March 28, 2021

Article at Tim on Authory

Voices of Mackellar: talk given at Newport RSL, 24 March 2021

This is (more or less) a transcript of a talk I gave for the organisation, Voices of Mackellar, their first major public event as they try and follow in the footsteps of other Voices Of movements around the country. The fact that I was born in Avalon, which is in the electorate of Mackellar, added a nice element to the evening.

Avalon Beach
Avalon Beach


Hi Everyone,

I understand this evening is a bit of thank you by the organisers to all those who helped get VoM off the ground, and so I wanted to talk a little tonight in terms of the sort of work you are doing.

I wanted to put it in the context of democracy more generally.

What do we actually mean when we talk about being a democratic country?

It seems obvious, but I think we forget some basic things.

There are more than 20 organisations in Australia, like VoM, trying to find good independents to represent them in federal parliament, and this is something new in our politics.

Especially from the conservative side of the aisle.

The push for independents has had some success, and we have what appears to be a growing number of crossbenchers.

These include Andrew Wilkie from Tasmania, Helen Haines from Indi in Victoria, of course, Zali Steggall from your sister electorate of Warringah.

They are people who represent voters in a way that those voters feel better represents their values than if they were attached to one of the major parties.

And that notion of values is, I think, at the heart of what is happening.

Because let’s think about what democracy is. Let’s think about how voting and parties work and why we even have them. And let’s ask, are they the best way to achieve the sort of democracy we need?

Are they really servants of democracy?

It is interesting to note that parties as such are not mentioned in the constitutions of any major democracy. Not in ours, or in the American, the French, the Canadian.

Parties can be useful, and they can help organise our politics, which is inherently messy, particularly the legislative branch of government, the electoral side of things, and they can bring some unity and simplification to the complexity of governance.

But they can also bring a sort of stasis to our politics. An inertia that makes it hard to get things done.

This is why we have to remember that parties themselves are not a foundational part of democratic governance.

They are just one way of organising politicians.

I think it is also important to remember that just as parties are not essential to democracy, neither is voting.

This is a slightly more controversial but let me explain.

The Ancient Greeks, the very people who invented democracy, didn’t vote for representatives. Voting only became normal in democracies around the times of the French and American revolutions, centuries after democracy itself first emerged.

Why didn’t the Greeks votes?

The essence of democracy is self-rule. The word itself mean rule by the people, by the Demos.

The Ancient Greeks, like most nations, had restrictions on who could participate in politics—slaves and women were excluded, for example, as they were in the US. Women were only able to vote in Britain from 1918, in Switzerland it was 1971.

In Ancient Greece, the idea of democracy as self-rule, of rule by citizens, meant that everyone got a turn at governing.

Every eligible citizen got a turn.

And this wasn’t decided by voting, but by lottery.

They literally drew names out of a hat (or actually, numbers out of a KLEROTERIA)

(The technical for this is sortition, meaning, to sort.)

Voting was used for some office holders, including generals, and was used to decide policy, but it was not an essential part of democracy itself.

Everyone got a turn to govern.

That was the essence of self-rule.

Once you make voting central to democracy, it means our democracies are less about self-rule and more about representation.

We stop ruling in our own right, as citizens, and outsource the role of governance to what we call our representatives.

They are not us, but they are standing in for us.

Don’t get the wrong idea here!

I think voting and elections are really important given the way our democracies are currently organised, but my bigger point is that democracy doesn’t stop once we vote.

We get to involve ourselves in, and agitate and deliberate, as much as we need to between elections as well.

Most politicians don’t want us to do this. In fact, someone like Scott Morrison tries to make a virtue of what he calls the quiet Australians, just as Richard Nixon in America once talked about the silent majority.

Often, because of this, our participation is limited to showing up to vote once every three years, and the rest of the time we are meant to be quiet.

I’m sorry, but that’s not how a democracy should work.

My point is, once you have parties involved in politics, once you move away from self-rule to representative rule, you end up with a lot of other intervening structures between citizens and government.

Parties can be captured by special interests, by donors, by other people of influence, and that necessarily means other voices are excluded, and unless parties guard against that, they risk becoming the opposite of what they should be.

Not a broad church but a narrow faction.

This was precisely why the Ancient Greeks didn’t go along with voting.

Aristotle himself said, ‘It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election.’

Such capture doesn’t necessarily happen on every issue, but it can happen on key issues like climate change.

And this means that you can have the best, most enlightened local member when it comes to climate change, but at the end of the day, because they are a member of a party, they will have to vote the way the party wants them to vote.

At the moment, even the most enlightened climate change member of the federal Liberal Party will vote the same way as Barnaby Joyce.

Our representatives first and foremost represent their party, whichever one it is.

Another upshot of party control is that our parliaments don’t look like us. They are not representative.

So, whereas less than 1 per cent of Australians work as political consultants or lobbyists, such operatives make up a disproportionate 11.9 per cent of parliament. Party and union administrators are also a vanishingly small part of the general population (again, less than 1 per cent) but they make up 8.4 per cent of parliament.

On the other hand, nurses make up 2.1 per cent of working Australians (there are 220,000 of them), but there is precisely one former nurse in parliament. Tradespeople are 13.5 per cent and teachers 3.5 per cent of the general population, but each constitutes just 0.4 per cent of parliament.

In terms of ethnicity and gender, it is even more marked: 6 per cent of parliamentarians come from non-English-speaking backgrounds compared to 23 per cent for the rest of us. Women may hold up half the sky, but they make up just 29 per cent of the House of Representatives and 39 per cent of the Senate. Labor is 44 per cent women to 56 per cent men – a good result achieved with a quota system – while the Coalition runs at an embarrassing 20 per cent to 80 per cent.

