Political parties are responding in the same old, tired, ways. Less than a week before 15 September the UK Labour Party elected a new leader, Jeremy Corbyn – a radical left-winger that some within the party fear will mean the demise of the party. Meanwhile just the night before the Day of Democracy, the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbot, was challenged for his leadership by Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull won and so Australia now has a new Prime Minister.
This is how political parties respond to challenges and issues. Change the leader, rearrange the cabinet, or shuffle the front bench. But all that does is change the players, it does nothing to change the system. Systems thinking tells us that changing the components of a system is the weakest method of bringing about the change we need. It is akin to changing the tyres on an old, beat-up, rusty car. You may have bright shiny new tyres but you still have the same car.
In similar fashion our electoral representative democracy continues to give us:
- an adversarial system where politicians often appear more interested in personal point-scoring than in dealing with the issues.
- a parliament, or senate, or council, that is less and less representative of the diversity within the population as a whole.
- a system that is open to manipulation by powerful and rich vested interests and lobby groups.
It is time for us to give up our dependence upon electoral representative democracy. It is, after all, simply a human construct. There is nothing sacrosanct or inherently absolute about it. It can be improved.
We could try something really simple. We could try something really fair. We could try something really random. We could try selecting our representatives by lot. As soon as this notion is suggested hands are thrown up in the air and shouts of “ludicrous,” “impossible,” or “unworkable” are heard.
But it has been done. The very cradle of democracy, Athens, utilised the selection of decision-makers by lot more often than they did the mechanism of the vote. This blogsite has written about the Athenian democracy previously.
More recently we have seen a couple of examples of the use of random selection (known as sortition) in politics.
The constitutional reform in Ireland that allows for same-sex marriage is now well known. Perhaps what is less well known is the path that led to this momentous decision.
At the heart of it was sortition. Following the 2008-09 economic crisis the Irish people called for constitutional reform. The Irish Constitutional Convention (ICC) was established to consider eight topics for constitutional reform – marriage equality the most notable. The membership of the ICC was made up of 100 individuals, one-third of them members of parliament, but the other two-thirds Irish citizens chosen at random. None of these ordinary citizens were there because of vested interest, lobby groups or political affiliation. They were there as representatives of the demos – the ordinary citizen. And all citizens had the chance of being selected. They did not need to be famous, rich, or great orators.
It was from the ICC that the matter of marriage equality was put on the ballot paper that Ireland then voted on.
In Belgium many senior politicians are supporting a move to introduce sortition into the Belgian Senate. Sortition is gaining support from all sectors of the political spectrum. A former socialist vice-prime minister, Laurette Onkelinx, contends that “traditional politics is ailing and new ways have to be considered.”
A current member of the ruling right of centre party, the Reform Movement, notes that “we need to go directly to the people and hear their positions – and sortition is the way.”
Peter Vanvelthoven, a former labour minister, is also supportive, noting that political decision-making needs greater diversity than it presently achieves and that “the pure democratic idea requires more participation of the citizens in decision making – beyond casting one vote in an election once every four years.”
In those two examples we see some of the benefits that sortition can bring, and the means by which the three obstacles mentioned above can be overcome.
- in Ireland the discussion in the ICC was of a more deliberative nature than an adversarial one. Those chosen by lot do not bring a vested interest or party line to the table and hence, are more likely to enter into true dialogue than adversarial debate.
- The Belgian politicians are recognising that their present Senate is not representing the populace, whereas sortition offers a means by which greater representation could be achieved.
- The ICC achieved a high level of agreement because those chosen to be representatives arrived without pre-existing “positions” and were un-aligned to political parties, vested interests, or lobby groups. They were there as citizens, as representatives of the demos.