Fall, 2016 (Issue 26.1–2)

Reformists Are Everywhere in Politics

Iain Walker
newDemocracy Foundation, Sydney, Australia

There is an occasional tendency among the academic community to despair of meaningful, structural democratic reform opportunities. My observation is that they effectively cut half of the people out by assuming deliberation is only of appeal to the Left, so plan for hibernation at the arrival of a government of the Right. Moreover, they fear that the increase in mistrust of experts (consciously including themselves in that category) also applies only to ‘the other side’, and exacerbate this further by relying on assumptions that a weakened public service is run roughshod by a tough political culture replete with advisors.

A fine story, but try finding actual examples of it.

This is a set of assumptions not supported by my experience advocating for practical trials of deliberative process in Australia to Mayors, MP’s, Ministers and Premiers. While there is a mild skew to the Left in terms of the warmth of reception, the bigger skew is to the Centre. It is the lunatic fringes at each end of the political spectrum who feel they hold a font of absolute truth who truly oppose a role for randomly selected everyday people being given the chance to contribute an informed common ground view to the public discourse.

Where the Left has traditionally enjoyed the appeal of deliberative democracy’s flattening of the power structure (and inferred weakening of corporate interests), at the same time it appeals to the belief of the Right that they act for the everyday person in the street rather than noisy special interests. The appeal is equal. The methodology is geared toward facilitating practical reform because its appeal is balanced by the very nature of its operation. Elected representatives on both sides truly believe they act for everyday people against organised power, so how can the appeal be anything other than even?

The 2016 US Presidential election result has been a source of anguish in some democratic reform circles. I don’t share that. If there was ever an individual to whom you could sell the idea of changing democracy and disrupting the status quo, then it is President Trump who needs to hear from people who know how to “drain the swamp.” He may make a spurious claim he does not believe when he says elections are rigged, but aren’t we as deliberative advocates saying elections are fundamentally flawed?

In discussion with an Australian venture capitalist interested in our work, he noted that disruptive innovations rarely come from insiders. The team behind Airbnb never worked in hotels. The team behind Uber never had a taxi business. Elon Musk worked neither at NASA nor General Motors nor Visa, yet look at the disruptive achievements of SpaceX, Tesla, and PayPal.

His point to me was that the pattern of innovation comes from those outside the system, and that any politician who thought like he did would know to be looking for the radical reforms from us, not the incremental as a means of stemming declining party trust, membership, and public support coming from party-aligned think tanks.

This year in Australia we have seen a Left-aligned Premier in South Australia commit to what is likely the largest – and undoubtedly the most controversial – public policy deliberation: the question of whether South Australia should pursue a commercial opportunity to accept high-level nuclear waste from other countries. In isolation, that can be seen as evidence that one side of politics favors the use of deliberation more. But I base my judgment on the span of advocacy conversations we at the newDemocracy Foundation have including the projects we expect to announce in 2017. Based on this, I would predict (for Australia at least) that we will swing to projects for Right-aligned governments this year. Each year however, the baseline rises. The political understanding of “the jury” and of the vast difference between public opinion and public judgment is rising rapidly. The success of projects which involved deliberations by randomly-selected everyday people is known in more and more of the offices we walk into. That is the critical trend.

We are still comparatively ‘young’ in our time making public deliberation the natural course of action for large-scale public decision making. In a short time the fundamentals are becoming understood. Now is not the time, particularly for those in the US, to shelve action based on flawed assumptions. Democratic reform must be led by those who are non-partisan and hold no issue positions, and it must look for those not beholden to careerism. There are no ‘right’ answers to problems, there are simply informed positions which the vast majority of people decide is right for them and that they can live with. If you read this paragraph again and accept it, then you should see the opportunity for reform is accelerating and that the opportunity is there for those who can demonstrate trustworthy operations in practice. Especially in the United States.

Notes on contributor

Iain Walker (MPP, Sydney) is Executive Director of the newDemocracy Foundation in Australia. The work of the Foundation focuses on exploring and delivering systemic structural reform based on a role for randomly selected everyday people.

Reformists Are Everywhere in Politics