A people’s chamber ?

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.

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18 Responses to A people’s chamber ?

  1. There’s a big literature on deliberative democracy and these sort of conferences. Most of the criticism comes from two directions – the difficulty in discerning a public interest when participants bring unequal and conflicting personal and group interests to the discussion (though there are ways around this) and probably more seriously, a difference as to what content should be given to the public interest which tends to break along reasonably predictable lines of worldview and ideology.

    It develops very much out of the Habermasian school of critical theory and the notion that public coversation should approach what he calls a “communicative consensus”. This is attacked on the grounds of a sort of linguistic idealism built into the premisses, and also for being all about process and nothing about content (ie the value presuppositions underlying the formation of a public debate).

    The other main objection is that democracy works better when opinions are polarised rather than reconciled.

    I looked at the literature in 1999 so I’m not up on the details – but Tim Dunlop I think did his PhD on some related stuff. John Dryzek is the big man in Australia (I think he’s still at Melbourne Uni) on this stuff.

  2. Thanks for that Mark, but its a comment on consensus conferences. There’s no presumption of consensus in a Parliamentary chamber. If you can’t agree you can take a vote.

  3. Stephen Bounds says:

    Out of interest, what would disqualify you from being selected for this chamber?

    Presumably actual MPs and Senators are excluded, but what about being a judge? Police officer? Member or official of a political party?

  4. None of those things need disqualify you – as one could opt for simplicity, safe in the very low probability of such people being selected in the kind of numbers that could make a difference. But since people would have the choice of whether or not to take up the position, I guess many Parliamentarians would stick with their existing jobs.

    As for the rest, its the luck of the draw. No problem in having such people as a small minority in the chamber. Remember though that I’m thinking of this as a full time paid position, so they’d have to take leave from their day jobs.

  5. Nicholas, I would vote for it. That style of government is often known as ratification or sortitionist government. I wrote an article on an Australian republic that incoporated a third entity, ie the ratifiers;

    http://www.southsearepublic.org/story/2004/12/22/14232/389

    it also has the Governor-General as the protector of the Bill of Rights.

    With the endless increase in education of the people, it is inevitable that direct democracy will result IMO, though no necessarily a pure system. I also wrote an article about innovating with ratifiers at the electoral level as well;

    http://www.southsearepublic.org/story/2004/11/8/3178/72065

  6. Incidentally, the Imagining Australia folks also advocated a deliberation day as well. I am not sure that would work, politicians work to be immune from public pressure and willfully submit to party pressure. It might make people fell better, but wouldnt stop the problem of parties acting against democratic principles, against the publics will and for the entrenchment of their own power.

    I think the citizens need to be injected actively into the process, whether as ratifiers, sortitionists (ie 25% of existing parliament is chosen from the public by lottery), or Nicholas’ idea above. There has to be some means for citizens to stop repugnant legislation and to start the process for citizens bills/legislation.

    My article on ratifiers would have them anonymous, so they can stop repugnant bills. Kind of like a secret ballot on each piece of legislation. It would also be a floating population from bill to bill, chosen by sortition.

    The other aspect of establishing a chamber for the sortitionists would be to inject the wisdom of the people directly into government. IIRC Scrymarch has advocated sortitionists being a part of the house of represenatives. Approx 25% of them, in addition to the elected representatives. This would fray the effect of party discipline on the process, while still taking advantage of the wisdom in the electorate.

    As an example, the US Congress if faced with sortitionists, would not be running escalating deficits. I would trust a plumber with the US budget, before I would trust Bush, Frist, Hastert or DeLay. A plumber who runs his own business understands incoming and outgoing revenue, and wont borrow indefinately.

    I am definately for some form of ratification/sortition in the present system.

  7. jen says:

    I think the value of a randomly selected assembly would be the accompanying sense of responsible citizenship.
    Conscription into the army brings about a powerful common consciousness.

    A large assembly of citizens chosen at frequent intervals may change the culture of our democracy so that we would not be so suspicious of the play of ideas and argument.

