Musings on Pure Democracy After the Election

Well, with the election over, we've finally seen an end to those nauseating election campaign advertisements. Yaay! However, the election has got me thinking about government, power and that whole Democracy thing.

In Australia, we enjoy a Representative Democracy, one where a group of representatives, elected by the masses act for the good of the nation. Supposedly. Ask most people and they'll swear that politicians don't do what they would like, and they're all bastards. This is, of course, somewhat odd, considering that the politicians are there to represent them.

A Representative Democracy has a variety of problems - politicians can misrepresent their constituents, they can be self-serving in their own interests, they can be ill-informed and make incorrect decisions. An issue that I had not realised until today was the fact that, in a Representative Democracy, an election can easily become a popularity contest - not a content of the actual merits of each side of Government.

Regardless of political standpoint, I believe that the recent Australian election had no alternative outcome. Why? Because I don't believe that it it was an election between two differing ideas of Government, or policies, but rather it was an election about the popularity of Rudd vs Howard (or Rudd vs Costello, whichever way you want to look). I posit that any politician who has been in power for 11 years has had considerable time to attract a "critical mass" of public opponents (it doesn't take much to piss people off), regardless of policies or performance. Whether Howard's policies were good or bad, I believe that this critical mass was going to take the Liberal party out of power regardless of anything that may have been done by either party.

This isn't a discussion of the merits of each side of government's policies (after all, it's been said that the election promises were very similar anyway) but rather on whether the way the election was carried out sits OK with us all. (As an aside, no, I'm not accusing either party of being as bad as Hitler, regardless of the Wikipedia content :P) In my eyes, it turned into an election to decide which politician's personality is better, and which we'd rather deal with for a while. It seemed to me that key parts of the Labor campaign hinged not on policy, but on personalizing a vote for the Liberal Party as a vote for the unpopular Costello. Other parties did the same (although perhaps not quite as blatantly as the ALP did, in my opinion) by using the Union movement as a scare tactic against the ALP. This is

We effectively had an election as farcical as watching a group of 8 year olds pick their team for sport, or one of those crazy blind-date shows where the woman asks the guys a few questions to decide which one she will have and hold.

I'm not particularly phased by the change of government, however I do believe very strongly that choosing a government based upon the personality of the figureheads is no way to run a country.

However, in the title I alluded to Pure Democracy.

A differing system of Democracy, one that is rarely used, is that of Direct Democracy (Pure Democracy). In this system, the people themselves are given the power to vote on laws. It tends to be championed somewhat as a cure for self-interested politicians, and giving power back to the people. Switzerland is one such country - could we learn something from them?

Whilst I certainly believe that pure democracy goes a fair way to easing these sorts of problems that we see in government, I don't believe that pure democracy would fix things entirely. For one, pure democracy offers no way to protect the nation from an election being personality driven rather than policy driven. Just as parties advertise heavily before an election with messages filled with FUD and trying to stir up emotion, so too can this happen with important laws in a pure democracy. Any form of government breaks down when people start making decisions without thinking about them adequately.

So a solution? Not a solution per se, but perhaps a refinement, or a melding of the features of both.

Firstly, I believe that that politicians and political parties are indispensable - it is unreasonable for us to expect that the public have enough time (or attention, or intelligence) to take part in every law that is discussed. Similarly, an uneducated decision is worse than no decision, and so any solution must protect the nation from the inherent stupidity (or apathy) of the masses.

However, we must make these politicians and political parties accountable for their actions and their promises. If we elect a party on a promise, they are expected to hold up to those promises they were elected on. This played a big role in this recent election, and for good reason. I don't really know how best to ensure this is done, but I have a few ideas.

A rather extreme solution to this may be to have politicians salaries dependant on how completely they fulfil their core promises in each year. I do not mind if you under promise and over deliver (or even under promise and barely meet that promise), however it becomes a problem when you under deliver. We would not accept a contractor under delivering on a contract, and yet we allow politicians (who are, in essence, working for us) to under deliver what they have quoted to be able to provide. Incidentally, I'm interested to see GetUp.org.au's Promise Watch which is doing something about holding them to their promises.

Secondly, I believe that we need to remove the personalities and emotions from politics, in order to prevent this kind of (for want of a better term) emotional gerrymandering. Whilst I don't believe this is ever entirely possible, I do believe that we can go to certain lengths to do ease the situation as it stands.

Just as things like The Political Compass can give you your position on the political scales based upon a series of questions, why could we not hold elections in a similar, questionnaire based manner? Given that each party and politician has a series of different policy decisions on similar topics, surely it would be possible to build a fairly simple questionnaire in order to gauge which issues are important and which outcomes are actually desired by the public. For example:

Education Funding:
( ) This is not important to me
(-) More money should be spent on Primary and Secondary education
( ) More money should be provided to teaching staff
( ) More money should be provided to Tertiary Institutions
Education Technology:
( ) This is not important to me
(-) Every student should receive a laptop computer for school use
( ) We should increase computers in schools
( ) Technology in education needs no reform

Where each answer has been provided by one or more politicians or party (condensed into one answer where appropriate).

In this way, there is no knowledge of which decision is related to which politician or party - it becomes an election purely based upon the outcomes that people want, rather than who the people choose. Also, the default answer of "This is not important to me" for each question would allow people to express their apathy without the catch of making a Donkey Vote.

The questionnaires could be done via post, electronically, via phone, on paper, or a combination of all these options (and others). Those that have the facility could vote electronically from home, whilst those without that facility can vote in public places similar to how we do now. With the correct security measures (and an open and transparent technology), I see no reason why this could be any less reliable than the rather lacklustre identity checks done at local polling places.

The election winner would be calculated by matching the votes for each outcome to the politician(s). In such a case, one questionnaire may award partial votes to a variety of politicians. Eventually, one politician would be found to be the most preferred, and would be elected. If you were to adopt the "performance based" salary as I suggested above, this process would also the calculation of which issues are of most importance, and so the effect they will have upon their salary.

There are other benefits to this approach too:
  • election advertising becomes about the issues not about politicians with fake smiles kissing babies;
  • people actually get a say in the issues and outcomes that are important to them, rather than having to pick from a group of politicians where (chances are good) they don't agree entirely with any of them;
  • there is an active reason for parties to educate the public on issues, rather than using FUD to scare them, or make them vote emotively. This fact can then be verified and undergo scrutiny by educators, action groups, etc.;
  • the possibility of lower costs, as much of the polling could be done electronically via the Internet or phone;
  • less likely to be heckled by those insanely irritating people that yell at you brandishing flyers on election day.

Do I believe this is a perfect solution? Hell no. However, I do believe it's another idea to throw into the mix, and that our current electoral system needs fine-tuning, if not an overhaul. We have the technology, we just need to use it cleverly.

I look forward to seeing what the next few years brings for this country. Let's hope it sees us well.