gnawing on the bone of how we might make democracy work better in the modern world. And after many quite lengthy exchanges with me by email, he’s writing posts for us here at Troppo. Here’s his first post. There will be more to come:

The poverty of voting

Votes carry very little information, but often give form and content to power. It is sometimes seen as virtue of voting that it hides the motives and understandings that motivate a person to vote in a certain way. From this point of view, a vote is a piece of power. A system of voting determines how many of those pieces of power constitute a valid power that overriding all the other votes and binds the other voters to accept that decision. A constitution determines what matters are being decided by voting and who is entitled to vote.

The voter is thus completely free to vote as she likes, answerable to nobody, in a fully secret ballot. Even In the case of a public ballot, the voter is not required to offer any justification for how she votes. The vote is valid no matter what her motives. If others are entitled to criticise or retaliate; it is because of other undertakings or relationships. The secret ballot is pure liberty, an exercise of power answerable only to one’s own conscience. Advocates of the secret ballot often assume that the voters have a soundly based conscience on the matters on which they may vote and that he danger to be avoided is that others will try to intimidate them into voting against their better judgement. Advocates of public voting often see voters as inclined to vote privately for reasons they cannot defend. Continue reading

Posted in Democracy, Information, Philosophy, Political theory | 4 Comments

Stars falling from the skies*

*cross-posted from Screen Hub.

The #MeToo sexual harassment tsunami generated by the unmasking of American screen industry heavyweights Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey has hit Australian shores with a vengeance.  As an old Monty Python sketch observed: ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’. Don Burke, Geoffrey Rush and now Craig McLachlan certainly didn’t. The behaviour of one or more of them may deserve summary public excoriation but then again it may not. At this stage we simply don’t know. As American pundit Andrew Sullivan notes:

‘The early exposure of Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and Harvey Weinstein — achieved by meticulous, scrupulous journalists and smart, determined women — quickly extended to more ambiguous and trivial cases. Distinctions among many different types of offenses — from bad behavior at private parties to brutal assault and rape of employees and co-workers — were being instantly lost in the fervor. Punishment was almost always the same — social ostracism and career destruction …’

Without minimising their seriousness, the published McLachlan allegations don’t belong at the Weinstein end of the scale. However there are other aspects of the situation that haven’t really been publicly discussed at all. What happens to the entertainment industry content producers whose stars are condemned by a random process of trial by mainstream and social media?  The McLachlan claims relate to a 2014 tour of the stage musical The Rocky Horror Show produced by The Gordon Frost Organisation (GFO) and alleged behaviour on the set of December Media’s long-running flagship drama series The Doctor Blake Mysteries. But will the consequences for the respective production companies fit the ‘crimes’?

Continue reading

Posted in Films and TV, Law, Media | 9 Comments

An Ancient Greek idea could foil Brexit’s democratic tragedy

From today’s column in the Guardian UK.

There’s a chasm between the will of the British people as expressed in their 52 percent vote for Brexit and their considered will. Turns out ordinary Britons deliberating amongst their peers think things through, ‘unspinning’ much of the media hysteria surrounding them.

Deliberation recently produced a landslide swing against Brexit and it offers new opportunity for Britain’s ailing democracy to tackle other ‘stuck’ problems.

Yet I’m guessing you haven’t heard the news on Brexit. That’s because the researchers who uncovered this uncomfortable fact buried it in less confronting PR ‘messaging’ lest Britain’s demagogues branded them ‘Enemies of the People’.

In late 2017, a group of universities selected 50 people by lot to be representative of ordinary Britons in a ‘Citizens’ Assembly’. Between the referendum and the end of two weekends deliberating on Brexit, a group exemplifying the referendum’s 52:48 Brexit vote had swung to 40:60 against!

The researchers’ ‘messaging’ claimed it “would be wrong to draw strong inferences”. They pointed out that only four participants had changed their mind over the two weekends. But that’s still an 8% swing in a population of 50. And it ignores three others who’d already swung away from Brexit between the referendum and the Assembly’s commencement.

