This one’s for you, Al

For quite some time now, regular commenter Al Loomis has been decrying representative democracy as no democracy at all, and extolling the Progressive alternative based on citizen’s initiative, referendum and recall. I don’t have a strong opinion on any of these, except that none would make enough of a difference for me to fight hard one way or the other.

The main reason I believe this is that all of these constitutional arrangements have been in place in California (along with some other US states) for many years, and my, admittedly casual, observation of that state suggests that it is no better governed than, say, Queensland. Moreover, to the extent that the special features of the Californian system have worked the results have been mixed at best.

As regards initiative and referendum, the most prominent instance is surely Proposition 13, which limited property taxes. While it’s no doubt an exaggeration to blame this measure for the decline of the California public school system, it’s pretty clear that this was a bad policy choice. That’s true even if you’re hostile to taxation, since the property tax loss has been made up in part by a range of other taxes and charges which yield less revenue but almost certainly more distortions.

The big example of recall was that of Gray Davis who was replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger. As far as I can see Davis was an adequate governor, as is Schwarzenegger, so my view that these provisions don’t make much of a difference is unshaken by this case, And even though these provisions date back to the early 20th century this was only the second time a governor had been recalled in US history.

Anyway, the purpose of this post is to let Al have his say, at any length he wants, on why adopting these provisions would transform Australia into a truly democratic society. As always, keep the discussion civilised, but within that constraint, I’d be keen to see some vigorous debate.

40 thoughts on “This one’s for you, Al

  1. Here’s the classic problem similar to offshoring with illegals, that is not solved by CIRs or indeed any a priori policy manual,23636,23270240-31037,00.html
    The problems are essentially similar with short term taxpayer pain for long term gain, namely deterrence. How you give the weighting to deterrence and hence bearing strictly uneconomic costs, depends entirely on how you view the overall problem you’re trying to deter. Ipso facto, this sort of conundrum can only be solved by a show of hands. That question still remains when and how.

  2. I don’t want to derail this discussion here, but merely to point out that on a strictly a priori rigid policy of not doing things that give clear and immediate economic returns, that might leave you up manure creek without any means of propulsion from time to time.

  3. I’m no expert, but wouldn’t Switzerland be a better example than California? — I have the impression that referendii are more ingrained as a default decision making device…

  4. As regards initiative and referendum, the most prominent instance is surely Proposition 13, which limited property taxes. While it’s no doubt an exaggeration to blame this measure for the decline of the California public school system, it’s pretty clear that this was a bad policy choice.

    I’m no fan of taxation but I’d have to agree that this aspect of direct democracy is troublesome. Proposition 98 was an unfortunate reaction to proposition 13. This is why I have never generally advocated CIRs for the intiation of legislation merely for repeal of existing legislation. Although I could happily propose some constitutional restraints on taxation of my own. For instance I think central governments should be fully dependent on regional governments for revenue pretty much like the EU is (although import duties are an exception in the EU example).

    And yes as Tom suggests Switzerland is probably the best case study in well structured direct democracy. Not to mention decentralised federalism.

  5. A Referendum on Global warming would be handy
    Q1 Do you want Australia to use 90% less carbon as a token gesture to the rest of the world?

  6. If you think that there is a fundamnertal problem with our democracy, then CIRs does nothing to alter that. They would just be a tack-on to an exisitng system, with a dubious level of fit with that existng system.

    I’ll also vote for Switz. as an example to consider.

  7. I’ll leave the direct democracy input to Al at this stage.

    I want to throw in a thought from left field. Our political system tends to the democratic but our economic system tends to the authoritarian. Large concentrations of capital in the hands of a few give those few undue power.

    Just as we limit individual political power (one vote one value, limited terms for representatives and so on) should we not limit individual financial power? We do not permit the accrual of unlimited individual political power so we why do we permit the accrual (potentially) of unlimited individual financial power.

    I would suggest the latter issue could be addressed by moving to a system I would call “distributed capitalism”. When the majority of people became both workers and share holders and there was by law an unbreachable upper limit on the accumulation of individual wealth then this could be termed “distributed capitalism”.

