An exchange on deliberative democracy

Below is a spirited exchange between me and Barry Jones on deliberative democracy which I reproduce with his permission. He won’t be participating in any online debate because as he puts it

I … confess to being a total abstainer where social media is concerned. I don’t want to get involved in something which is potentially time consuming and/or obsessive. I have time for Bach, or social media. I choose Bach.

Sounds pretty fair enough to me. The exchange didn’t get too far because Barry didn’t see my reply for some months and then took me up on getting together to discuss things. Still I think the email debate is worth recounting here.

See this footnote 1 for my initial email. Here’s Barry’s first email response to my sending my essays on deliberative democracy in the Mandarin. My reply is below his.

Dear Nick

I  read your piece on deliberative democracy with keen interest. I have had a good deal of experience with deliberative polls. While I can see the value of citizens’ juries, or their analogues, in providing insights into the way people feel  about particular issues (e.g. the republic) I am profoundly sceptical about the general merit of ‘sortition’ or ‘lottocracy.’

These deliberative bodies are useful with specific and rather narrow issues e.g. a jury trial, Melbourne Water, and Jim Fishkin’s pioneering work with electricity in Texas, but not in broader issues, such as settling a Budget.

But how do  you get the toothpaste back into the tube? How do you persuade the existing hegemonic structures to cede power? Remember Voltaire’s comment on St Denys.

I attach a letter I sent to somebody who sent me David Van Reybrouck’s  Against  Elections.

Many thanks for sending me Against Elections by David Van Reybrouck which I read with interest, but also deep concern.

I agree generally with his analysis (although in some cases I would have gone further) but not with his suggested remedies. Loss of faith in democracy is a growing and disturbing international trend, compounded by the rise of populism and the impact of social media. We have the same problem here, confirmed by the ANU’s Australian Election Study 1987-2016.

The situation is very serious but Van Reybrouck’s alternatives are potentially worse.

It is worth noting that if the US had direct voting for President instead of the Electoral College, Gore would have won in 2000 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Van Reybrouck does not address what I regard as the most important problem in democracy, that is, if all votes are of equal value, does this mean that all judgments are equivalent? That opinion may be more important than evidence? That we must search for simple solutions to complex problems?

I am interested – but also concerned – about the tributes printed on the back of the book and would like to see the context in which they were written. 2

Van Reybrouck works, inevitably, from his own knowledge and experience with G1000, and as a Belgian citizen/ academic/ intellectual. But Belgium is, I think, a very bad model to work from. Van Reybrouck is an enthusiast for consensus politics.

In Belgium consensus politics has been adopted to an excessive degree. I think of party representatives sitting at a round table, holding hands. Does an election change anything? Hardly at all. I can understand why Belgium could have gone for 541 days without a government. Presumably nobody noticed. Consensus is a very comfortable goal, involving not asking too many awkward questions. In Belgium the dreadful serial killings by Mark Dutroux in 1995-96 demonstrated consensus at its worst. The regional police forces would not share information because they did not want to be interfering in someone else’s jurisdiction. Belgium’s record of sexual abuse in the Catholic church was one of Europe’s worst – but police and politicians, although they knew about it, did not want to upset the apple cart. Van Reybrouck has more citations from Belgium than any other country.

Despite its superficial attraction, I am very wary of consensus politics. It is inherently collusive, and often corrupt. Most issues that engage political activity are binary and have been throughout our history. White Australia? Abolishing the death penalty? Aboriginal  land rights? Same sex marriage? Effective action on climate change? Separation of church and state? Republic? Euthanasia? Funding priority for government schools? Essentially they involve Yes/ No decisions.

It could certainly be argued that the Australian political system has adopted a ‘consensus’ position on the treatment of refugees. Is that a good thing? Polling indicates that it is politically popular.  I think it is despicable. There is a consensus in the major parties not to set up a Federal ICAC. This is understandable. But is it the best outcome?

Van Reybrouck advocates ‘sortition’, a very unattractive word. I don’t think it will catch on. (It might be better to call it ‘random sample democracy’ or even ‘lottocracy.’)

He quotes James Fishkin as being the reviver of the concept, which is not accurate. (James Burnheim was earlier.3 I knew and have worked with Fishkin and his mentor Peter Laslett.

Fishkin’s  disciple Pam Ryan divides her time between Texas and Adelaide. I assume you know her – but if you don’t I’d be glad to arrange a meeting.

I took an active role either as Chair or Co-chair in several ‘Deliberative Polls’ in Australia – on the Republic, on a Bill of Rights for the ACT, on amending the South Australian Constitution, on Muslims in Australia, and I think there was one more, which I have forgotten.

