Can we do democracy better?

IT'S COMPLEX: Maybe it’s the system for decision-making that needs to change? Illustration: Jim Pavlidis
IT'S COMPLEX: Maybe it’s the system for decision-making that needs to change? Illustration: Jim Pavlidis

Whether it’s picking up the paper in the morning or watching the news at night, it is becoming predictable that you will see a political decision that makes you throw your arms in the air and wonder how something so crazy could occur.

But every decision you see is entirely “rational”.  It may not be rational in the sense that it’s a good long-term decision or a great way to spend your money.  But it may be very rational if you are a politician, or a politically-appointed bureaucrat, and that your main job is to win and retain office.

Wouldn’t we do exactly the same thing? That’s not to say we should accept it. But maybe politicians are the wrong target. Maybe it’s the system for decision-making that needs to change.

The newDemocracy Foundation wants people to not just complain about the way things are, but instead ask what you would do about it.

Let’s look at some of the public institutions that enjoy our trust. The criminal jury system is high on the list. Even if you disagree with a verdict, your mind doesn’t rush to thinking that ‘the fix was in’, that someone had the right contact inside the system, that they gave a donation to a particular side or had a friend in the media pushing a line. What we are likely to think is that a group of people from all walks of life looked at all the evidence, talked with each other to work out which evidence was most compelling, then found common ground with regard to a verdict. Now repeat this exercise about land being rezoned and my guess is your answers will be different.

Time after time, we find communities becoming fractured and bogged down in arguments dominated by polarised opinions.

I often hear that elections are the only way to keep people accountable. But sometimes our election-based democratic processes just can’t handle complex issues. The process of voting can actually get in the way of public decision-making that earns public trust. We need to design a complementary approach that works in tandem with our elected representatives to help leaders lead.

newDemocracy was founded a decade ago by philanthropist Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, and is supported by a range of ‘wise heads’ from across the political spectrum, including former premiers (Nick Greiner, Geoff Gallop, Campbell Newman), and business and community leaders.

newDemocracy has promoted the use of ‘Citizen Juries’ based on a random sample of the community, with members coming together to explore the complexities of difficult decisions. They then devise solutions that are more acceptable to the community than a ‘winner takes all’ outcome that just fosters frustration, anger and bitterness in the community.

The Foundation has worked with multiple governments and government agencies, in Victoria, Queensland and South Australia.  Ironically, we have conducted less work in our home state of NSW, and yet the need for this approach seems clear. 

Our goal is that you can pick up the newspaper to see the latest news and simply think “well that’s fair enough”. Our public institutions can change, and the first government to do so will draw global attention. The logical place to start is with a local council. Do you want to see democratic innovations trialled in Newcastle? If so, start asking for it.

Iain Walker is executive director of the newDemocracy Foundation. He will be speaking at a Newcastle Institute Public Forum at Souths Leagues Club at 6pm on Wednesday, October 11.