Agonising about deliberative democracy

I wonder why the blogosphere zeitgeist is throwing up musings about the desirability of some latter day form of Athenian participatory democracy? Nicholas Gruen’s post earlier today, in which he advocated a randomly selected “people’s chamber” of Parliament, is a proximate example. So too is Tim Dunlop’s ongoing advocacy of James Fishkin’s “deliberative polling” concept, trialled in Australia in the runup to the 1999 Republic Referendum, and again in relation to indigenous reconciliation and the ACT’s statutory bill of rights scheme.

The most obvious objection to participatory democracy is that it usually results in extreme conservatism verging on inertia, because the ignorance and disinterest of the great bulk of the citizenry makes such a system excessively vulnerable to fear campaigns by opponents of any given reform. The depressing history of constitutional referenda in Australia is a powerful example of this phenomenon.

Both Fishkin’s “deliberative polling” concept and Nicholas Gruen’s “people’s chamber” idea attempt to combat this by randomly selecting a group of citizens and subjecting them to intensive, comprehensive and balanced information/education about the issue under consideration. The education process is aimed partly at combatting the discovery, most famously identified with American political scientist Robert Converse, that most voters are abysmally ignorant about the issues and candidates about which they are expected to pass democratic judgment.

Fishkin’s deliberative polling also draws on Jurgen Habermas’s somewhat utopian (if thoroughly argued) concepts of “deliberative democracy” and “communicative rationality”. Habermas argues that it should be possible to construct a neo-Athenian participatory democracy, where people would behave as rational, thoughtful political actors, discussing issues in a considered, careful way and reaching a consensus on the best policy. Fishkin’s deliberative polling concept is in part an attempt to create a working Habermasian model of communicative rationality among ordinary citizens.

These sorts of concepts are open to a wide range of objections, some more cogent than others. But the one I find most persuasive is that of Chantal Mouffe. She’s a post-modernist, but I won’t hold that against her. Mouffe’s immediate subject is Habermas’s deliberative democracy theories, but her critique is equally applicable to Fishkin, and for that matter Nicholas Gruen’s “people’s house”, to the extent that they posit a real possibility of a true rational democratic consensus based on finding and agreeing about the best policy option:

Once the theoretical terrain has been delineated in such a way, we can begin formulating an alternative to both the aggregative and the deliberative model, one that I propose to call “agonistic pluralism”. A first distinction is needed in order to clarify the new perspective that I am putting forward, the distinction between “politics” and “the political”. By “the political”, I refer to the dimension of antagonism that is inherent in human relations, antagonism that can take many forms and emerge in different type of social relations. “Politics”, on the other hand, indicates the ensemble of practices, discourses and institutions which seek to establish a certain order and organize human coexistence in conditions that are always potentially conflictual because they are affected by the dimension of “the political”. I consider that it is only when we acknowledge the dimension of “the political” and understand that “politics” consists in domesticating hostility and in trying to defuse the potential antagonism that exists in human relations, that we can pose what I take to be the central question for democratic politics. This question, pace the rationalists, is not how to arrive at a consensus without exclusion, since this would imply the eradication of the political. Politics aims at the creation of unity in a context of conflict and diversity; it is always concerned with the creation
of an “us” by the determination of a “them”. The novelty of democratic politics is not the overcoming of this us/them opposition which is an impossibility but the different way in which it is established. The crucial issue is to establish this us/them discrimination in a way that is compatible with pluralist democracy.

Even in a relatively homogeneous democracy like Australia, people inevitably have widely different backgrounds, upbringings, aspirations and culural, religous and political beliefs. The idea that a single “best” policy solution even exists in any meaningful sense, such that most people would recognise and agree about it if only they were properly informed and educated about the issues by their intellectual betters, is an arrogant fantasy. Bloggers of all people should have discovered the hard way that consensus, even between the sort of highly educated audience that blogs like this one typically attract, is an impossibility.

No doubt advocates of deliberative polling like Tim Dunlop would point to the phenomenon of much higher levels of consensus that have typically emerged from exercises like the deliberative poll conducted prior to the Republic Referendum. However, I attended that poll as one of the randomly selected participants, and my considered conclusion was that the strong pro-republican shift in sentiment, over the course of the two day deliberative exercise, owed much more to the group dynamics and psychology of the occasion than to the inherent strength of the republican case (in fact the ARM referendum model was badly flawed in my view, and deserved the rejection it ultimately received). What I think actually occurs in a deliberative polling exercise is that the participants are made to feel like privileged citizens and bearers of the nation’s democratic burden to such an extent that it seems almost obligatory to reach a positive/constructive outcome (as opposed to one which simply rejects whatever reform measure that is under deliberation).

