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. 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).

  2. 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.)

  3. 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.

  4. “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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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?

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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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