COVID-19 is creating a democratic deficit – here’s how to reduce it

The coronavirus pandemic is damaging many parts of our society, including our democratic processes. Matt Ryan argues that the crisis provides an opportunity to make lasting change.

Mar 27, 2020, updated Mar 27, 2020
Federal Parliament observes social distancing before shutting down. Photo: AAP/Lukas Coch

Federal Parliament observes social distancing before shutting down. Photo: AAP/Lukas Coch

As parliaments around the country move to scale down operations and defer sittings as part of containing COVID-19 people are beginning to ring the accountability alarm bells.

Understandably so. Parliaments are a vital part of the machinery used to monitor the policy and administration of government and to scrutinise legislation that affects our lives. In 2018, MPs in the House of Representatives alone sat for 582 hours, considered 226 bills, posed more than 1600 questions, and received 317 petitions. 

Add to that committee meetings and similar activities in lower and upper houses of parliament around the nation and the democratic deficit caused by COVID-19 could be just as large as the fiscal one.

It’s not just an abstract principle. As US hospitals try to free up beds to cater for the influx of COVID-19 infected patients – just as Australia is now doing – human rights controversies are emerging. In Texas and Ohio governments have moved to delay non-essential medical procedures that include abortions. Failure to do so could lead to penalties of up to $1000 or 180 days of jail time. Abortion rights groups are accusing those governments of using the crisis to progress ideological agendas. 

Sifting through issues like these to make sure we can care for the sick and protect the rights of others is what we expect our parliaments to do. But with our parliaments’ main “technology” – face to face meetings – cancelled or restricted to a select few we need to ask “how well can they fulfil that role?” 

The good news is that we can learn from those parliaments and politicians around the world who have already been trialling new ways of working that go beyond traditional sittings. Leveraging simple and widely available technologies, they are involving more people with more diverse backgrounds in their processes with less reliance on those people being physically present.

Select Committees in the UK Parliament, for example, have used online “evidence checks” to scrutinise the basis for policy. These one-month exercises use targeted outreach and social media strategies to invite comments from knowledgeable stakeholders and members of the public about the rigour of evidence on which a government department’s policy is based. Evidence for departmental policy is summarised in a two-page document and comments publicly displayed in a web forum that resembles a readers’ comments section in an online news article.

In Taiwan, a participatory governance process pioneered by civic rights activists at the behest of a government minister combines large-scale online participation with smaller in-person gatherings to build a “rough consensus” on legislative proposals related to the digital economy before they are introduced. Known as vTaiwan, the process has led to 26 pieces of national legislation dealing with issues such as Uber, telemedicine and online alcohol sales, and has involved 200,000 people.

The government of Mexico City has raised the stakes even higher, involving more than 400,000 people in a process to draft a new constitution. It included a novel partnership between and the city mayor that enabled residents to create petition-backed proposals which, once they reached a certain threshold of support, bound the mayor to include them in the draft he submitted to a special constitutional assembly.

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Processes like these can also offer relief for politicians and parliamentary officials managing the strain of examining an ever-increasing number of issues of greater complexity with limited personnel and budget. Evidence checks provide access to a wider pool of experts who can bolster existing research capacity. vTaiwan helps to find workable ways forward in industries being rapidly transformed by digital technologies. By “crowdsourcing” the city’s constitution, Mexico City’s mayor retained the trust of residents while undertaking reform at a grand scale. 

These are just a handful of a wide range of international examples that Australian parliaments could follow to help us manage the immediate challenges ahead and lay the foundations for truly 21st-century political institutions.

Rarely will they find a time when the general public will afford them a greater licence to trial new ways of working than now. They should grasp it with both hands.

Matt Ryan is an Adelaide-based Senior Fellow of The GovLab at New York University and a member of the OECD’s Innovative Citizen Participation network. In 2019 he co-authored CrowdLaw for Congress, a project examining how lawmaking bodies are using new technology to improve the quality and legitimacy of lawmaking. 

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