An Assembly researcher told me that no Remainers changed their mind. So the chance of seven anti-Brexit changes of mind simply reflecting random chance are those of a coin landing heads seven times in a row – less than one percent. Moreover, a similar deliberative poll in 2010 delivered strikingly similar results. Asked, amongst a host of other questions, whether there should be a referendum on Brexit, support fell from 60 to 45 percent through the deliberation with the organisers estimating the probability that this was just chance at one in a thousand. Continue reading

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Lateral thinking on constitutional reform

Australia has a backlog of issues that will need to be resolved by constitutional referendum sooner or later:

  • Indigenous recognition (especially the Voice to Parliament);
  • resolving the problems caused by archaic and unworkable parliamentary disqualification rules in section 44 of the Australian Constitution (especially dual citizenship);
  • moving to an Australian Republic (especially when the current Queen dies or abdicates and is replaced by the egregious Prince Charles).

One of the few things about which there currently seems to be bipartisan consensus (or at least shared conventional wisdom) is that constitutional referenda will almost never succeed and therefore are not worth even trying. It is certainly true that only seven eight out of forty-four referenda have succeeded since Federation (although it’s actually nine out of forty-eight if we count plebiscites and the same-sex marriage plebisurvey).  Moreover, if we focus on the last 40 years from 1977 the combined success rate for referenda, plebiscites and plebisurvey is five out of fourteen or approximately 34%.

And conservative governments have been significantly more successful in getting referenda past than have Labor governments – 36% success over the 116 years since Federation.  That appears to be partly because conservative governments tend to be less ambitious in their constitutional reform objectives and partly because Labor Oppositions tend to support even lily-livered reform efforts by the conservatives, whereas the Tories seem to be more inclined to oppose even perfectly sensible referendum proposals, often solely for immediate electoral advantage (some of the 1988 referendum proposals are classic examples).

Maybe it’s time to revisit this conventional wisdom. A success rate of 34-36% is entirely respectable. It merely suggests that governments should avoid overreach when seeking constitutional reform, and should seek compromise solutions that opposition and minor parties are willing to support or at least not oppose.

Continue reading

Posted in Law, Politics - national | 13 Comments

Fred Argy: RIP

I was rung yesterday by Ida Argy, wife of Fred Argy and she told me that Fred had recently had a stroke from which he did not recover. Fred was rather like my Dad Fred. A Jewish immigrant – Dad was from Austria (via England) and Fred was Egyptian, though I think both were non practicing.

Fred Argy was a lovely guy. Affable, generous both publicly and privately, selfless and self-effacing.

When Fred officially retired he proceeded to write two books on Australian public policy. And he posted 117 posts with various thoughts here on Troppo.

On being told the news I asked Ida to convey my condolences to Stephen his son whom I also knew, though not well, at the PC (then Industry Commission). I was told to my shock that Stephen had died over two years ago in a horrible accident at home. He fell from a ladder, never regaining consciousness. He left his happy marriage and three children. I think it was my (non-Jewish) mother who told me of a Jewish saying that when a child dies before its parents, even God weeps.

My heart goes out to Fred and Stephen’s family.

Below the fold I’ve reproduced a bio I requested from Ida which his daughter Janet recently sent me.

Sadly missed. RIP Fred Argy.  Continue reading

Posted in Economics and public policy, History | 7 Comments

Now is the time for complacency: RBA v Bank of England edition

Reposted from the Mandarin


In our contemporary lexicon ‘independence’ – for instance of a government body – is usually a Good Thing. 1

But if we’re thinking of independence as a good thing for an agency to have – for instance the Productivity Commission (PC) – it’s not sufficient. It also needs to be used by the agency, and the agency must be worthy of it by virtue of the quality of its work. The odd thing is that so many such agencies have such a strong flavour of bureaucracy about them. There’s the same cultural emphasis on what I call being a sound chap. I’ve come to think that this is a kind of natural product of groups. They are … well … groupish.

