SA democracy akin to seagulls fighting over a chip

What happened to our democracy being about competing ideas? Instead, we’ve become like a flock of seagulls fighting over a chip, writes Malcolm King.

Jun 10, 2016, updated Jun 10, 2016
Aren't governments elected to govern? Photo: Nat Rogers/InDaily

Aren't governments elected to govern? Photo: Nat Rogers/InDaily

South Australia’s government-appointed citizen juries are seeking to ‘inoculate’ an angry and divisive public by using sampling methodology.

People are randomly selected, like you and me, and provided with information from experts, to make decisions on issues ranging from bike paths and domestic animal management, to the pros and cons of storing nuclear waste.

We are told that the sampling methodology ensures that people across the demographic spectrum (that’s a big spectrum) are represented.

The juries’ recommendations are therefore “as if” you and me were fellow jurors. So we can hardly get upset about that can we?

This is inoculating dissent by using sampling methodology.

Democracy is not demographics. People are not categories. How do the organisers know they’re not screening out people who are representative? Besides, what does a representative South Australian look like?

The only way a government can assess the true will of the people on a single issue is through a referendum.

The atomisation of a society into a thousand single interest groups or causes – all angry, fractious and ‘Araldited’ to their opinions – may be ameliorated by citizen juries but what sort of society are we creating?

We’re turning from a polity of competing ideas, to seagulls fighting over a chip. Part of the reason is the growth of a victim mentality and inversely, a culture of entitlement. In both cases, debate soon turns to default positions.

In South Australia, trust has also been eroded and communities splintered by bogus “us versus them” tabloid news stories. They have poisoned the well.

For 40 years, we have grown fat on government paternalism which provides for many of our needs, while beggaring our ability to think and act for ourselves.

One of the failures of state and federal governments is to focus on policy creation to the detriment of policy implementation. Winning hearts and minds is good but people also need to know the answer to ‘how’ questions.

The devil in most large scale projects is in the unanticipated problems in the planning stage. Citizen juries may detect some of the most common sense errors, such as building a one-way freeway to an area with a growing population.

The Premier’s commitment to democracy is laudable. Yet the Weatherill Government quakes and squirms under public scrutiny, as if it knows it lacks the balls to govern.

We have a Legislative Council that serves no other purpose than to provide its members with executive level superannuation. So introducing a third level of committee-style forum, facilitated by New Democracy or a local PR company, to regurgitate and recommend actions that a mid-level public servant could do in a few days, does not get my vote.

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The reason is – I have already voted. When I walk to our local school on election day, I am not only exercising my constitutional right to vote but I am also expecting the elected government, whether I voted for them or not, to get on with the job.

I recognise the appeals citizen juries make to grassroots democracy. New Democracy makes much of the Athenian model but Athens was ruled by a property owning and voting oligarchy. Slaves did the heavy work. Leaders went to Delphi to listen to the oracle.

The oracle today is the money markets.

Citizen juries share some similarities with the Citizen Initiated Referendum (CIR) movement. CIRs are used to overrule governments, especially local governments, when a group of people believe a matter is so important, it requires a vote by local residents. It could include voting to improve storm water use or block a particular land development. In the USA, CIRs can also be used to override state legislatures, to support the death penalty or enact harsher penalties for those convicted of sex crimes.

Those who advocate for CIRs and citizen juries are of a specific political persuasion. They believe federalism has failed and that we’d all be better off with local direct democracy.

I have some sympathy with this position having worked in the policy and media areas of federal politics.

By the time legislation is drafted after consultation with the unions, business and special interest groups, and then amended in both houses, one can end up with Frankenstein’s monster, with bits sown on here and there.

Unfortunately, CIRs attract more loonies than a Senate election. Predominantly, most people who vote in CIR elections want more guns, severe limits on freedom of speech and the curtailment of abortion rights.

There are simply too many competing and complex demands on the State Government, which has a capability crisis of its own.

The problems are compounded, as a fair percentage of the voting public behave like the ‘little mandarins’ of China’s former one child policy.

For 40 years, we have grown fat on government paternalism which provides for many of our needs, while beggaring our ability to think and act for ourselves.

This is especially true in Adelaide as sections of the business community have attached themselves, like barnacles on a rusting cargo ship, to the government of the day.

So beware of governments who say that the will of the people lies in citizen juries. The need for citizen juries points to a harsher and more troubling fact in western democracies and that is the failure of governments to govern.

Malcolm King, an Adelaide writer, works in generational change and is a regular InDaily columnist.

Read more from Malcolm here.

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