Mouffe suggests that the aim of any political deliberation is not “consensus”, because that will usually be impossible, but a workable accommodation between competing interests and viewpoints. Democratic deliberation should aim at turning “enemies” into mere political adversaries or rivals, and potentially violent antagonism into “agonism” where peaceful accommodations/compromises between opponents are not only possible but the normal and expected outcome of political disputation.

Mouffe’s critique of Habermas (and for that matter Fishkin and Gruen) strikes me as a compelling one, and much more credible than Habermas’s impossibly utopian (if complex and nuanced) conception of liberal democracy.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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18 Responses to Agonising about deliberative democracy

  1. jen says:


    Doesn’t seem to be big in Australian culture.

    Even in idle conversation we choose the comfortable space of consensus over the adrenalin rush of strip down argument and opinion.

    We don’t know the difference between personal assault and assault on an idea.

    It is not knowledge these forums (deliberative polling, peoples chamber) should foster.

    A people’s chamber should be a place where we learn to argue, to grasp at, inspect and find value in an idea.
    Australians don’t seem to enjoy this at a grassroots level and our political system reflects this lack of objective energy.

  2. Vee says: which consists mainly of youth with a few middle-agers mixed in seems to indicate otherwise Jen but then again these could be perceived as political junkies.

    Ken, it is the spirit of times due to the impending Howardian Regime that is official on July 1.

    Gary Sauer-Thompson and I commented on his blog sometime ago that the “Regime” as I call it has all ready begun which appears to be evident by the Howard govt recent actions in parliament and only the bills of little dispute being presented to the House and Senate as evident on Andrew Bartlett’s blog.

  3. Ken,

    I expected to be misunderstood, and have been by your post. I tried to explain myself in the post, but expect it would take a few goes. So I’ve tried to respond to others’ comments in the thread. I’m strongly in favour of representative democracy – but see my proposal as addressing a flattening out of it – driven by political parties and the mass media. Please have a read of my attempt at clarification and let me know what you think. In fact, for ease of readers’ use, I’ll reproduce it here.
    Cam and Vee,.

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

  4. Ken,

    I discovered your post immediately after having contributed to the comments thread of my own post, now extracted above. I pasted those comments up on this thread immediately as I felt that I was being misunderstood. I hadn’t read your post carefully.

    Having been through it now, I do feel pretty misrepresented. The entire focus of my own suggestion was to deepen the conversation occuring within representative democracy, not to suggest that there is some improved way in which we can reach an otherwise unatainable consensus. I don’t think that.

  5. Ken, The bit about feeling like priviliged citizens is correct. Give people a reason to care and they will care – they will even excel. Disenfranchise them, alienate them from the process, and they will not care. Participation is important and party/factional politics makes that difficult. Beyond voting, there is literally no room in the Australian system for a politically aware individual to participate without picking a tribe.

  6. I’ll just comment on Mouffe. I’ve admired her writings for years, and as usual, I’d take issue with the characterisation of her as a post-modernist (she’s not – she’s a post-structuralist and agrees with Foucault that there is a reality outside discourse – she and her sometime co-author Ernesto Laclau had a major and rather illtempered debate with Norm Geras of normblog fame about this). But leaving that aside, she’s right. Much of her writing picks up not only on Habermas but also on Schmitt (who also influenced Habermas in his early work – particularly “The Structural Transformation of The Public Sphere”). I outlined my reading of Schmitt at length on a recent thread at John Quiggin’s but in short – Mouffe is trying to promote agonism as the basis for politics as opposed to Schmitt’s antagonism. It’s quite correct to say that Habermas’ theory is utopian. It’s more precise to recognise that Habermas admits this, and seeks to “approach” an “ideal communicative situation” rather than argue that you can get there. The problem with this is that politics becomes all about process – which tends to obscure real differences and also leads to a democratic ideal with little substantive content. I accept that I misinterpreted Nicholas’ point, but I’d suggest that the comments I made on his thread are ones that Mouffe would agree with.

  7. Ken Parish says:


    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.

