The Road to Political Reform Based on Sortition: Guest Post by John Burnheim

Scrap attempts to reforming politics as a whole. From a practical point of view attempts to do so by legal constitutional change have no possibility of succeeding from a theoretical point of view, it is folly to assume that if we agree broadly about principle and are motivated to act we will reach a practical agreement. As soon as you analyse the range of possibilities that emerge once one envisages ways of putting all those abstract principles into practice, the more one runs into a host of incompatible proposals. Especially between rigorists who think that their proposal is the only acceptable way of achieving justice, freedom, people power or whatever, and those who insist on a fluid pragmatic approach. The fact is that up to a point both may be viable if only we could choose to follow a particular proposal consistently. But people will not, cannot, arrive at such an agreement if they start from first principles.

We must start from where we are and what precisely we are doing to achieve what we are supposed to be doing. So the first step is careful auditing. That makes clear failures of two sorts: first detecting various kinds of failure to face up to known and recognised needs and rules, and second to recognise ways in which actually following the recognised aims and procedures has effects that are unacceptable to some legitimate interests or preventing pursuit of possibilities. There are already many competent’s and well established bodies that carry out such auditing in the interest of these various public and private instrumentalities. But in both private and public instances they operate primarily in the interests of those who have power and the bodies that employ them rather than the public interest, traditionally to see that firms and other organisations do not suffer from internal fraud or suffer inefficiency. Even in the case of government agencies this often takes the form of defending activities that are contrary to the public interest or obfuscating what is being done.

So the scope and standards of organisations of all sorts, need to be audited. This task needs to be much more sensitive to the details, much more specific than current debate which is framed by party politics. My view is that while it’s no panacea, it is likely to be a very effective role for specialised committees of citizens chosen by sortition. I also think that sortition for very specialised tasks is the way forward for many public activities. Don’t concentrate on what juries can’t do, but on instances where they are likely to do something useful.

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1 Response to The Road to Political Reform Based on Sortition: Guest Post by John Burnheim

  1. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Hi John and thanks for your post,

    As this was written in response to your being told that I was peddling constitutional reform, I’ll respond. I fear that you’ve misinterpreted me.

    As I’ve said to you before, I have little faith in any sense that there is one true way to introduce sortition into politics and public life. As I’ve said to you previously in correspondence, my own view is better described as this: There are three ‘poles’ of democracy. Direct democracy is one way to do democracy – but it’s both impractical and ill-advised even as an ideal in my view.  This leaves representative democracy and I can think of two very different ways of selecting representatives. Competitively through elections and via sortition.

    My entire program revolves around finding whatever ways might be possible to inject the latter into a system dominated by the former – whether those ways are large or small.

    I don’t believe there is one true way to do this. It might be possible for me to identify wrong ways of doing it if I saw them, but I’m not in pursuit of a right way. I’m only in pursuit of opportunities which seem promising.

    illustrated my talk – which you should be able to see in due course – with the example of a citizens’ assembly. I also indicated that, as I argued here we need to develop an activism of sortition which – I’ll spell out further here, is precisely dedicated to these two propositions. 

    1. I want representation by sortition to come into collision with electoral representation so that it can directly challenge it. A great many advocates of sortition seem to me to be caught up in the process of seeking support from those holding the existing reins of power. This is one strategy which I don’t deprecate, but I think there’s now scope for some to be more ambitious.
    2. There is no singular right way to do things, one can do them on any scale.

    It follows from 2 that there might be things one can do on a large scale. The main thing I’m interested in is in establishing a citizens’ assembly. This is NOT a constitutional one, but one that would be funded philanthropically. I expect as people saw it operating that it could be funded by crowdfunding. Such an assembly could be either a standing one – with personnel rotated as it was in the Athenian Boule and similar bodies. I would also encourage the idea – as we do in legal juries – that a simple majority of such a body was not of any great significance but that a super-majority was. I have little doubt that a super-majority would have disapproved of the Abbott Government’s abolition of carbon pricing – which is now costing the budget over $10 billion every year. And I have little doubt that, if it did, this would have been influential on the rest of the system.

    As you may know I’ve also tried to represent citizens’ juries as means of generating insight into the considered opinion of the people and to try to send it into battle against the existing system as for instance in this column proposing a Brexit Deliberation Day.

    The other thing I was trying to get done before COVID struck was to get two citizens’ assemblies running in Australia and the US to enable them to depute a sub-set of their number to send a ‘people’s delegation’ to Glasgow’s Conference of the Parties that would operate as a parallel delegation to these countries’ government-appointed delegations. Of course, they’d have no official status, but that would be part of the point. They’d be more representative of their people than the government-appointed delegations. I think it could have established the value of sortition in the public mind in a very conspicuous and compelling way.
    You may be aghast at such plans, I don’t know. I could certainly list some possible objections. But, as I’ve said before, I find your own proposals simply devoid of any chance of practical progress whatever.

    Because I have the highest regard for you, and am a great believer in the fallibility of my own and everyone else’s ability to work out what the right thing to do is, I have strained to believe that I am wrong about this. That there might be something in what you write. I certainly believe there is in an intellectual sense.
    But to me anyway, your proposal is from another time. These were the kinds of ideas about expertise that were at their apogee in the late 1960s. Robert McNamara used them to escalate and lose the Vienam War and Australian economic reformers in the Tariff Board and then the Industries Assistance Commission used them to dream that they could build a model of pretty much everything that needed to be known about Australian economics and demography to work out what to do in any given circumstance.

    I know you have no such top-down driven fantasies, but the sociology of knowledge that’s implied in your approach seems to me to come from an earlier time – when it was possible. It proposes that expertise can slowly emerge from expert and lay dialogue. Today this idea has been ‘overtaken by events’ as they say. It is barely a player in the production of knowledge – at least it isn’t recognised by the commanding heights which are dissolving the autonomy of such systems in favour of a new scholasticism. Even in schools and child care centres, those trying to do their jobs are harried by managerial regimes that obliterate the lifeworld and smash it into metrics.

    I’ve written about the farce that academia has become – with academics treated as lab rats in a Skinner box and put through their paces with one academic’s publication metrics lined up against another, while my Troppo colleague Paul Frijters is if anything even more despairing.

    So people can beaver away in the kind of groups that I think you envisage (though I would be interested to hear detailed examples of what you have in mind). They can ‘audit’ them. It’s also conceivable that a few of them could, over a long period of time, build some tradition and become efficacious in some way. But I find it very hard to believe that they could withstand the first contact with a bit of political or commercial grapeshot.

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