    I toss this idea in as we are essentially talking in this topic about the whole idea of distributing power rather than centralising it.

  8. Switzerland is indeed a fine example. Women in one canton did not get to vote until 1990, on account of men (who did) rejecting the proposal at referendum.

    Recent Queensland experience with a referendum in Toowoomba on use of recycled water illustrates how referendums can be hijacked by a campaign of fear and ignorance. The majority of voters aren’t interested in informing themselves about the facts – if one side reckons it’s yukky, then that’s reason enough to vote No. Better safe than sorry.

    And why should voters have to take the trouble to inform themselves and make tough decisions – isn’t that what we have political representatives to do?

    Come to think of it, the Australian experience with federal referendums illustrates the same point. In 1987 a dishonest campaign by the Howard-led opposition led to a resounding defeat for, among other things, a proposal to delete obsolete sections of the Constitution, and a proposal to require States to provide fair compensation for the compulsory acquisition of property. This was dressed up as a ‘power grab for Canberra’ (yes, amazingly enough, this was Howard’s argument) and defeated for no other reason than that this would make Howard look like a winner. Few Australians have ever read the Constitution of Australia Act 1901, but a majority will vote to leave it as it is if any sort of campaign is run suggesting the change might be a bad idea. So we’re unable even to perform basic drafting maintenance on the century-old piece of legislation, thereby ensuring its relevance diminishes with time.

  9. and a proposal to require States to provide fair compensation for the compulsory acquisition of property

    I wish we could get that applied to local governments in relation to the heritage listing of private dwellings.

  10. Hal9000, we didn’t do a whole lot better here. Universal franchise was achieved in 1964.

    But in general I agree. CIR pose as many problems as they claim to solve. In the end, they are simply a yes/no option for voters. The participatory aspect is limited, as most of the important ‘hands on’ work is in drafting the proposals.

    Improving direct democracy is good aspiration, but CIR tend to confuse the idea by equating it with the act of voting.

  11. Our political system tends to the democratic but our economic system tends to the authoritarian. Large concentrations of capital in the hands of a few give those few undue power.

    So long as your toying with this idea I’d suggest looking at it the other way around. Why can’t I sell my vote. After all Rudd and Howard can bid for it with public money why can’t I sell it to somebody who is offering private money.

  12. Local Government might be the logical starting place for direct democracy. Brisbane CC is larger than most, but Wollongong for example is typical of the larger NSW Local Governments is approximately the size of two Federal Divisions in area and population, which means with about five public meetings the whole polity. There is also local media, which means the feedback loop is more immediate, and direct democracy is ongoing so decisions can be reversed.

    I am implying a potential for a flow -on effect on the election of State and Federal MP’s. My hunch is that where there is local action, usually related to the environment, the vote for the Greens at those polling places is higher. The same could apply to other political parties that organized on a local level and participated in local politics.

    I would much prefer that councils and mayors be subject to initiative,referendum and recall, than by the decisions of State Governments.While it may create problems, it would be harder for State Government agencies, for example the NSW Department of Planning, to override local decisions.

  13. It seems to me that direct democracy is more something that occurs at a local or community scale than something that occurs at a government scale. My impression from history and so on is that it quite often occurs when communities organise in opposition to powerful centralising forces such as governments and corporations.

    By all means make these institutions more accountable and democratic. But what is just as important is that the power that these institutions have over our lives is mitigated. In particular, we should have strict protections against government violations of human rights, and regulations that protect our rights in the workplace.

    In the absence of adequate protections like these, direct democracy plays an important role communities organising themselves to defend their rights.

  14. Perhaps part of the current disillusion with democracy is the excessive focus on the election mechanism as the defing feature of democracy. It was never meant to be so, and clearly meant to be a representation of popular sovereingty.

    A basic tension, inherent to democracy and inescapable, is that the democratic ideal can only be approached. And there has the historical tension between reason and will as the best means of getting there. CIR is a move towards enhancing popular will.

  15. I tend to agree with commenters advocating devolution of power to the local government level. The more decisions are made and services provided at the local level, the more responsive the government is to the needs of the governed, and there is less need for direct democracy; plain-old democracy works pretty well in that case.