The deliberative poll, if properly run, can be a very useful instrument for teasing out issues, resolving conflicts and raising the levels of understanding. But it all depends on what the issue is. I am profoundly uncomfortable with the idea that, for all its merits, the deliberative poll would then become a valuable  instrument of government, passing and administering laws. I concede that the experiment seems to have worked well in Iceland and Ireland, and small homogeneous societies may find it useful.

I am happy with random sampling for juries or public opinion polls, but I would not choose a dentist, brain surgeon, airline pilot, engineer, meteorologist, philosopher or child minder by casting lots. Nor would I toss a coin about Budget outcomes.

Australia is mentioned in passing references to deliberative polls and some inaccurate comments on Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit, held in 2008.  Van Reybrouck describes this as the calling of ‘a thousand residents for a citizens’ summit.’ Well, not quite. It would have been better to describe it as calling ‘a thousand experts to discuss problems in their areas of expertise.’ That is quite another thing. John Coetzee was there, for example, not because he was a citizen chosen by lot, but as an outstanding writer/ thinker.

He approved of the 2020 Summit more than I did. I thought there was too much consensus. Resolutions could only be adopted if there was a ‘consensus’, which in practice meant unanimity. In the Climate Change stream, which I attended, having 90% support for a proposition was not enough. A vocal minority exercises a veto, in effect.

Passing a Budget is a classic example of where a body chosen by lot would, I think, inevitably fail. An Australian Budget might have at least  3000 line items. How could/ should priorities – putting a road here, an airport there, a hospital and a school somewhere else be determined? What principles are involved?

And what happened to accountability? The buck stops, where? If you have lay people toddling in and out of the deliberative assembly for their brief exposure to running a country, why should they feel responsible if there is a failure? (They may not even remember it.)

Nature, notoriously, abhors a vacuum. With a weakened legislature, with personnel constantly changing, power will inevitable go towards entrenched groups, the bureaucracy, armed forces, profession interest groups, and corporate lobbies.

The greatest weakness in Van Reybrouck’s book is how his suggested changes could be implemented.  If there is even a single sentence on this I must have missed it! He just writes that Belgium ought to try it. Then the EU ought to take it up. Is he serious?

I am sure the Americans will yearn for advice from Belgium!

Sorry to be so blunt, but I thought it was better to get it off my chest!

To fix the existing system requires a concentrated effort from those well-informed but hand-wringing citizens, many of them professionals, who can’t bring themselves to engage in the dirty business if politics. Think of Archimedes and his lever. Where is the fulcrum to be?

All the best


And my reply

Thanks for your email Barry and apologies for the delay in replying,

As I pondered your own suggestion for what you called a courage party, I started to think it should be called the “we hate the uneducated party”. If you are right that the less educated people in our society have more odious views than the educated – the professionals as you put it in your email – then I guess I’m with you. However I’m at least as sceptical of professionals as I am of the hoi polloi. After all I’m an economist – and neoclassical economics was built by professionals. They have a single counter-intuitive insight (Ricardo’s comparative advantage) and the rest is a blizzard of silly 19th Century engineering maths which makes little sense but satisfies a neurotic aesthetic about being ’scientific’.

My main reason for disagreeing with your own view is however that it seems to me that your idea for perpetuating elites in politics rests on a social order – the dominance of middle class respectability – that is starting to look as out of date as poke bonnets. When you can have the established mainstream press egging on the mob baying at 3 judges for making a determination according to law calling them ‘Enemies of the people’, when the Koch brothers can fund vast and endless campaigns of disinformation – most of it cheerily provided by professionals, and conveyed by professional journalists – I’m afraid that world of respectability, where politicians regard themselves as fundamentally constrained by some shared notion of the truth and a shared life together is dying.

Just calling for ‘courage’ within existing structures seems unimaginative and doomed to failure against the growing depredations of all those professionals who are helping themselves to millions and billions of dollars by gaming the sale of professional expertise – in finance, in health, in law, in media, IT, education and indeed in R&D itself – where as you know the growth in the number and salaries of bureaucrats is vastly outstripping growth in academia proper – whilst all the while the academic bureaucrats treat the academics like lab rats in a Skinner box and the quality of academic work continues to slide. I could go on :)

Of course I realise I’ve done more or less what you’ve done in your email to me, which is outline a whole lot of (I hope you think) reasonable objections to existing institutions where you’ve done the same for more egalitarian rules of engagement in politics. We’re coming from sufficiently different places that it would take a long time to get far. Perhaps we should meet over lunch and see if we can make any progress.

