The State of Democracy

The State of Democracy

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The Australian survey on same sex marriage is a rare success among many examples of contemporary failures in democracy including arguably Brexit and Trump.

A Vivid Ideas event titled “Evolving Democracy” was held in Sydney on June 16 2018 and was attended by 90 of us who are concerned about the state of democracy.

There are a number of pressures on modern democracy. Unlike back when representative democracy was introduced, we are now highly connected. We can directly monitor and communicate with our representatives. At the same time there is a reduction in institutional trust and increasing polarisation in society. We are divided by wealth, opinions and politics.

The Brexit vote was all about emotion. Few understood the impact of voting to leave. Politicians and media reframed the debate to be about immigration. A bus with a slogan saying that Britain sends the EU 350 million pounds a week was a lie that was not knocked on the head effectively.

The Vivid Ideas panel, chaired by Ross Dawson, included Nicholas Gruen, Amelia Loye, Nathan Spataro, and Nicolas Hatton talked through various forms of democracy and touched on how technology might be used to improve democracy.

Direct Democracy

This is where everyone votes. We had this on same sex marriage, the UK had this on Brexit. It fails when the population is ill informed and votes by emotion. 

Having everyone vote on everything is expensive and exhausting. Switzerland has a small but well educated population and has had this system for some time.

Representative Democracy

What we mostly have here in Australia. For practical reasons it makes sense to elect people to represent groups of us and trust them to vote as they promise when in parliament. Unfortunately politicians benefit from lying or at least by being vague and telling each person they talk to what they want to hear. 

Representative Democracy is perverted by the influence of money and power over politicians. 

The party system means that once elected our representatives vote as a block along party lines and frequently do not represent the views of their constituents.

Deliberative Democracy

Like our jury system, small groups of citizens, chosen at random, form a jury to deliberate on an issue. The group is given time to think deeply, they are given access to experts and may ask for other experts to come and brief them. In some systems the group performs this role for a year.

Participative Democracy

Seeking to involve the population genuinely in decision making by encouraging grass roots networks and listening to their views.

Liquid Democracy

Leveraging internet technologies and perhaps blockchain, this idea encourages citizens to vote on things they have expertise or specific interest in. Citizens have a limited number of votes so they must vote on the things they care most about or delegate their votes to someone they trust.
Nathan is a founder of the Australian Flux party that proposes to operate like this, at least at the party level for now.

Can we fix democracy?

I asked if perhaps the destruction of media has weakened democracy and fixing that might help. The panel was not optimistic and felt that media has basically become entertainment and few people are interested in fact checking.

Nicolas Gruen pointed to an astonishing front page in the UK Daily Mail which showed three judges and titled them “Enemies of the people”. 

Revolutions do not end well and what is needed is evolution of some kind. 

During the session we were able to vote on our phones and the results were shown on screen pretty much live. We have the technology to involve more people at low cost but as we’ve seen in the US, technology in elections is very attractive to nation state backed hacking.

Britain First, a far right wing group has more Facebook followers than any of the traditional parties. Clearly social media has failed to unify and moderate opinion so far.

Democracy means that all ideas are welcomed but policy options should be treated like science and bad ideas quickly identified.

Perhaps a GovHack entrant could make a tool to help with democracy? 

Written by Peter Marks for GovHack.
Peter Marks is a software developer and technology analyst.
He is a regular contributor to ABC Radio National and blogs at