February 2015


Fixing politics

By Tim Flannery and Catriona Wallace
Cincinnatus Abandons the Plow To Dictate Laws in Rome (1806), by Juan Antonio Ribera
Cincinnatus Abandons the Plow To Dictate Laws in Rome (1806), by Juan Antonio Ribera
How online organisation can give power back to the people

In 458 BC, with Rome facing imminent defeat by the combined forces of the Aequi and the Sabines, the Senate declared Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus dictator of the city for six months. The retired statesman, an aristocrat of reduced means, drove off Rome’s enemies. Fifteen days after being appointed, he resigned his dictatorship and returned to his humble family farm.

The example of Cincinnatus as citizen politician – one who goes into politics not as a career choice but to do a job, and then re-enters the society they have improved – has periodically been revived. Centuries later, as the late Roman Republic slid inexorably towards dictatorship, Cincinnatus was held up as a beacon of hope. In revolutionary America, George Washington was revered as a second Cincinnatus. In our own time, Edward Snowden used “Cincinnatus” as a pseudonym.

The attraction of Cincinnatus stems from the fact that career politicians face divided interests, and history shows that self-interest almost always wins out. Self-interested decisions by contemporary Australian politicians – from travel perks to the corrupt coal deals recently uncovered by the Independent Commission Against Corruption in New South Wales – are common. But that is only one of the problems besetting Australian politics. Its inherently tribal nature is another huge handicap. Whether it’s New Guinea during the Stone Age or Ancient Rome or Canberra in 2015, tribal politics has always been about gaining support from the wealthiest and most influential members of your tribe and then paying them back when you win. Money and influence buy political power in contemporary Australia – power that in a democracy should reside with the people. These flaws, and others discussed below, have cost the Australian political system its credibility, particularly among younger voters. But what could replace it?

We are not the first people to have difficulty being heard over the rich and powerful. In 123 BC, Gaius Sempronius Gracchus was elected tribune of the people in Rome and set about limiting the power of the state. He made it illegal for magistrates to exile Roman citizens or order capital punishment without trial. A brilliant administrator, Gracchus improved conditions of employment and embarked on massive infrastructure programs, including Rome’s famed road network.

His popularity with the masses alarmed the oligarchs of the Roman Senate. They countered with their own populist, Livius Drusus. Anything Gracchus promised, Drusus would double. That Drusus’ promises were often impossible to honour did not matter. Ballots were rigged. Gracchus lost his position and was subsequently hounded to death by those in the employ of the oligarchs. His was a common fate of champions of the people for the next two millennia. Little has changed today, in political terms.

For the past 40 years, the majority of Australians have enjoyed levels of education unattainable by previous generations. And for the last decade or so, they have had, courtesy of the internet, the theoretical means to organise en masse in a new manner. One reason for the complacency may be the belief that our right to vote in regular elections means that democracy – the rule of the people – prevails.

Last June, the Monthly published Richard Cooke’s assessment of the failure of government to deliver the will of the people. From taxation to social equity and on to population, Cooke documents the disparity that exists between popular opinion and the policies regurgitated by “the party”. As we ponder Cooke’s essay it’s worth asking Cicero’s question: cui bono? Who benefits? In almost every case, the gulf is the result of empowering vested interests, mostly economic – at the expense of the will of the people. In some areas, such as immigration (people want less, “the party” more), the link to economic interests may at first seem unclear. But more people means more houses and other infrastructure, and the scale of recent corrupt payments to politicians by property developers in NSW gives some idea of the size of the lever that helps create this particular gulf. (We are not arguing against immigration here. Indeed we believe that, were appropriate policy discussions held with the Australian public, increases in certain immigration categories might receive popular support.)

The Liberal Party claims to have 80,000 members, but our enquiries suggest that the real number is closer to 20,000. Labor claims 40,000 but probably has less than half that. By way of comparison, in 2013 the Collingwood Football Club had 80,000 paid-up members. The tiny size of our political parties makes them vulnerable to capture by special interests. But this is not their greatest fault – that surely lies in their flawed functions and structures. The role of rank-and-file party members is so circumscribed as to leave most of them all but powerless. True it is that they may put up candidates for preselection in their local electorates. But their choice is often overridden by those mysterious entities called “the party” and “head office”. These same entities, in one form or another, create ministers, prime ministers and policies. In such a system, elections are not of themselves proof of democratic health.

In contemporary Australian politics, non-elected financial supporters play a large role in influencing policy. A clear example of this was provided in the lead-up to the 2013 election. At an Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) dinner attended by princes of the church, industry and media, the then Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, pledged to implement many of the think tank’s 75 demands. Funded through murky channels, and co-founded by Rupert Murdoch’s father, the IPA on this occasion was demanding such deeply unpopular and self-interested measures as the break-up of the ABC, abandonment of mandatory disclosures of political donations, and the repeal of the Fair Work Act.

