Adversarial or collaborative democracy?

By Andrew L. Urban

I was invited to attend this week’s Yaketi Yak organised by the Centre for Social Impact,  in which the ABC’s Peter Thompson interviewed Luca Belgiorno-Nettis about his ongoing search for a better system of democracy. Luca has been advocating for a more effective and less adversarial form of democracy for years, and I have been a keenly interested passenger on the journey. Democracy may be the ‘least bad’ form of government but our potently adversarial party politics is the ‘least good’ way of going about it – to put rather simplistically the thrust of what  newDemocracy Foundation (Luca’s forum) is advocating. “We don’t need better politicians. We need better systems,” they say.

Hosted (on June 14, 2012) by Luca at his Woollahra home, the event brought together two dozen or so interested parties, ranging from local Government members and executives to academics from universities and think tanks, some professionals as well as the ‘man in the street’, such as me.

During the formal on-camera interview (to be posted on theCSIwebsite) and afterwards during informal discussion, Luca articulated the questions he and his newDemocracy team have been posing for some years: Is there a better way to deliver democratic government than via party politics alone? Luca resists the temptation to set out the blueprint for a revolutionary new system, because that is not what the objective is. He and likeminded people are posing the questions – wishing to explore various alternatives, one of which is a citizens’ assembly. It’s not a power trip for Luca.

The most fundamental difference between party politics and a citizens’ assembly is, of course, that the latter is a gathering of randomly invited representatives from the community, not elected ones. The ramifications and the resulting behaviour patterns are huge. I ask you to contemplate those differences. Imagine that a group of say, 150, randomly invited citizens are required to come to a decision about a piece of public policy. Rational and informed arguments are put, backed by expert advice from public servants and specialists, so that the assembly may eventually vote on the matter.

As there are no party lines and no political baggage to weigh down the discussion, the assembly votes on the ‘evidence’ – much like a jury at a trial. (The trial jury is the last remnant of the original democratic assemblies.) We trust randomly selected/invited citizens to assess evidence in cases of life and death – we should trust them to assess information in matters of public policy.

One of the great advantages of such an assembly as an organ of deliberative democracy, is the absence of entrenched party positions, positions which can hardly be abandoned for fear of attack from the opposing party/ies on the grounds of hypocrisy. This defensive attitude often prevents evolution of policies, improvements in objectives, refinement of ideas.

Nobody, not Luca nor anyone else involved with the newDemocracy Foundation, argues for revolution, nor can change be expected to be sweeping. But trials and experiments with such a system of deliberative democracy have been successful and there is no logical reason not to trial the system with examples of policy that require and benefit from community involvement.

The CSI Yaketi Yak (a series of such events) showed that there is both intelligent discourse and interested engagement with the subject matter. For some time I have argued in these posts (eg ‘Labour distressing democracy’) that democracy is under attack – not always consciously. Sometimes, party politics generates decisions by politicians that are counter-democratic.

Luca’s view, that opposing political sides battling out ideas from fixed positions is an imperfect way of getting the best political outcomes, is appealing to me. There are those, of course, who maintain that our adversarial system ain’t broke … I beg to differ.

Let the discussion (the Yaketi Yak, as it were) continue – and gather momentum.

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One Response to Adversarial or collaborative democracy?

  1. Dominik says:

    An excellent idea. Who has the role of deciding when a citizen’s assembly is required, the terms of reference and scope of its discussion and what limitations are placed on its power? A president? an elected party?

    What about consistency within decision making for example an assembly who overturns stem cell research for ethical reasons may, a month later have this decision reversed by another assembly who deem it necessary to have stem cell research in pursuit of a growth policy in science to make us internationally competitive. Once these confusing decisions are made how does the industry function? Who do the stem cell industry complain to?

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