Nicholas Ross Smith: The problem with elections

We need to break through the prevalent elitism which casts ordinary people as being too stupid to have any productive role in politics writes the University of Canterbury's Dr Nicholas Ross Smith

Rachel Stewart’s column on the 26th of April titled ‘Are we in the dying days of democracy?’ has sparked some vigorous debate. Some have joined her, probably galvanised by Max Harris’ recent book, in bemoaning our current democratic situation while others, most notably Victoria University Professor Jack Vowles, have come to the defence of our system.

The problem with both sides of this debate right now is that it has mostly occurred within the parameters of our current system. On one side, you have those that would change absolutely nothing about our system, and, on the other, the major solutions touted - ranging from more referendums, better media and education, lowering the voting age or the MMP threshold, to even the idea of focusing on love – are superficial and do not entail any real systemic change.

Bluntly, any system of government which has elections as the centrepiece of its popular participation is inherently flawed.

Elections reward candidates with power, status, and money while also enabling interest groups to influence candidates. Elections also entrench political parties in our politics which in turn creates partisanship and reduces the potential for compromise. Lastly, elections naturally encourage populism and demagoguery as candidates and political parties compete to win votes.

In New Zealand, there is a prevailing myth that voting once every three years is sufficient democratic participation; summed up perfectly by Vowels’ lesson of “if you don’t vote, you don’t count”. This myth blinds us from arguably the key aspect of democracy: participation of the citizenry in the deliberation and decision-making of policy. The Classical Athenians were well aware of the negative effect of elections - which they saw as a fast-track to oligarchy – and rather emphasised the role of citizens in the everyday running of the state.

The Athenians used a lottery system called sortition to randomly select citizens from the Ekklesia (an assembly open to all citizens) to the Boule – a council which prepared the agenda to be discussed by the Ekklesia – and to the Heliaea – a court which judged infringements of the law. Elections were used only to select magistrates who presided over military, economic and societal affairs. Furthermore, these elections were strongly scrutinised by the Boule and Heliaea.

The benefits of a system based on the deliberation and decision-making of ordinary citizens randomly selected by lotteries are many. It is fairer than voting because it removes the privilege of those with power, status, and money and produces an unbiased cross-section of society (it does not discriminate against gender, ethnicity, or sexuality). Furthermore, without specific candidates to target, interest groups would lose influence. Also, the negative role of party politics, partisanship, and populism would be moderated by face-to-face interactions of individuals loyal to their own conscience (not their party).

Perhaps most importantly, if ordinary citizens start believing they can influence decision-making on a regular basis, not just by voting every few years, then the rational ignorance which has taken hold and ushered in an age of post-truth politics will start to dissipate. However, for this to happen, we need to break through the prevalent elitism which casts ordinary people as being too stupid to have any productive role in politics. This view has aided the rise of oligarchies all over the West, including New Zealand.

Of course, many questions arise as to how we could legally and practically implement a democratic system that prioritises the deliberation and decision-making of ordinary citizens (through sortition). Given how many times popular revolutions have derailed or backfired, the common-sense approach would be to push for evolution by focusing on achieving modest baby steps first. Two areas of New Zealand politics are ripe for bringing in citizens: the constitutional level and the council level.

"Bluntly, any system of government which has elections as the centrepiece of its popular participation is inherently flawed."

Although New Zealand does not have a codified constitution, we do have a constitution of sorts which is comprised of the key pieces of legislation, legal documents, court decisions, and conventions. What a citizens’ assembly of random New Zealanders selected by sortition could do is act as a steering committee for the grand referenda topics New Zealand should address. So instead of John Key deciding New Zealand needs a flag referendum, ordinary citizens would deliberate and decide what topics are worthy of such an event.

Ireland’s experimentations with such an assembly have won it a lot of praise recently. Their referendum on gay marriage in 2015 which saw it legalised came about because it was selected by the assembly. Ireland has long been known for its conservatism and the power of its Catholic Church. For instance, divorce was illegal until 1996. This shows how the citizens’ assembly was able to circumvent a corrupting force against democracy – in this case, the Catholic lobby – and foster a truly democratic outcome.

At the other end of the scale, the use of sortition at the local, council level would be a way of revitalising an area of politics which has lost all relevance to the ordinary citizen. Our councils suffer from glaring democratic deficits – most notably along gender and ethnic lines – and low voter turnout, which leaves largely unaccountable cartels in charge. Instead, we could select citizens’ juries (smaller than an assembly) of random locals who would then deliberate and decide key issues at the council level, such as the budget or specific regulations.

Australia is far ahead of us in this regard. Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, among plenty others, have all used citizens’ juries over the past five years in a variety of capacities. Perhaps the most notable has been Melbourne’s use of a citizens’ jury to facilitate the finalisation of its 10-year budget. A jury comprised of 43 randomly selected citizens, meeting over a six-week period, deliberated on and agreed a new budget. The outcome was called a "clear, sensible verdict about priority projects, services, revenue and spending" by a local expert.

In an age where democracy is seemingly dying, re-emphasising the demos, even by just undertaking modest steps as suggested above, is surely the path we have to take to reinvigorate our democracy. Otherwise, no matter what superficial adjustments we make, we will continue to live in an oligarchy masquerading as a democracy.  

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