One final thought – you’ve made a case  for the kinds of things a randomly selected house might not be able to do. Could it put together a budget? I think you may have a point. The thing is that I didn’t propose that it put together a budget. I proposed that it act as an upper house with the lower house arrangements remaining as is. I think it would do that admirably, though I’m very happy for the Senate to also review the House. I see the people’s chamber asking hard questions of the lower house’s plans. Why are we cutting company tax when the evidence suggests its disproportionately expensive. Why have we cut top marginal rates? Why does the lower house want to abolish carbon pricing for a cockamamie ‘direct action’ scheme which will deplete the budget by over $10 billion per year?

Of course it’s easy to imagine that the people’s house might do other things – it could declare war on dole bludgers, bring back capital punishment – something I know is dear to your heart. I think there are a few responses to those concerns.

  1. Obviously I may be wrong and if there was evidence that citizens juries tended to produce pressure for the madder populist policies, I’d concede my proposal isn’t worth pursuing. Do you have good evidence that this happens?
  2. The evidence I’ve seen is that the process of deliberation transforms a lot of this kind of thinking – and I think in the process has hugely educative impacts on the electorate. 70% of Oregonians supported a citizens initiated referendum proposal entitled “mandatory sentencing” which sounded not very extreme on its face. The citizens’ jury split 21-3 against the proposal and this fact seems to have moved the dial on public opinion judging from the 56% “yes” vote the proposal ultimately received.
  3. I’d draw your attention to how powerful party discipline is now, involving politicians frequently voting against their consciences. Don’t you like my idea that where there’s a super majority of the people they can compel a secret ballot of the other chamber? Obviously open voting is essential to modern politics and party structures, which it’s naïve to want to overturn (at least without a well worked out theory of what you replace it with) but this seems to strike the right balance. It seems to me that this is even more important in America than here because in America Tea Party style activism is forcing Republicans to vote against their conscience or simply be swept away. Not much point in courage there, any more than it would have been doing any favours for black emancipation for Lincoln to have campaigned on the immediate abolition of slavery in his first presidential campaign. He would never have got the gig and he knew it.
  1. 1.Hi all,

    As you may know I’ve been concerned about the deteriorating quality of our democracy – what I call vox pop democracy– for a long time and have gradually come to believe that greater use of selection by lot – which we use in juries – could be a powerful way to ‘detox’ our democracy.

    I gave a speech on this at the Adelaide Festival of Ideas in October last year but have now set out the case more pointedly in a series of articles in the Mandarin.

    The first which goes through some of the pathologies of our democracy – like trivialisation, polarisation, the marginalisation of certain kinds of voices, the public’s sense of being manipulated – and outlines the ways in which selection by lot could heal these problems is here.

    The second outlines how deliberative democracy mechanisms might be introduced into our constitution – one day – but, perhaps more importantly sketches the way in which one might start on such a journey – by establishing a ‘citizens chamber’ outside the constitution which would act as a lightning rod to identify areas in which our the policies being pursued by our elected politicians were at odds with the considered views of a group of Australians that was broadly reflective of the whole population. That article is here.

    I concluded the series with this piece on how mechanisms like citizens’ juries can be used by the bureaucracy.

    As someone who’s seen how politics works, I’m not naturally given to thinking that big ideas get anywhere just because they’re right. Rather the opposite. As I wrote here, lots of ideas don’t make it even if they’re low risk and have no natural enemies. In my experience, people can listen to the ideas even be impressed with them. They say how energised the ideas make them feel. And then they get back to their in-trays. And that’s pretty much it.

    But sometimes there are things whose time has come borne on by the fact that firstly, things are broken and will stay broken – indeed get worse – until they are fixed and secondly that there is a straightforward way of tackling the problem once people focus on it. That happened with tariff reform which Professor Max Corden pronounced as late as 1968 was of academic interest only as, after the best part of a century supporting protectionism, Australian politicians would never depart from. By 1978 it was clear that things had to change and by 1988 it was pretty much all over with a government credibly committing to 5 percent tariffs.

    I think deliberative democracy is one of those ideas, though if any politicians did champion it seriously, the evidence suggests it comes with powerful electoral rewards rather than political pain, so I’m intending to make this a substantial focus for the foreseeable future.

    Naturally I’d be interested in any thoughts you had on the pieces or on ways we can start making changes happen.