  8. Ken Parish says:


    I think you’re underestimating/ignoring the mass hysteria/group dynamic affect of such a gathering. I experienced it myself as a participant in the 1999 Republic Referendum deliberative poll. Why did it achieve a turnaround from well under 50% supporting the referendum republic model at the outset, to more than 70% at the end? Was the ARM model really worthy of such high support? It certainly didn’t receive it in the referendum itself. Was that because of public ignorance? But many political and constitutional experts (not just monarchists) viewed the ARM model as deficient too, so surely that can’t be the explanation.

    Some sort of group dynamic closely allied to mass hysteria is a plausible explanation IMO, and I KNOW that it existed because I was part of it. It felt very much like a Billy Graham Crusade, where large numbers of people “come on down” and convert to Jesus in the euphoria of the moment. These conversions are mostly shallow and short-lived, and I suspect the opinion shifts achieved by deliberative polling are too.

  9. observa says:

    When did the smoko room crowd ever get it wrong? Menzies – Whitlam – Hawke – Howard? Think of their times, their challenges and their policies and how they led opinion. It’s the calibre of the leadership and their teams, not the understanding of the punters that gets results. The smoko room can’t vote for for anything other than what’s on offer.

  10. jen says:

    Once again Mark you hit the nail on the head. What I want to know is how many hot dinners this Mouffe has had and does she like gravy on her taters?

    An ‘ideal communicative situation’ sounds like a good start for deciding something to me.

    And now a genuine question for you. Isn’t there place for looking at ways to implement politics as process? I think that it is the process not the decision that we could be concentrating on given the apathy of the electorate. Most Australians are fairly disinterested in political decision making because we feel helpless when it comes to making any kind of difference. Why? Because we are or feel, locked out of the process. Why because we think we don’t matter and don’t know enough about politics to be listened to or acknowledged, much less regarded with respect. The political elite; media, pollies and academics have the situation too well in hand. And there is no contingency on the horizon that will spur the 60 minuters and fringe dwellers to participate more than they do.

    I love the notion of a ‘people’s assembly’ because it would be a (get this one) a consciousness raising exercise that involves us like conscription did. Civic duty by force.

    That’s right Parish it will be disruptive. But just about weverything worth doing is. And very expensive too. I think service of 1 year in the PA Canberra would be sufficient to keep us on our toes.

  11. 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.

  12. Niall says:

    “Usually results in…” doesn’t mean definitely will result in. I’m all for a much more participatory democratic system. The current government has proven beyond any doubt that it can’t be trusted with a peoples mandate.

  13. Stephen Bounds says:

    Nicholas: You say “Would you accept if you were nominated? I would. Neither of us receive low incomes by most people’s standards.”

    But you and all who read and contribute to this blog are hardly a representative cross-section of Australian society. By the very nature of this forum, we are likely to be well-educated, politically engaged and on above-average salaries.

    I think Ken is right — a three year disruption to the average person’s life is not achievable. To take a simple example, how would you get representatives who were stay-at-home mums (and not doctor’s wives)?

    Perhaps the jury system metaphor can be extended. In this scenario, the people’s house would consist of several small groups of people (say 20-25) who would be drafted on a rolling basis for 4-8 weeks at a time to consider legislation before the Parliament. They could propose amendments to the legislation, request sunset clauses or delay implementation of legislation pending a review.

    Initiation of bills would be a tricky one. I think given the limited time span there would have to be a common agreement that other business could wait — say a 2/3 or 3/4 majority of the group to allow introduction and debate of new bills not already before the other two Houses.

    Despite the above, I am not convinced of the necessity of a third house. Picking up on jen’s comment, I don’t think people are apathetic because they feel they can’t effect change — I think most people are disengaged because they are happy with how the country is going. The fact is that when popular opinion changes, our political masters acknowledge the new reality and adjust. The new refugee policy by Howard is a good case in point.

    On the other hand, if the new IR policy post-July 1 turns nasty, I foresee a radical upswing in political interest :)

  14. Ken Parish says:


    I don’t know whether I would choose to be involved in a People’s House if one existed and I was selected. For a start I don’t know whether CDU would give me leave of absence. We’re currently so short-staffed that it would cause major problems, and it isn’t anywhere near as easy to recruit competent academic legal staff to Darwin as in larger centres. Then there’s the fact that I’d be away from Jen for prolonged periods, not to mention disrupting her daughter Jess and my daughter Rebecca (who’s currently in Year 12 and needs all the help she can get). On balance I think I’d be forced to pass up the opportunity, despite my lifelong fascination with politics. And I suspect I’d be fairly typical in terms of family and career impediments/involvements.

