Ingeborg van Teeseling

Heading south: Fixing our disinterest toward democracy

Approx Reading Time-12After Trump’s victory in New Hampshire and Baird’s recent trip, Ingeborg van Teeseling looks at ways the voting public can fix democracy.

 

It has become the accepted idea in almost every newspaper in the world: that “the people” have given up on politics and even on democracy. This is why we, the people, are apparently attracted to “anti-politicians” like Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Clive Palmer, Geert Wilders and UKIP’s Nigel Farage. To me, this doesn’t make any sense. If people are fed up with political systems which are run by white, middle-class males with money and power, then why would they be enamoured with these obviously white, middle-class males with money and power? Why would we think they are capable, or even motivated, to give us an alternative to the system we’ve already got, run by the same kind of people? We can’t be that stupid, surely?

Personally, I don’t think that politicians are necessarily the problem. Yes, I know, Australians love whinging about them. Go online (or into a pub) and you’ll hear the standard criticisms: they are only interested in themselves, making money and keeping their jobs; they are in the pockets of the big end of town; they don’t listen to us; they have no idea about the “real world.” Of course, we have been complaining about politicians since the inception of this country, and even before. In Australia, there has always been, as writer Michael McGirr once said, a “tension between those in office and those in power.” Those in office were the governors, those in power the big land holders and officers of the NSW Corps. That was more-or-less accepted by the citizenry, because there were no voting rights yet and most of them were not necessarily schooled, in democracy or anything else.

Obviously, that has changed. Not only can we all vote (in fact, it is compulsory), but most of us have enough education to have opinions on just about everything. The thing with opinions is that you want to sprout them and be heard doing it. In fact, we measure respect by how well we are listened to. And we quantify that by actions: if I tell my significant other that it would be good if he put the garbage out, I expect him to actually do that, not just nod and tell me he has heard what I had to say.

This, I think, is the problem with what people have dubbed “the democracy crisis.” Now we’re all educated, we want to be listened to. And we want politicians to act on what we say. Because we also live in an age where everything has to be done right here, right now; we want action to happen immediately. Also, we don’t want to negotiate or listen to other people. Twitter has given us the prerogative to slag off others who disagree with us, call them idiots and then go on to the next slogan, demolishing somebody else. We have become experts in blame, not, unfortunately, schooled in coming up with alternatives or having open discussions. In this climate, politicians are fair game, because they are visible and, funnily enough, vulnerable. They have no right of reply; they can’t say the voters are stupid, impatient crazies, who have no idea how democracy works, because then they will lose their jobs. The prevailing idea here is that the people are always right – even if they don’t know what they are talking about.

So if we want to be heard, we have to do more than lazily criticise the system and turn to people who pretend to agree with us, but demonstrably don’t, like Trump and Palmer. We can complain about democracy all we want, but we also have to realise that Churchill was right when he said that “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” That does not mean that the system can not be improved upon. It can. Let me give you some examples. Recently, the New Democracy Foundation launched the idea of a Citizens’ Senate. As far as I understand it, it is fairly revolutionary, and therefore maybe a bit scary, for a country that has never gotten over Eureka. But bear with me. The plan is to replace the Senate with a new House of Review. Every adult in the country would be eligible for selection and the idea is to come up with a group that is representative of the nation, according to age, gender, income and background. Those people will serve for a period of one year, during which they will be paid a salary of twice the average wage. This new House will have reduced responsibilities: they will only approve or veto legislation, but they will also be the only power in charge of redrawing electoral boundaries. After the House has been sent a Bill by the House of Representatives, a review committee will be drawn by lot from among the “Senators.” These people will work as a forum, discussing the merits of the Bill. They can hold public hearings, hear expert testimony, take submissions and openly discuss what they think. Then they report back to the House as a whole, after which the Bill will be voted on. Because everybody votes individually, there will be no party lines. A simple majority will be enough.

The advantages seem obvious to me. First of all, there will be a different style of public discussion, which is much less partisan and therefore less adversarial. Because there will be no parties in this House, there will also be no party discipline, meaning people will always vote according to their conscience and best knowledge. Citizens will finally really understand what it takes to run a country, and how complex certain issues can be. This will lead to more appreciation of politicians, who, in turn, are also forced to listen to the citizens, because they need them to govern on a day-to-day basis. It will educate the citizenry out of easy pub-style opinions and make sure that different perspectives and experiences are heard and acted upon. There will be less frustration and sense of disenfranchisement, because if you want to be involved, you can be. You don’t have to be a member of a party or sell your mining employees down the river to fund your campaign either, which is another positive. The extra plus is that when it comes to voting for the House of Representatives, “we the people” will hopefully do that with more knowledge and insight. And because we will be trained to view this country as a community, we might even be more able to stop yelling our opinions and start listing to others.

If a Citizens’ Senate is a step too far, then maybe we can look at South Australia for a moment. Always a forerunner in democratic reform, this State has now introduced so-called Citizens’ Juries. Last year, the South Australian government decided to “change the way democracy is done in SA.” Three different initiatives were put in place. First there is the Country Cabinet, where the Premier and his Cabinet travel the State and meet with people in a particular area, to hear about their problems and what they want to do about them. Secondly, there is YourSay: every citizen can go online, to register their interest to be involved in influencing government decisions. They pick a topic from the extensive list (from improving river health, discrimination, food trucks, women’s safety, active ageing, small business, litter control and late night drinking to red tape reduction and work safety) and write down their opinion and suggestions. They can also request a meeting or a phone call with the decision makers, participate in online discussions and vote online. So far, 35,000 people have already signed up. Lastly, there are the Citizens’ Juries. In 2015, there were three of them: a group of randomly selected, but representative residents, who debated one issue. They were assisted by an independent moderator, volunteers to do research for them and expert witnesses from different sides of the dilemma. The problems were not huge, but big enough: dog and cat management, sharing roads safely and Adelaide’s nightlife. In all three cases, the groups delivered a report with recommendations. And in all three cases, the South Australian government has responded by implementing most of those ideas.

Apart from the Pitcairn Islands, where the female descendants of the Bounty Mutineers were given suffrage from 1838, and Norfolk Island, where they arrived at the same conclusion in 1856, South Australia was the first State in Australia where women could vote. Since that time, 1895, the rest of us have followed. I think it would be good if we took South Australia’s lead again in fixing our democracy. It is time we actively used our improved educations, stopped complaining and accepted the challenge. As Barack Obama is fond of saying: citizenship has a price. With rights come responsibilities. The will of the people also has to involve the work of the people. Then we can forget about Trump and Palmer and run ourselves.

Wouldn’t that be something?!

 

Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She endeavours to explain Australia to migrants new and old at her website www.australia-explained.com.au, and runs www.lifebooks.com.au, telling people's life stories.

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