  2. J. M. Coetzee emailed me that he is not a supporter of sortation, despite the apparent endorsement by him on the back cover.[]
  3. 1. I think Barry means John Burnheim the Sydney philosopher who wrote Is Democracy Possible in 1985 and is still with us and thinking about these things at 90.[]
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John r Walker
6 years ago

Nicholas Barry
Thank you
However its also much too ‘concentrated’ as a discussion, could you unpack it?

Nick Chandler
Nick Chandler
6 years ago

Representative democracy definitely needs reinventing. From Indonesia the problems posed by manufactured offence, crazy blasphemy laws and ethnic nationalism make it obvious to most locals that things need to change. Most of the rhetoric is concentrated on revising laws and challenging legal decisions. As a colleague pointed out yesterday during a seminar, “is this really the problem though, or is it much wider and related to power structures inherent in Indonesian society? If Indonesians started rocking up to their local police station and charging neighbours, colleagues, local imams and priests with blasphemy, something that we could all do quite easily considering how baseless the Ahok and Meliana cases are, decision makers and firebrands alike would have to give up on the use of these laws to persecute minorities.”
The analysis you, Van Reybrouck and Barry have provided focus on the institutional mechanisms that shape how democratic decisions can and should be made. Much like the Indo focus on changing the blasphemy law, I can’t help wondering if that will really change the way plebs view themselves as citizens. Deliberative democracy and lottocracy sounds so promising because it offers the chance for citizens to engage in a bit of active civic-nationalism, rather than the ethnic-nationalist and passive domain of the television. Will it change the way Australians see themselves? Or will it necessitate a bigger grassroots co-opting of the voting-public by elites?
As someone in Indonesia at the moment, I can’t help asking if maybe the lens is oriented around institutions too much, and not around people and power structures. Chatting with an Australian venture capitalist last night in Jakarta, I kept turning our conversation around mobocracy in Australia and Indonesia towards the massive role that a small political and economic elite in South-East Asian countries have over markets. Surely the two are linked. The venture capitalist argued we were all going backwards because the elites had conceded too much ground to the plebs. What self-respecting elite would copy from Pauline Hanson’s facebook account? I wanted to contest this analysis of elite and mob. Big data analytics and manufactured offense-taking are powerful tools being used by elites to manipulate elections. Stopping the spread of herd mentality and fostering hive mind requires more politically active citizens, but also ones capable of thinking critically. The problem is that most of our markets require bumbling bovines to provide economic growth. If people could think critically and ethically they would have a lot less children, buy less cars, kill their own food and eat less of it, walk more, smile more, shower less and work less. The markets have a big influence on the nature of our democracy.
An illustration of the murky, grey market-led world in which democracy operates – between institutions and political actors – can be seen when referring to illegal activities conducted by the state in Indonesia. Aspinall and Van Klinken (2011) argue against seeing the Indo state as a single leviathan that must “fight corruption” as the World Bank puts it. Instead they argue the state operates more as a contested space of legal and illegal activities built upon personal networks, privileged multinationals and sybiotic extractive franchises (Pertamina, police, military, parliament, blah blah). In this sense corruption is the underlying rule for how the Indonesian state gets things done.
For example, there is a big market for narcotics in Indonesia. Funnily enough, Indonesia’s small political and economic elite have exclusive control over that market, and maintain that control by keeping the barriers to entry so high (death penalty for foreigners, police and military collusion, blah blah). If this contested state functions as the real broker of power, then how can increasingly marginalised plebs have a say in a constructive way? How can we have a meaningful discussion about the death penalty or drug laws? This is important as Ramadan starts on Saturday, and I will be hard pressed to find a beer…unless I hang out with the Suharto family.
Compared to Australia, Indonesia is already such a deliberative place. You can’t order lunch here without consulting everybody and spending 30 mins reaching a conclusion. Deliberation might help, but it can result in zero critical thinking or analysis too. For lottocracy to succeed, the institutional framework needs to be rooted in a deeper change to how citizens relate to each other and the state. How would an Athenian lottocracy kick the ethno-religious chauvinism offered in every pesantren (Islamic boarding house)? How would it spread a message by customary land owning communities when media conglomerates and government-multinational business syndicates are opposing them?
Maybe Australia’s democratic institutions are actually pretty good, and its Australians who are pretty shitty. How can we change that?

paul frijters
paul frijters
6 years ago
Reply to  Nick Chandler

Nick C,

I have a lot of sympathy for the issues you raise, but your line of thinking requires one to have a clear view of how whole societies operate and transition in this world. You are asking for a Herculean analytical and empirical ability, and even if one had that, the problem of selling the arrived at ‘long-term’ vision would be pretty much impossible to sell to all those who have not invested the same time.