  15. Ken wrote, “I think you’re underestimating/ignoring the mass hysteria/group dynamic affect of such a gathering.”

    In the case of the Ratification proposal on SSR, they ratifiers dont meet face to face. They just vote on bills. They are also a flash-mob that changes with each bill. I would have citizen referenda come through another means.

    In Nicholas’ proposal of a peoples-chamber/sortitionists he doesnt mention them necessarily being face to face in a parliament.

    Ken wrote, “Was the ARM model really worthy of such high support? It certainly didn’t receive it in the referendum itself.”

    But we watched support for the Republic crash once the professional politicians got a hold of the issue. The Australian people arent dumb, they knew when they were getting an inferior solution that changed nothing.

    Ken wrote, “I don’t know whether I would choose to be involved in a People’s House if one existed and I was selected.”

    Who says you have to go to Canberra to do it? I now work from home 75% of the time. I have an RSA Secureid which lets me VPN into private networks securely. I have complete access to the internal network of the company I work with. I collaborate in meetings and projects through a mix of vocal, email, documents, repositories etc etc etc. Government can do the same for a people’s chamber; sortionists or ratifiers.

    IMO government is seriously broken, party discipline skews and already skewed representative system. The only way to retard the skewing of government by faction and representation is through the statistical weight of the people. There is much wisdom out there, and it is going to waste. It needs to be tapped, because our political institutions and political parties are delivering us inferior solutions.

    There is no vitality or vigour in Australian or State Government.

  16. jen says:

    Who says you have to go to Canberra to do it?

    Cam, I think such an assembly would be more representative if the people involved intracted live most of the time. So maybe Canberra it is.
    Even though internet communication is becoming more prevalent it is distancing and open to misundertandings, even among the always users – Like road rage or sms.
    There are many obstacles to creating a viable forum in which people can meet: travelling away from home and being absent from our usual jobs for extended or even short periods is not convenient. The assembly forum protocols will be unfamiliar for most of us too

    But at least if people meet on a face to face level, they can deal with difficulties in that immediate and personal context.

    It is worth a try I think.
    The most valuable thing about a people’s forum is that people will participate in a political process.

    I think a group needs to be together a good deal of the time to feel connected and relevant.
    And that is the best thing about a people’s forum.

    As you point out, vitality and vigour aren’t big in government forums and I think that is the fault of the electorate who are largely satisfied with the way things are and see no need to spend energy attempting to improve them, but I am an idealist and – life can always be better.

  17. Ken Parish says:

    Maybe it could work if the People’s House met for (say) 3 or 4 fortnight blocks each year. Any more than that and too many people would be precluded from membership, not only people in my position but single parents, most small businesspeople (including trades), and anyone who is still carving out a career where 3 years absence would adversely impact promotion prospects. That sort of length of time ought to be enough to work, althoug any shorter wouldn’t. And I guess you could turn over the membership every year rather than every 3 years.

    As for Nicholas’s suggestion that a legislation-delaying role could be built in by ordinary legislation and without constitutional amendment, I don’t think so. The High Court says the Commonwealth Parliament can’t impose “manner and form” requirements on successor parliaments that would bind them as to the process of enacting subsequent laws. Thus legislation purporting to forbid the H of R and Senate from enacting laws until the People’s House had considered them for a specified period of time could simply be ignored if the Parliament so chose. Therefore a legislative-delaying role for the People’s House could only be informal and effected by self-denying discipline on the part of the elected politicians.

    However, as Nicholas and jen suggest, the major role of a People’s House would be advisory and consciousness-raising anyway, aimed at giving ordinary people real input into the political process instead of feeling excluded and disempowered by the professional political classes, lawyers, political journos etc. That role doesn’t really require a power to block or delay legislation, although it would certainly be desirable so that the PH is more than just consultative window-dressing.

    On reflection, I agree that an institution of this sort could be a positive addition to the existing political system, as long as its sitting frequency and duration are tailored to maximise the feasibility of broad participation (not just the idle rich and poor, and tenured public servants without substantial family commitments).

  18. Wow,

    I’ve changed someone’s mind. A good mind too. I’m quite chuffed.

    And yes, Ken, I realise now you must be right about ‘manner and form’ restraints on future Parliaments. It takes me back to a couple of weeks I spent trying to understand Dixon’s judgement in Trethowan’s Case about thirty years ago. Took me ages. Then the penny dropped.

    One could establish the idea of a 12 month delaying power as a convention however. The Americans managed to follow Washington’s self denying ordinance of two terms as President until F.D. Roosevelt had a couple of extra terms. Then they were ready to entrench it.

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