  16. i’m overwhelmed. and perhaps under prepared. but since i’ve been arguing this case for a long time:

    the argument that democratic resolution of policy will sometimes be wrong is silly. of course, so what. leaving government in the hands of professionals is daily demonstrated to be ineffectual, unless your goal is to enrich the rich, empower the powerful. and often they bugger that up as well. we’re talking human society here.

    as any engineer will tell you, letting a machine run unsupervised leads to disaster. and that’s a simple case. letting government be done in secret makes corruption and incompetence possible, and certain. if society is run openly, if clerks and administrators must work in public, they must work for the public. further, when problems arise, they will be noted immediately, when cures are easiest.

    if the people are to rule, administration must be open. democracy is not infallible, but it is responsive and hence efficient.

    a democratic state will:

    1. be administered by professional teams who put their plan and budget to the people and take office when that plan is accepted by referendum.

    2. set long-term policy by citizen initiative, which collectively will be the constitution.

    3. will make available to any and all it’s activities, plans, and expenditures.

    will this result in heaven on earth? of course not, we’re working with human beings. but citizens won’t be deported, corrupt wheat contracts won’t be entered with proscribed dictators, and would-be crooked property developers will emigrate to the usa, where they will have some chance to thrive.

    prop 13? if that were the worst thing that happened to oz, we’d laugh more. looking at the results of diverting tax money to private schools here makes me wonder how anyone can defend ‘professional’ government. unless, that is, you subscribe to the notion that the taxes of the poor should underwrite the expenses of the rich.

    i presume you are all wondering how to get to democracy from here. take up a subscription and i’ll explain.

    and thank’s for the opportunity, mr q, to rabbit on at some length. you may be a little classier than i thought.

  17. Direct democracy is a nice idea but probably impossible, mostly for practical reasons, but also for important ones of principle.

    But first I’ll just say that if by direct democracy, it just means some access to CIR, then I’m fine with it.

    The problem of a more comprehensive direct democracy has been summed up in relation to the general will, in that it can’t be “the caprice of each moment”. It’s an idea that introduces a much neglected concept in democratic theory – time. Time allows for a vital function in democracy, that of deliberation. The indirect nature of representative government actually serves a function, in that it effects a distinction between decision and deliberation, and enlarging participation in deliberation. Direct democracy reverses this, enlarging participation in decisions, while reducing it in deliberation. Not a good thing.

    I think the aim of direct democracy is great, just the method is flawed. What we seem to want is more participation, a meaningful engagement. Strengthening indirect democracy may be the better alternative. It doesn’t sound as immediately satisfying, but may have the desired effect. Some countries have started down this road by by formally including more community groups/NGOs in various processes of policy making, review and critiquing. The idea is to widen the base of participation based on the idea that the old concept of a single popular sovereign is flawed and that really what we have is a complex sovereignty that requires as abroad a particpatory base as possible to reflect this reality. Some ideas, such as limited CIR, will undoubtedly have a role in this.

  18. Michael,

    I think your point about the importance of deliberation is a very good one. One of the achievements from the Howard years is that his inaction on several issues has allowed a great deal of deliberation. Something that I think was needed. In particular in the area of aboriginal affairs I think there are now better options within political discourse than there was a decade ago. And a lot of the useful actions that are now on the agenda, such as 99 year leases, don’t actual require government involvement. Too much of the time governments are a frenzy of initiative.

    I don’t think NGOs deserve any form of special place in the democratic system. Essentially they serve special interests, not the greater public good. They are in essence just lobby groups. And whilst citizens should be allowed to organise for the purposes of lobbying government we should not presume that their cause is always nobel of in the interest of the general public.

    I do like your division between participation and deliberation but at the end of the day my support for direct democracy amounts to support for CIRs to strike down bad laws or recall dud governments, greater competitive federalism, constitutional rights relating to free speech and property and greater limits on the power of governments to centralise.

  19. Having lived and worked in and out of government in both NSW under Iemma and California under Gray Davis (and having voted on god-knows-how-many initiatives, ballot measures, recalls, propositions in California), my experience of “direct democracy� devices is mixed, mostly negative.