So I think in practice, issues must be depicted as simpler and solutions have to be depicted in a more Utopian manner. We need simple stories of how life can be, and hope that as we are bumbling along towards that impossible Utopia we make lots of good adjustments along the way, hopefully getting it roughly right but potentially building the road to hell.

Nick G, to his credit, offers what he sees as improvements. I am not a fan of his wish to have random members of parliament, but I do see the value of trying different things and giving things a chance, if not for Australia then for the world. Myself, I would prefer citizen juries as appointment boards for lots of positions in the state. Both me and Nick G are thus willing to argue for a specific change based on our own story of the problem and why the proposed solution might work.

So, what do you practically advocate? If your answer is “I dont know; life is very complex; wouldn’t it be nice if we all just got along; perhaps someone else should figure everything out that I want them to take account of, though I reserve the right to then moan about the simplistic solution that someone else comes up with”, then you are part of the problem.

Nick Chandler
Nick Chandler
6 years ago
Reply to  paul frijters

“Both me and Nick G are thus willing to argue for a specific change based on our own story of the problem and why the proposed solution might work.”
Yes! I am indeed part of the problem. I cannot argue for a specific change, or create a story of the problem. I don’t know anything about the ins and outs of Canberra or State governments. Nonetheless, stick me on a citizen jury – particularly for appointing the Minister of Education. I am a teacher and I want to make them squirm.

rob weymouth
rob weymouth
6 years ago

Thanks for sharing this exchange, Nick.
I just wanted to make a few observations based on my knowledge of the topic. Most of your positions seem reasonable so I will focus on Barry’s claims, but like him I’m going to go with ‘Bach’ and only make a few points.
With regard to consensus, this was certainly a strong driver in the field a couple of decades ago but these days everyones a but more relaxed these days – in fact current practice is to ask the jury/panel to get meta and set the bar themselves for regarding the level of agreement required (majority, unaninity, super majority plus minority report etc).
Finally, his claims about the difficulty of doing budgeting reflect a current challenge in the field that might be called ‘scaling to deal with greater complexity’. However, its unfair to characterise it as an impossibility – there has been over 1200 participatory budgeting exercises run since Porto Allegre started back in the 80’s. Now, not all these are equally deliberative and the overwhelming number only concern a fraction of the total budget but they have yielded solid data on process and outcomes. Interestingly, there seems to be an Aussie way of doing participatory budgeting (PBs) which tends to be much more deliberative and concerning the majority of a governmental budget. For further details I suggest looking at Nivek Thompsons article on PB’s in Australia and the City of Canada Bay, but there was also a recent billion dollar PB at the City of Melbourne. I personally was part of a participatory budget at the City of Greater Geraldton that determined 10 years of infrastructure spending and a whole year of operational spending amounting to about $140 million using deliberative democracy panels – (there’s a description of this and a series of other events in a 2015 paper by Weymouth and Hartz-Karp).

Is that helpful?

rob weymouth
rob weymouth
6 years ago

I’d agree Nick and most of the people I know in my field agree with Carole Pateman’s criticism of DD that it is not participatory enough. Variously called the ‘scaling up’ or ‘scaling out’ problem.

I’d summarise the current response to this criticism as agreement that more participation is needed and that most exercises up to this point have been attempts to understand deliberation – which naturally enough is what those researchers think is important given the field they are in. All the events mentioned were primarily deliberative – (particularly Geraldton although Geelong has done work in this space too :) ) – as mentioned because that was the agenda of the researchers but they would also argue that something as complex as a budget requires some component of something you would call deliberation anyway.

Your assessment of PB’s is pretty accurate – they generally have control of single digit percentages of the total budget. The longest running ones (eg . Porto Allegre) have shown definite influence over what they have control of but it is still small. This is one of the things that was pointed out in Thompson’s paper – Australia seems to do PB’s differently so far (we are latecomers to this phenomena). Australian PB’s tend to be bigger (Geraldton was 100% of the Council budget) but are also more deliberative in flavour. For example US PB’s tend to work on a competitive, vote based system – projects are put up by the community and are advocated for then voted on by the community to create a prioritisation. Entirely valid but favouring more participation and less deliberation than the Australian style.

So finally we then return to the need for scaling up for greater participation (but not usually total). The current fashion in DD is to talk about this being done thorough a concept called a Deliberative System. Its a bit hard to do it justice but it imagines a loose series of institutions (PB’s, policy panels, parliaments, referendums, trust based minpublics) with differing levels of deliberativeness, representativeness and influence that would work together to create a more deliberative and participatory system than what we have currently.

Any of that valuable?