On the other side of the chamber, the Labor Party often furthers the agenda of the unions, which of course provide much of its financial support. A reluctance to limit political donations and an ongoing lack of transparency have expanded the power of the party’s financial backers.

Whether the Liberals or Labor rule, the oligarchs are more powerful than ever.

The internet and social media are making it increasingly difficult for our political parties to hide their faults. Only those wealthy enough, and inclined to sue at the drop of a hat, seem temporarily sheltered. Some politicians no longer even bother trying to hide the truth about the influence of money on power: the libertarian David Leyonhjelm of the Liberal Democratic Party recently admitted that donations from the tobacco industry had influenced his views on plain-packaging legislation.

The dismay of the people over the general state of affairs is evident in statistics from the Australian Electoral Commission. Twenty per cent of eligible voters did not cast their ballot in the 2010 federal election. Twenty-five per cent of young voters – 400,000 people aged 18 to 24 – failed to enrol for the 2013 election.

“It is clear from the evidence that the trend is for increasing numbers of otherwise eligible electors to remain outside the electoral system,” electoral commissioner Ed Killesteyn told the ABC.

In the same ABC report, Associate Professor Joo-cheong Tham, an expert in Australian electoral law at the University of Melbourne Law School, noted, “One in five are not voting, that is a serious issue, a serious democratic deficit … It is concentrated among the young. We are talking about people coming into the political process, reaching adulthood, who are, for one reason or another, disengaged from politics. These are a set of issues that at the very least deserve serious consideration. There should be much more public concern about that. I think it feeds into the aspect that the spirit of democracy is not as lively in this country as it should be.”

The gulf between what the people want and what “the party” delivers is leaving career politicians increasingly bereft of authority. People often confuse power and authority, but they are very different things. Democrats and dictators alike can wield power, but political authority, the sense that power is held legitimately, can only come from respecting the will of the people. Increasingly, our political leaders lack authority even in the eyes of their own colleagues. Hence the political backstabbings that have become such a feature of Australian political life in recent years. Another effect of this lack of authority is the trend towards elections becoming unpopularity contests. Leaders who lack authority can only win power by denigrating their opponents. They understand that the public think they are bad, and they can only respond by painting their political opponents as worse.

The corruption of the public’s will in politics is often justified by this statement from the 18th-century conservative politician Edmund Burke: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

This may have been true in the 18th century when education levels were low and communication poor. But in societies armed with the internet and universal education, it is foolish to imagine that any politician or group of politicians understands society’s interests better than society, properly consulted, as a whole. The newDemocracy Foundation, which was established to help improve Australia’s democratic process, and is funded by an annual grant from the Anita and Luca Belgiorno-Nettis Family Foundation, provides empirical evidence that in contemporary Australia appropriate public consultations can allow people to work together to create complex policy solutions to difficult problems.

The old political system seems to have reached breaking point. From Snowden’s war on government secrecy to the rise of companies, like Uber, that threaten vested interests, people are acting or organising politically and economically. The response from government is to seek greater power, or to use fear-based, polarising debate to deflect from the fundamental problem. Harsh security laws, free-speech restrictions, the banning of public demonstrations or apps, and governments granting themselves the power to fine, and even jail, those daring to challenge the status quo, are on the increase. While today such measures might be used only on individuals identified as extreme greens or terrorists, it is hard to know whom they will affect in future.

A sense of impotence pervades much of the public discourse about the state of our politics. That, and the feeling that things we abhor are being done in our name, tends, in our experience, to dominate many private political discussions. As it is, people can still be made to obey, and leaders can deter their colleagues from challenging them with threats and blandishments. But without authority, our political leaders will never inspire the respect they so desperately require, and which is a foundation of civil society.

Can citizens ever hope to take back political power? If so, how? The example of Cincinnatus should inspire us, while the fate of Gaius Gracchus should warn us that individual leaders will always be vulnerable. But an army of Cincinnati – respected citizens willing to give up a little of their time and resources to serve their country in politics – is far harder to destroy. If such people could be marshalled into an organisation tailor-made to project the popular will into politics, they stand a chance of gathering such authority as to become invincible.