In other words, our institutions of democracy have an almost inbuilt bias in the sort of people who get to represent us in parliament.

And then there are the voting systems themselves, the way we count votes and allocate seats. The type of electoral system we have further distorts how governments are formed and who is elected.

In many ways, I think Australia is extremely well served by its electoral system, and one the great, but most underrated treasures of our political system is the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC).

They ensure that electorates themselves are fairly drawn, and you only have to compare what happens here with what happens in the US to see how lucky we are.

The AEC is independent, beholden to no party. They draw boundaries based on census data.

In the US, State Governments draw federal boundaries, and that means the ruling parties in each state get to draw the electoral map, which is why US politics is plagued with gerrymandered seats.

Nonetheless, in terms of actual representation, we in Australia have our problems.

Take the recent WA state election which Labor, under Mark McGowan, won in a landslide.

Because they use a preferential voting system, where the person who gets fifty per cent of the votes plus one wins a seat, Labor ended up with 53 of the 59 lower house seats. The Libs have two and the (non-Coalition) National Party have four.

This is not a good democratic outcome. It gives way too much power to one party. And the problem becomes obvious when you look at the result in terms of percentages.

Labor actually won 66% of the vote, which is a thumping win in anyone’s language, but under the current electoral system, they ended up with almost 90% of the seats.

As Ben Oquist noted in The Canberra Times, if WA used the same proportional voting system that is used in the ACT, WA Labor would still have a big majority, but the Liberals, who actually received 22% of the vote, would likely have got 13 seats.

In the ACT, although they have had a Labor government for 20-odd years, they have at least produced assemblies that come very close to representing the way people have voted.

At the last territory election, the Canberra Liberals won 36 per cent of the seats from a primary vote of 34 per cent. That is a pretty fair outcome.

So, all these things: the party system, the type of voting system that a particular jurisdiction uses, and voting itself as a way of choosing representatives, all put some distance, distort in some way, the idea of democracy as self-rule, of us as citizens being able to govern ourselves.

Now, I’m not suggesting we replace voting with a lottery, though it is interesting to note that some governments around the world are doing just that, in the German-speaking part of Belgium for example.

We already use random selection for juries, and juries are a corner stone of the ‘rule of law’ we are hearing so much about these days.

Juries work because jurors are not lawyers or judges – they are peers of the accused – and it is precisely their lack of expertise that is being sought, an ability to reach a conclusion that the society they represent is likely to accept. 

This is not to ignore the need for expertise, but the guideline we should use is: experts for means, citizens for ends.

In other words, we could easily make better use of citizens assemblies, or if you prefer the name, citizens juries, gatherings of ordinary people on a random basis who decide what course a particular policy could take.

They, rather than politicians, could hear from the experts, discuss it amongst themselves, and vote for a particular outcome.

The politicians would then be obliged to find the best way to implement that policy.

What has stunned me over the last twenty years or so that I have been looking at different ideas about citizens assemblies is that the people who have been involved with them come away, not just better informed on the issues, but having had a really valuable personal experience.

I’ve seen it time after time. When people take control of their political life, they actually get renewed faith in not just their country but themselves.

The great political philosopher Hannah Arendt reminds us that the pursuit of happiness mentioned in the US Constitution was not simply about the pursuit of private satisfaction, but of ‘public happiness’.

Arendt says, ‘No one…could be called … happy or free without participating, and having a share, in public power.’

Movements like Voices of Indi, Warringah and Mackellar, seem to me to be part of a movement that is not just looking for share in public power for its own sake, but to be part of something, to experience the sense of freedom that arises when we participate in our own governance.

Such participation is not always easy, is not always fun, but on a very deep level, it can be joyous, and I have always loved this quote from a participant in the citizens assembly (deliberative poll, as it was called) held in Canberra in 1999 on the question of Australia becoming a republic. He put it this way:

“Can I just say that as an elder citizen that I’ve been tremendously informed and stimulated by this gathering. I would just like to say how wonderfully I’ve seen the democratic process at work.”

When Ireland conducted a citizens' assembly about changing their constitution so as to allow women access to family planning services, a participant there said, “I’m almost sad it’s coming to an end. It’s been a life-changing experience for me.”

Go and talk to Louise Hislop, who is here tonight, one of the driving forces behind Voices for Warringah, and I think she will use similar words: life-changing, inspiring, even joyous.

And one last word.

Voices of McKellar may or may not succeed in unearthing their own Zali Steggall or Helen Haynes, and then get them elected, but simply participating in the process itself is a democratic good, a way of helping make our country better.

It is not a one-off event, but an ongoing process.

Remember, change always comes from the margins. The centre of power will always resist change and the institutions of power are built to maintain a status quo.

This can be a good thing, but at some point, all good things atrophy and need to change, and the centre will always resist that change.

Change always comes from the margins.

It also happens slowly, and then it happens fast.

Even when you feel discouraged, understand that you are moving the debate, even if it doesn’t seem like it.

Change feeds upon itself to create more change in the same direction. Movements build, and new ideas gain acceptance.

It can feel like nothing is happening until change suddenly seems to explode.

Look what happened with equal marriage.

Connect. Build your networks. Use all the tools you have available to you do that. Social media can help, but there is no substitute for face-to-face deliberation.

The real enemy is despair, and those who hold power will always try to demotivate you and play on that despair. You can’t let them.

There is a saying in systems analysis that says, “the person, or the people, with the least integrity have the most options - and therefore control the system…”

We have to break through that sort of cynicism and the best way to do that is together, as part of local movements that simply want better governance and won’t settle for less.

Change comes from the margins.

Voices of McKellar, I wish you every success. Thanks for having me here tonight in this beautiful part of the world, my hometown.


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