    Commenters have touched on some of the negatives; I’ll reiterate their points with a dollop of experience tossed in, and add some others.

    1. The “deliberation/consideration of alternatives� factor. California initiatives (and those elsewhere) are often on “hot-button issues� that excite strong emotions among voters. To take a few examples, taxes, race-based affirmative action, denying welfare privileges to illegal immigrants, and gay/lesbian domestic partnership arrangements. All of these issues are, of course, important issues worthy of serious democratic debate. The problem is that a ballot measure, which cannot be weakened, strengthened, or altered in any way once it is presented, does not allow for any debate more nuanced than YES or NO.

    Contrast this to normal legislation, which in a non-parliamentary legislative system like California’s, can be and is amended repeatedly by members on both sides of the aisle as it makes its way from idea to committee assessment to floor vote to Governor’s signature. There are numerous opportunities for meaningful debate on the appropriate contours of the legislation, and alternatives can be presented.

    2. Ballot length/expertise. The California ballot is usually a hundred or more pages long, with sections for voting for numerous office-holders, the full text of every initiative, arguments for and against initiatives, and lists of groups who endorse or oppose various measures. Nobody reads the whole thing; it’s impossible. And nobody understands all of the measures; it would require expertise beyond that of any person.

    That means your average initiative gets much less and much narrower expert scrutiny than normal legislation. There’s a reason we elect representatives, a reason they form subject-based committees to examine legislation, and a reason those committees hire staff to summarise legislation and explain its consequences. It’s (partly) because making good decisions on legislation is complicated and far beyond the ability of any one person. Every layer of expertise brought to bear on normal legislation is stripped away in the initiative process, and the voter is left alone in the booth to say yea or nay.

    3. Some measures enshrine anti-democratic supermajority rules. Prop 13 requires a 2/3 majority of both legislative houses for any measure to increase state revenues. Not my definition of democracy.

    4. Disempowers the legislature. See #3 above. Also, there is a tendency for initiatives to “earmark� revenue for favoured causes, and thus constrain the legislature’s ability to adapt budgets to changing needs. For example, to remedy the shortfall in revenues for education caused by Prop 13, Prop 98 requires that a certain percentage of the budget be allocated to education (it’s done by complex formulae; in 2005 it was around 45%).

    None of these outcomes are especially “democratic� in my view, nor do initiatives produce “good� (defined as responsive, flexible, rational) legislation. The shortcomings are inevitable, in my view, because they require extraordinarily difficult public questions to be resolved in a format (voting), that by definition must be simple and private. There’s nothing undemocratic about saying this; it is unrealistic to expect people to devote all their time to policy analysis when they have jobs to do, kids to raise, beer to drink. To have people devoted to crafting and implementing legislation is part of why representative government was invented.

    Also, I’d add something to John’s observation that California appears to be no worse governed than Queensland. As an NSW resident, I’d say it’s also no worse governed than NSW, probably better. But many would say it’s considerably worse governed than it was before initiatives became so popular with the passage of Prop 13 in 1978.

    Finally – apologies for the length – I would add that I think there is a place for direct democracy. It’s basically where, for whatever reason, the political system has hit a logjam and a simple YES/NO vote can lead to progress. A recall, when the process has appropriately high hurdles (requiring supermajorities to overturn the results of the previous election would be one obvious one), can be a useful tool; I lived in California when the process began and it seemed reasonable in view of the Governor’s tremendous unpopularity. I expect initiative processes could be designed as well with appropriate safeguards to ensure their use was limited to unusual circumstances where elected officials simply will not respond to the expressed wishes of a large majority of the citizens.

  20. I suspect one of the reason CIR’s are so popular in the US is that there is an awful lot of gerrymandering and electoral manipulation in the system. Consequently the popular will has to find some other outlet.
    A more finely balanced and fair electoral system would probably eliminate the need for them!