Any group of people intent on exerting political influence requires a declared purpose. Once formulated, the Cincinnati’s declaration should become the yardstick against which policy and legislation are measured. A concise, clearly understood statement of purpose that centres on respect for people across the generations, on a better environment, and on a sustainable economy would need to be carefully drafted, and even more carefully refreshed. Most political parties have such statements, and in many respects they are broadly similar. The difference is that the statement of purpose of the Cincinnati would serve as an unswerving guide for the nation’s political decision-making. Its power would be unprecedented, except perhaps by the constitution.

How might the Cincinnati organise? Imagine that you could join an internet-based communication platform that enabled you to help craft policy in areas of special interest to you, as well as to directly nominate candidates for election, along with ministers and prime ministers. You’d pay a nominal fee, log in, and, depending on your interest and expertise, enter one of many policy-formulation chat rooms.

If you are a retired school teacher, for example, you might be interested in and knowledgeable about education policy. You might enter the chat stream on funding equitability and optimising literacy at primary school level, and help shape the policy discussion. Once the discussion had reached a mature state, you might vote on aspects of policy. You might be interested too in whom your local candidate should be, as well as possibly other candidates. Voting within the platform should be voluntary, and you should be able to vote on as few or as many issues as you wish.

Perhaps you have achieved a good reputation in your issue forum and wish to stand for election. Long before an election, you would pen a letter explaining why you wish to stand and then post it online along with your CV. You would invite comment on every aspect of yourself and your policy area. The testimonials of your chat room colleagues would doubtless weigh heavily in your success, or lack of it.

We imagine that candidates would run for whatever tier of government is most relevant to their interests and expertise, and that they would carry political responsibility for the policy area they were selected for by their platform colleagues. As Cincinnati, candidates would limit themselves to two terms of public service, before returning to the society they helped improve. Arrangements would have to be made to ensure that they could step back into private life without disadvantage. Employers might need to be compensated, for example, in return for holding a job for those on service. And as citizen politicians, the closer the Cincinnati stay to the people, the better. Economy-class flights, public transport, and standard superannuation and other benefits would be the norm.

As a safeguard against corruption or capture by special interests, and to facilitate engagement, everything said and done on the political platform would need to be transparent and thus open to scrutiny. Every donation would need to be logged in real time, every meeting with a lobbyist videoed and uploaded. But what if, despite all the safeguards, policy formation or implementation fails to serve the party purpose? A group of guardians, a proportion of whom could be periodically refreshed via election, should have the power to investigate any matters brought to them, and to intervene in policy chat rooms if necessary. As is the case with the governor-general, you would hope that they are never called upon to act. If elected members fail to abide by party rules, they could be required by the guardians, following a plebiscite of members, to resign.

We do not envisage that the system proposed here would lead to direct democracy in the sense that plebiscites would often inform decision-making. Instead, informed policy debate, for as long as it takes to come to a considered position, would be the most common method of policy formation. Policy would be constantly under reconsideration, but with changes only triggered by large majorities of chat room participants. Rare plebiscites on urgent issues should be allowed, as in the case of ministers yielding to Burke’s temptation.

The kind of political party outlined above would completely invert the existing model. Among the Cincinnati, prime ministers would become, in most circumstances, little more than co-ordinators of effort and upholders of the party purpose. The ministers, backed by an enormous wealth of knowledge from their chat room communities, would be the true authorities in their fields. There is no reason why, under this model, every elected member should not have some portfolio responsibility.

Real authority comes from relinquishing some power. Under the model we propose, it is likely that nobody would be completely satisfied with all policy decisions. In this sense, politics would remain the art of compromise. Those who care passionately about an issue may discover that the public as a whole has a different view. Such individuals might be tempted to set up single-issue parties. But hopefully they would understand that the policy-formation mechanisms offer passionate and well-informed individuals the opportunity to convert others to their view. Indeed, one of the principal aspects of such chat rooms is their educational potential.

Could giving full political power to the will of the people damage the country? Would the death penalty be instantly reinstated, as some Burkeans fear, or protectionist trade barriers re-erected? We think not. With properly mediated discussion of policy formation, knee-jerk reactions to hot-button issues could be avoided. For example, rather than asking people to vote on whether the death penalty should be reinstated, initial discussion would be better to focus on the desired outcomes of the justice system.

Having said this, we are aware that in proposing this system its outcomes might not be those that we, as individuals, would wish. Those concerned about such potential problems need to ask themselves how effective our current system is. Does it often yield to populist impulses? Does it often result in damaging policy?