    We demand finished polished product from our politicians when that is a fantasy.
    Politics is about moving toward certainty not achieving it. That is not possible. Or even desirable.
    Why do we persist with the fantasy and force our pollies to lie?

  8. Rafe says:

    Whatever mechanisms are put in place to allow more access to political decision-making, they will work better if there are less things on the public agenda. In other words, I suggest that reducing and simplfying the mechanism of government is more important for the benefit of people than giving a largely spurious appearance of involvement.
    By “reducing” I mean getting out of trade protectionism, industry policy and corporate welfare, and by simplifying I mean reducing the complexity of rules on taxation and investment (for example).
    Maybe this is changing the topic, but I think that no kind of public forum or consultation can handle the huge array of tasks that modern states have taken upon themselves, largely for the benefit of special interests at the expense of the common good.

  9. Vee says:

    It is our innate cynicism of politicians that bring this forth.

    We as the common people really have no comprehension of how much research and thought goes into the complex decisions politicians have to make. Despite populist arrogance (which we are) it is hard work.

    That said, in a party situation, we don’t know how much research and work goes in, many members may toe the line for the sake of political advantage.

    I have not let go of my idea of all pollies being independents, some argue they’ll coalesce into parties anyway but my view is there are some things independents absolutely will not compromise on.

    This also allows variation away from party lines on differing subjects.

    It also raises the possibility of CIR again.

  10. Cam and Vee,.

    I’m trying to inject more popular sensibility into representative democracy to give it more depth

  11. Rafe,

    I’m sympathetic to your list of things to take off the public agenda (well up to a point) but I think what you’re suggesting is chimerical.

    I think it’s very difficult to work out any practical means of taking these things off the agenda. Are you going to say that the Parliament cannot pass laws relating to tariffs? That’s an odd thing to do and I can’t see how you’d get anyone to agree to it. I wouldn’t and I’m a supporter of tariff reform.

    So you have somehow to create institutions which mediate these issues in ways that you think will work out. Ian Macfarlane conceptualises this as the problem of ‘the optimal degree of delegation, and the revoking of delegation’.

    But even if you should and could constrain sovereign law makers in this way, I think you really need to have a good think about whether it would substantially reduce the complexity of government. If might reduce its work by a third, a half (I doubt this very much, but I concede it for the sake of argument).

    But each area of government grows more complex exponentially (I mean this in the literal sense of [either fast or slow] compound growth not in the popular sense of ‘a lot’). Govt must grow more complex as society grows more complex. Compare written procedures of a large company today with its procedures fifty years ago. Today’s procedures are massively more complex – because its a massively complex world.

    Compare the program Microsoft Word 1 with the current version. Difference in size and complexity – is about 100Ks versus 100 Megs. A thousand fold increase in bandwidth. Not unlike the tax act! Likewise compare the complexity of a more evolved biological form with a less evolved biological form.

    Just think of the task of setting speed limits around town and managing traffic more generally. Its a big, complex job, and it increases in complexity as traffic flows become denser, as there become more and more complex systems which must interact – traffic lights, tolls, traffic flow objectives etc, random breath testing, citizen appeals and on it goes.

    We need to understand that a lot of this complexity is a byproduct of growth and progress. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be hostile to all sorts of tendencies to overregulate. That’s part of the problem, but its only part of the problem. I reckon its a much smaller part of the problem than many deregulationists suppose.

    Regulation other than what has been deregulated away (tariffs, shopping hours) is an area in which economic reform has been singularly unsuccessful. Part of the reason is that the reformers have got hold of the wrong model.

  12. Rafe, We do suffer from too much government. We also suffer from too much government over-lap and an overly centrist Federal government. The Feds and States need their interference reduces. I believe this is largely based on populism. You only have to watch the ABC rss feeds, each new issue that reaches the news either gets money or legislation thrown at it to make it go away in the public mind.

