I was reading a Financial Times article by Robert Skidelsky the great biographer of the great Keynes (Lord Skidelsky’s bio of Lord Keynes!). It offered the following observation about the increase of party solidarity, and the resulting threat of tyranny of the executive and/or tyranny of the majority.
[In the UK’s Conservative Party] MPs are selected by, and accountable for their views to, constituency associations. Constituency selection still produces its diminishing quota of independent-minded parliamentarians. By overriding the choice of the constituency party, Mr Howard signalled that he wanted only “yes men” in parliament and took a giant step towards a closed list system. Party leaders need this to perfect their chain of control. Thanks to the enfeebled state of grass-roots politics, Mr Howard got away with it.
A related theme in Australia most eloquently put by John Button has been about the professionalisation and resulting ‘flattening out’ of politics the uniformity of the background of parliamentary representation (particularly on the ALP side).
It made me recall an idea I had at around the time of the referendum on a republic.
As you may recall a major issue at the time was what our political culture would make of Pauline Hanson and “One Nation”. It seemed to me that Hanson’s success at that time (since cut short only by her own personal intransigence and political incompetence) was an important phenomenon which reflected something similar the legitimate disenchantment of ‘ordinary people’ with parliamentary politics with its domination by elite opinion of various kinds and by the political shallowness which arises, it seems to me, from the way in which politics is mediated by the mass media.
All the models of republicanism seemed to me to have nothing to say about this even at a symbolic level. Yet isn’t it the most salient failing in our democracy? Minimalist republicanism obviously had nothing to say about it. And a stronger elected head of state would still be the same kind of person as populated Parliament with the media skills and party backing to match.
The only political institutions that I’ve seen that have tried to tackle this shallowness of political culture are institutions like the European invention of the ‘consensus conference’. It is based on the idea that one needs to engage people, and have them inform themselves about particular issues before their view is worth much (as opposed to the current media approach which is to stick a microphone in their face when they go shopping). The consensus conference is modelled on the jury and puts together a group of citizens of about jury size 12 or so and asks them, with input from various experts, to attempt to reach consensus and then to report on their views and so to offer what guidance they can to their fellow citizens.
Texas Political Scientist James Fishkin has proposed deliberative conventions with similar motivations and similar objectives to consensus conferences only with the idea of engaging the citizenry much more en masse in the image of the Great Republic of the United States. He’s also proposed a biennial national ‘deliberation day’ during which citizens would participate in such functions and be paid US$150 for their pains if they subsequently voted. This seems unwieldy and utopian, to me but good luck to him for trying to come up with something.
My own idea with similar motivations is a return to where it all started Athens itself! I suggest that we choose an assembly of citizens by lot (at random) from the electoral role. Those citizens would then be given the option of participating in a third house of Parliament. I don’t suggest overturning representative democracy, so I think it would be unacceptable to give the chamber the blocking power of the House or the Senate. But, to give the new chamber some teeth I’d give it the power to initiate bills and a delaying power like the House of Lords in the UK which can delay legislation (I think for one year) but cannot block it indefinitely. (It could not block budget bills).
The most visceral response I guess I’ll get is ‘not more politicians’. But they’re not politicians. They’re citizens. There’s more cost involved, but its not a major consideration if one thinks this might improve the quality of our democracy.
The advantages are that we would develop a chamber where there really was a legitimate voice of the people. Further that voice would not be ignorant like a vox pop is. I expect the vast majority of people in the chamber would be conscientious in trying to understand the issues on which they spoke and voted. From time to time the process would turn up political talent which could then work its way through the party system. I think politics is one of those professions like policing and psychotherapy which tends to attract people who should be doing something else! This process might well turn up some people who were uninterested in the self assertion and/or struggle that politics involves, who might nevertheless become major contributors to our political culture.
In just scoping it out, its probably best not to be too definitive, but I like the idea of around 100 members (This is obviously fairly arbitrarily and undoubtedly related to the fact that this is the number of fingers most of us have squared). Terms could be for the duration of the House of Representatives (or shorter) and one might have the chamber elect some portion of its members to have a second term. They would be those who had served with greatest distinction (in the eyes of the members) and they could then serve as elders to the influx of newcomers.
How the chamber would organise itself would be up to it I guess, but I can imagine the head of such a chamber if it chose to elect one becoming a person of important and worthy standing in our community and our constitution. I expect this process would turn up people of great worth for national leadership at least as often as any alternative process for choosing some worthy person to unite and inspire us (like our current Governor General for instance . . . ) as well as a fair few duds (like our current Governor General for instance . . . ).
Well Troppodillians I’d be interested in your reaction. Constructive criticism please. That doesn’t mean you can’t say the idea stinks. But if you want to take a cheap shot at the idea or a comment, make sure it has a redeeming feature – niceness, wit, something.
* PS A commenter either below or in a subsequent post by Ken Parish has pointed out that Andrew Leigh et al mention the idea of a deliberation day in their stimulating book of ideas Imagining Australia.