A characteristic of the politics outlined here is that a technology platform must precede the creation of a new political party. This is because, while policy is being formulated and candidates are proving themselves, the Cincinnati would have no leaders and no policy to announce. How might a platform be created, and what are its desired characteristics? Platforms of the type we envisage are in widespread use today. For example, entrepreneurs frequently deploy them when they wish to set up new enterprises or initiatives. Their creation begins with “design thinking” – a customer-centric approach by multidisciplinary teams with the goal of developing innovative solutions to difficult problems. Once a concept is created (as has been done in this essay, for example), “human-centred design principles” are used in a five-step process: Discover, Ideate, Prototype, Iterate and Test. Lean, efficient and measurable processes for achieving this already exist among those who develop business models online. From there, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding engage users, while increasingly sophisticated technologies and data are the enablers of an efficiency. Many of the tools required to achieve this in fact already exist.

Spain’s Podemos party recently provided an example of how the platform we outline here might operate, and how activism in politics can move from a party-first approach to a platform-first approach. The recent rise of Podemos (“We Can”) is credited to the use of the link-sharing site Reddit to organise. This past October, Reddit’s then general manager, Erik Martin, told the New Yorker, “We’ve never seen anyone use Reddit as an organising tool, not like this.”

Within the first few months of Podemos turning to Reddit as an organising tool, there were a million page views per month. The party’s Reddit page, or subreddit, includes links to videos, proposals, debate topics and news. The platform also facilitates online discussion and voting on issues, and allows users to maintain a dialogue with party leaders.

The result of the Podemos platform was that, at six months old, the party won 1.5 million votes, or 8% of the overall vote count, and gained five seats in the European Parliament. Recent polls have found that it is currently the most popular party in Spain. Significantly, Podemos has not initially articulated policy, but rather has demonstrated a strategy whereby it is keeping pronouncements flexible and debatable prior to Spain’s general election in 2015.

The intention of Podemos is to restore politics to the people. The New Yorker quotes the party’s leader, Pablo Iglesias, as saying, “We propose a grassroots politics – that is, to do away with the establishment parties and, from there, put in motion a method.” Hence the method, or platform, is the message.

A different initiative has evolved among a group of Argentines, who asked, “How can we get our representatives, our elected representatives, to represent us?” The answer was DemocracyOS, an open-source platform designed to facilitate communication between citizens and their elected representatives. During a recent trial in Buenos Aires’ city legislature, a team of volunteers translated new legislation into plain language so that users of the platform could discuss and vote on them. One of DemocracyOS’s developers, Pia Mancini, explained during a TED talk in October 2014 that it is “about persuading and being persuaded. It’s about reaching a consensus as much as finding a proper way of channelling our disagreement. And finally, you can vote how you would like your elected representative to vote.” DemocracyOS has spawned a political party, which is yet to win representation in Argentina.

In Australia, attempts to influence politics using the internet have a taken different turn. Two of the country’s newest parties, the Australian Progressive Party and the Australian Progressives, launched in September 2014. Both use crowdfunding and promise to develop policy through community consultation. Broadly similar in purpose, with nearly identical names, they were divided and already competing politically before either had developed a mature technological platform. Because they prioritised the establishment of a political party ahead of the development of a platform, it’s hard to see how they can now mature into initiatives like Podemos or DemocracyOS.

If there were any prospect that a band of Cincinnati might succeed in gaining political power, they would become the instant enemy of every vested interest in the land, and many outside it. Of all these potential enemies, none would be as dangerous at the outset as those media outlets controlled by oligarchs. They have the capacity to shred reputations and misrepresent intents. How could such threats be countered? The new media may become the most effective antidote. Once in power, however, there is plenty a political entity could do. Great evils do not result from near-monopolies on entertainment. So as long as media outlets seek only to entertain, educate and make a profit, no action would be necessary. But to the extent that they choose to attempt to further special interests at the expense of democracy, or show a persistent political bias, monopolies would need to be challenged.

This kind of model would also require financially secure systems and, for political purposes, secure personal identification and indisputable proof of eligibility to vote in Australian elections. But a nascent political platform would need to grow very quickly, and establish a wide and deep reach into the community. In times past, such things were impossible. But today the internet places them within our grasp.

We believe that all the conditions required to create a breakthrough for citizen-led democracy now exist. Indeed, politics is almost the last of our great institutions to be transformed by the internet. Certainly there are risks in moving forward. But we need to ask ourselves: What is more risky? Continuing with an increasingly unstable political system that delivers governments with ever more power and ever less authority, or trying something very new that permits the will of a large, well-educated populace to become manifest? Neither of us are interested in political careers, but we are confident that many Australians, particularly younger ones, will prove willing to join the ranks of the Cincinnati. Only fear of ourselves can hold Australians back.

Tim Flannery and Catriona Wallace

Tim Flannery is a scientist and writer. His books include Now or Never, The Weather Makers and The Future Eaters.

Catriona Wallace is an entrepreneur and philanthropist. 

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