  21. none of the above seems responsive to my position on what democracy should, i hope can, be.

    none offers any change at all, being convinced that all is for the best in this best of all countries. yet all of you will admit that incompetence and corruption and injustice are endemic to the current society. you might admit that democracy would ameliorate these flaws. but you recoil from action, and from speech that would lead to action. that’s the other flaw in aristocracy, the creation in the unenfranchised of a bone deep feeling of impotence.

    struggling against this cultural castration might say more about my mental health than about my estimate of chances for progress, but i continue out of a sense that whatever i can do to bring the benefits of democracy is some expiation for participating in the american imperium (south east asia chapter).

    i’m pretty sure that open government doesn’t create mylais, agent orange, phoenix programs.

    so you’ll be hearing more, from time to time, it’ll do you good. really.

  22. The key problem outlined by BFletcher can be summarised as saying that direct democracy should not be used to enact legislation. I fully agree. However I do think that recalling governments and recalling legislation is a resonable targets for CIRs. We can have incremental adoption of such aspects of direct democracy without commiting to the entire endeavour. And even if CIRs fail more often than succeed they still provide input to the process of ongoing deliberation.

    What would seem to be really problematic, and this may be the case in California, would be if CIRs alter the constitution rather than merely effecting the legislative process.

  23. Won’t CIR based decision-making mean weird public policy. Exhibit A: The referendum over recycled water in Toowoomba. The ‘no’ case, for whatever reason, fanned irrational fears leading to a bizarre public policy outcome.

    As John quotes, you can win a referendum on the subject ‘we don’t like (that) tax)’.

    Are minorities safe in a direct democracy? Could CIR be used to scapegoat minorities? A witch burning is wonderfully cathartic for the majority, less wonderful for whoever gets to be the witch.

    Could direct democracy overturn the role of the independent judiciary? Could electors be convinced of the depravity of the judges, based on the highly reductionist and inflammatory accounts of trials and sentences in the media? You bet.

    So direct democracy is so great. It destroyed the Athenian empire; it was tolerable in the good times, with Pericles, and gold plated statues. But after he died, after the plague, as the war progressed, the assembly was ruled by passion and manipulated by demogagues. It was fickle. It was angry. It made wild and foolish decisions. It persecuted the opposition. And in the end it handed Greece over to the helot-oppressing, medizing Spartans. Good one, direct democracy.

    Representative democracy has a few checks and balances, slightly inhibiting the unmediated venting of passion. responsible government and the expert policy community, including the bureaucracy and the academy, might be dull and committee based and sometimes less than responsive, but it has some capacity to process very complex issues, not always requiring data be reduced to inane sound bites.

  24. Every system has its shortcomings, and CIR would not produce perfection either. But I believe it would add some much needed diversity and mechanisms for genuine public engagement to our political debate and decision making processes.

    I don’t think Toowoomba is a very good example – not least because jelly-backed politicians from Labor and Liberal, state and federal, refused to go ahead with recycling off their own bat, so if there had been no referendum the default position was already no action. If the state and federal governments had actively backed and promoted it, instead of hiding under a rock and hanging the Council out to dry on their own, it could well have passed. And the option governments have chosen instead has been worse anyway. As we have seen, its far easier for governments to just sacrifice one politically expendable community to push through completely stupid, massively expensive and highly unreliable – but easy to sell – options like a big dam. Most people are happy with that as long as its not their area getting flooded.

    It would be a good idea to put in place some basic Bill of Rights first, so that CIR proposals coudn’t be used to gang up on vulnerable minorities and put discrminatory measures in place. (Of course, govenrments and parliaments already gang up on and discriminate against vulnerable minorities from time to time in pursuit of political support from the majority, which is one of a number of reasons why a Bill of Rights would be a good idea regardless of CIR – but CIR would make it even more needed than it already is).

  25. Roughly speaking, it took several hundred years for a parliamentary system to evolve from a monarchical system in England. We could perhaps suppose it might take a similar length of time for a more directly democractic system to evolve from our current parliamentary system. (Assuming we still have that much time which of course which I doubt.)

  26. Agreed ikonoclast. Time is an important consideration against the urgency of the moment. There are different time cycles involved in a democracy that combined help produce a more balanced syste. Constitional cyclesa re the longest, with the much shorter electoral and legislative cycles. Democracy has a history and time and deliberation give it some deserved weight.

    Al, I’m not sure we are so far apart, and I’m certainly not all sugesting a lack of need for “any change at all”. Quite the opposite. There is a clear and widespread (justified) sense of disillusionment with democracy that needs addressing.