    Nicholas, I have complete faith in the wisdom of the people. On citizen referenda, average folks such as Bryan Palmer and myself have already done “strike tag” bill amendments. Bryan has a minimalist Constitution on his site that elevates the PM to Head of State. I also have “strike tag” amendments to the Electoral Act and Flag Act on SSR. Avocadia on SSR has written a Bill of Rights, and I know he is working on a Constitution. There is much wisdom there.

    The Ratification Model I proposed is mainly to stop repugnant legislation. I am pretty strong on stopping government oppression and recognizing the primacy of the individual, their freedom, rights and liberties. The Ratifiers cannot say yes to a proposal, but can only abstain or vote no. Basically they can kill legislation.

    It also has the Governor-General as popularly elected, and who has a political role of vetoing any legislation that violates an explicit Bill of Rights. The only other innovations beyond the existing Westminster system were term limits and fixed term elections. It is a pretty minimal modification, with only the Ratifiers and GG having any real change from the present system.

    I dont think it is utopian at all, just adds two layers of process to protect the rights and liberties of individuals. A gaping hole in our existing system.

    The difficult part, as you recognized with the comment on Elitism, is that there is a role for professional politicians who can implement policy that may be unpalatable to the electors, but which is for the common weal. Economic Rationalism is one success story of that, though I think the arguments against were more from inertia, Australia has been protectionist Deakin. The EU is one that isnt. A new layer of almost aristocracy has been created there. It is a step backward in representation.

  13. Apologies for missing the point of your post, Nicholas. I skim rather than read sometimes, I’m afraid to say.

  14. Ken Parish says:

    Nicholas

    OK. I accept that I must have misread you and that your focus was not on a process aiming at consensus (despite your explicitly mentioning consensus conventions, Fishkin, and making the jury analogy – an institution where consensus IS the objective). In part I was using your post as a springboard to muse about Habermas and Mouffe and deliberative polling, a topic I’d been intending to discuss for some time.

    Your idea of a People’s House is an interesting one, even if it is wildly improbable that it would ever be embraced by our politicians to any extent at all (as it would need to be to be put to a referendum). But leaving that aside and treating it purely as a thought exercise, what democratic deficit do you identify in our current system that leads to your posposing a People’s House as tre answer? Certainly there’s an almost complete lack of popular participation in our current system, but your proposal doesn’t remedy it to any significant extent. Do you see the People’s House as a mechanism to enhance political accountability or transparency? I can’t really see that a bunch of ordinary citizens whose names are picked out of a hat would be an optimal body to enforce accountability – rather the reverse really.

    Or do you see it simply as an additional democratic check and balance? But why are two houses of Parliament insufficient? Why do we need a third one? Is it just that the evil Howardians are about to gain control of both existing houses for the next three years? Does that evidence a democratic deficiency, or is it just democracy in operation?

    Why should our existing elected politicians, or the population at large, view a randomly selected body like this as having any particular persuasive or advisory force? It possesses neither expertise nor true representativeness. I suggest politicians would feel free to ignore it, and the population at large would not see it as having any moral force as “their” house because its members were merely drawn from a hat.

    Would membership be compulsory for all people whose names were drawn out in the ballot (as with jury service), or would it be optional? Even if compulsory, there would surely need to be a wider range of exemptions than applies for jury service. Jurors serve for only a couple of weeks (usually), and in their home town. Members of a People’s House would be conscripted for three years (presumably) and be forced to serve in faraway Canberra. The disruption to career and family would be huge for most people. It’s all very well for politicians who have made a deliberate career choice to seek federal elective office, although even for them the toll on family is very large (especially for politicians from places like north Queensland, NT and WA). But I suspect that most people chosen at random would decline membership once they’d had a chance to weigh the implications and effects on family, career/business etc.

    If members were generously paid, then people on low wages might well be tempted to accept nomination. And no doubt some would foresee the possibility of using membership as a platform to achieve high enough public visibility to then make a run for elective office. But a Chamber consisting mostly of these sorts of people doesn’t really strike me as terribly desirable.

    Of course I may be reacting with excessive pessimism, and in part I’m just playing the devil’s advocate. But in fact my quite genuine reaction is that, while it’s an interesting idea on first blush, I don’t actually think on balance that it would be a positive addition to our existing democratic institutions.