They acquire the same kinds of social dynamics you notice at high school when nearly everyone wants to be one of the cool kids. But in government there’s an institutional basis to this also. Even if they have their own act,  even if their independence is prized in our public culture, most government statutory agencies are tethered to the career public service. Their officers enjoy the privileges of the Commonwealth public service career structure. So we should not be so surprised that those in such independent agencies think like bureaucrats. And there are few things more important to bureaucrats than appearing to be in control. To be thought of as sound chaps.

That means that what independence has been successfully cultivated is both highly specific and highly acculturated. Gradually from the 1960s on initially under the bureaucratic leadership of Alf Rattigan, a new orthodoxy grew in favour of freer trade, then free trade and then freer markets. The PC’s ‘independence’ was built around this.2 It was independence to pursue free trade. Likewise, the RBA’s independence is about setting monetary policy. As a senior officer of such a body, you might occasionally annoy the politicians in power and sometimes even other powerful people in the bureaucracy, but if you hiked rates when it was inconvenient, you were still a sound chap – indeed, this was evidence that you were the soundest of all chaps, answering to the institutional logic of your institution – and its role read within the intellectual orthodoxy.

This is a fortunate, alchemical trick in which institutional courage is founded on the quiet careerist culture of bureaucracy. In this sense, to put it in its best light, independence can breed courage in the institution while economising on its presence within individuals in the same way that markets are said to meet social needs while economising on altruism. But this independence is mainly about being ‘tough’ when the imperatives of day-to-day political and bureaucratic management might favour sweeping inconvenient things under the carpet. Any intellectual leadership that one might hope for from this independence seems largely confined to the terrain that’s already been marked out in advance for the institution.


Just as Thomas Kuhn distinguishes between normal science and the ‘revolution’ of moving between paradigms3 according to my account of independence, it is generally for ‘normal’ purposes – setting interest rates (RBA), tariffs (Tariff Board and IAC), making weather forecasts (BOM) or economic predictions on the fiscal cost of alternatives in the case of the PBO. But here’s the thing. There will come times when, to do it’s job well, an independent agency will need to be bolder. The PC is seeking to rise to this challenge of rethinking things, and thinking in ways it hasn’t in the past in a number of its inquiries such as its recent report on Data Availability and Use. Continue reading

  1. other Good Things include ‘appropriate’, ‘modernised’, ‘reform’, ‘enhance’, ‘principled’  It’s sobering to realise how rhetorical we are. There’s usually a way of saying something to make it sound very positive or very negative. Today debates between the Government and Oppositions of the day often get down to a war of adjectives of choice. Is the Minister being Strong and Principled, or Inflexible and Stubborn? And on it goes. Anyway, independence, in central banks at least has been very popular in recent decades.

    Chart From: A Little More Conversation A Little Less Action, Speech given by Andrew G Haldane, Chief Economist, Bank of England, 31 March 2017.

  2. And that of its predecessor institutions – the Rattigan Tariff Board, the IAC and the IC.
  3. Kuhn, it turns out, didn’t coin the term “paradigm shift”.
Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Economics and public policy | 6 Comments

Do Black Politicians Matter?

Do black politicians matter


This paper exploits the history of Reconstruction after the
American Civil War to estimate the causal effect of politician
race on public finance. I overcome the endogeneity between
electoral preferences and black representation using the number
of free blacks in the antebellum era (1860) as an instrument for
black political leaders during Reconstruction. IV estimates show
that an additional black official increased per capita county tax
revenue by $0.20, more than an hour’s wage at the time. The
effect was not persistent, however, disappearing entirely at
Reconstruction’s end. Consistent with the stated policy
objectives of black officials, I find positive effects of black
politicians on land tenancy and show that exposure to black
politicians decreased the black-white literacy gap by more than
7%. These results suggest that politician race has large effects
on public finance and individual outcomes over and above
electoral preferences for redistribution.

by Trevon D. Logan – #24190 (DAE)

Posted in Democracy, Economics and public policy, Race and indigenous | Leave a comment