    The focus on direct democracy, I think, just is the answer to the wrong question, and tends to be a treatment of the symptoms rather than the cause.

  27. “Universal franchise was achieved in 1964.”

    I”m not quite sure what you’re referring to there, Michael. South Australia retained a property franchise for its upper house into the 1970s. The 1967 referendum, contrary to popular belief, didn’t actually extend the franchise to anyone who didn’t already have the right to vote. The point I was making was about gender-based franchise, which was settled in the rest of the civilised world by the 1930s, and in Australia a century ago, but retarded in Switzerland courtesy of their allegedly democratic constitution.

    BTW, I’ve always been a fan of another aspect of Athenian democracy – the appointment of senior officials by lottery. That way, any Australian could become President and have an equal opportunity to do so. This is the way juries are chosen, and its adoption more widely would strike a blow against the very abuse of the political process by moneyed interests that would be entrenched by ‘direct democracy’. Amplify the voice of the common citizen, I say, rather than allow the loudest and best-financed voices to predominate.

  28. I don’t mind appointing officials to some positions by lottery so long as the tickets are not merely handed out to anybody. And even juries are subject to culling.

    The govenor general could be picket at random from a list with each senator being allowed to nominate one name to the list. There would be some pressure on the senators to nominate responsibly.

  29. As a trade-off, can we now get Al not commenting on this issue in every single other thread?

    I fear the tyranny of the majority, aided and abetted by a gutter press. When the current media are so ideologically aligned and unwilling to provide decent investigative and meaningful reportage, how are the average citizens supposed to meaningfully understand the issues?

    Small, cautious steps, as proposed by terje and others, would be the only way to proceed.

  30. Isn’t the really big problem with democracy the average voter?

    Pollies are at least partially accessible to reason and evidence. How could your average Joe possibly make a intelligent decision on something as arcane as interest rate policy? Democracy has it’s good points no doubt, but so does meritocracy. Personally, I’d be happier seeing more decisions handed to people who are competent to make them.

  31. wilful,

    I don’t you need to wory too much. An improvement in our democracy would be, as Andrew Bartlett suggested earlier, a constitution that lays out basic protections and protection of minorities. It’s really a basic for future developments.

    Jimbirch, increased indirect democracy is also important, and that includes such things as independant authorties etc. Some direct democracy advocates blanch at this, but they are mistaken. Both elements are required and the various elements, legislature/judiciary, should not be seen as antagonistic, but as guardians of different, co-existing parts of democracy.

    Hal9000, I thought that Aborginal Australians got the vote (Federally) in 1964, hence my reference. Is this not correct?

  32. In the presence of informed voters, in the absence of inflammatory campaigning, CIS might be beneficial. I shudder to think what the US public might have voted for in the weeks after the WTC towers came down – A million dead Iraqi’s, none of whom had anything to do with that hateful crime? Here in Australia, how about a vote to ship refugees to a razor wired camp in the middle of the the desert?

    Thank you internet and the blogosphere! More active informing and debate here in a day than big media does in a year. It’s still capable of misinforming and inflaming, but it’s a start on the problem of public debate of issues that matter.

  33. Democracy has it’s good points no doubt, but so does meritocracy. Personally, I’d be happier seeing more decisions handed to people who are competent to make them.

    I suspect that the democratic decision on some issues would be to hand it to competent experts. So the two are far from incompatible.

  34. Ikonoclast makes the good point about power concentrated in economic entities who are only accountable to the owners of entity and are hardly likely to worry about the broader community.

    There are many ways to increase participation. The simplest and most effective is to allow people to vote with money. For example let us assume we are going to spend money on public transport but we are not sure of the form it should take. Should it be more buses, more rail, more sharing of cars, etc or should it be a mixture. Instead of a government deciding how money is to be spent give the money to the people directly and let them vote with the funds on what public transport they want.

  35. Another way to get more participation in our large economic entities is to make the voting for boards democratic and have a proportional Hare Clark system for all company boards.

    Another way is that 50% of the money raised from consumers and then used for capital expansion is given back to consumers as shares in the company.

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