  15. Ken,

    I can’t do much more than refer you to my original post and the comments on the thread. In mentioning Fishkin, I suggested that I was skeptical of what he was arguing for.

    I don’t see it as a democratic check or balance. As I said, the point of its delaying power is to give it some teeth to get it taken seriously. I agree that as an accountability body, the Senate – with expert and broadly representative Senators – is a better option.

    It seems to me that the discourse of policy making is very dominated by a certain class (upper middle class) and a certain style of discourse. I think the Pauline Hanson adventure reflected this. “Please explain”.

    People have a hunger for their own issues to be talked about in a way that is accessible to them. Yet it cuts both ways. When these frustrations break out into politics they break out as crude populism from our political professionals (read my lips, no new taxes) and as ad hoc and unworkable policy from the Pauline Hansons of the world (ezi-tax anyone?)

    For that reason it seems to me worthwhile to have a forum in which these issues are mediated. It works both ways. It will be worth while for the political pros to address the concerns of the hoi-polloi in the ‘people’s chamber’ (to speed its passage through Parliament) but at the same time it won’t have to be dumbed down into sound bites in our media. That’s the essence of what I think is important – for there to be deliberation.

    Likewise, the various forms of snake oil like One Nation’s ezi-tax can be put forward and exposed as snake oil. So the point of the exercise is to improve communication between political classes and so to deepen and enrich our political discourse.

    I don’t have it in mind for membership to be compulsory.

    This para seems a bit too ‘devils advocate’ for my liking. “If members were generously paid, then people on low wages might well be tempted to accept nomination. And no doubt some would foresee the possibility of using membership as a platform to achieve high enough public visibility to then make a run for elective office. But a Chamber consisting mostly of these sorts of people doesn’t really strike me as terribly desirable.”

    ‘Mostly’? Why mostly? Would you accept if you were nominated? I would. Neither of us receive low incomes by most people’s standards. Lots of people would accept, but of course some wouldn’t. So they’d be broadly representative in the statistical sense like a jury is – not when it came to votes but when it came to the weight of discourse. And yes, I see the idea of it as a platform for the odd person to make the transition to professional politics as a good thing. Its not clear to me whether you think it’s the idea of it as a possible platform is good or bad. Currently there are very few ways in, scandalously so on the ALP side – where you need to be a staffer, a unionist or a footballer or rock star. I think its very good. I think that word ‘mostly’ throws us off the track here.

    Finally I wouldn’t have thought it would require a referendum. I can’t see why it couldn’t be established by statute for some temporary period. One might not be able to call it a house of Parliament in that case, but the functions that it has could be delegated to it – it seems to me – by statute. In other words, it doesn’t appear to me to be ultra vires the constitution for the existing houses of Parliament and the executive to bind themselves to a particular procedure until and unless the legislation doing so is repealed, or is repealed automatically under a ‘sunset’ clause.

    This is also cross posted in your own thread above

  16. Alan says:

    British Columbia did something like this with their citizens assembly. The structure was a man and a woman from each electorate an aboriginal representative. The delegates were selected at random. The chair was appointed by unanimous vote of a parliamentary committee. The mandate was selecting an electoral system. They went for STV and it got 57% in the subsequent referendum and majority in 77 of 79 seats. Sadly the provincial legislature had set 60% as the required majority. Ontario is about to do a similar exercise..

  17. Somthinng very weird happened to my second last para – and I correct it here.

    And yes, I see the idea of it as a platform for the odd person to make the transition to professional politics as a good thing. It’s not clear to me whether you think the people’s chamber as a possible platform is good or bad. Currently there are very few ways in which people can make their way into the party political mainstream, scandalously so in the case of the ALP – where you need to be a staffer, a unionist or a footballer or rock star.

  18. FDB says:

    “I see the idea of it as a platform for the odd person to make the transition to professional politics as a good thing.”

    I’ve tried, and I simply cannot imagine a better platform from which to enter politics.

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