Paul Keating once called the Australian Senate unrepresentative swill, but the truth is, the description applies just as well to the House of Representatives.
Its members are increasingly drawn from a smaller and smaller section of the population, and in fact, an inordinate number of them are political operatives of one sort or another, ushered into parliamentary seats where, especially in safe seats, they become virtually immovable.
So whereas less than one per cent of Australians work as political consultants or lobbyists—in fact, the number is so small, statisticians can’t even measure it—a massive 11.9% of them sit in parliament. Party and union administrators are also a vanishingly small part of the general population (again, less than one per cent) but they make up 8.4% of parliament.
Nurses make up 2.1% of working Australians (there are 220,000 of them), but there is precisely one nurse in parliament. Trades people are 13.5% of the general population but 0.4% of parliament. Teachers run 3.5% and 0.4%.
In terms of ethnicity and gender, it’s a joke: 6% of parliamentarians come from non-English speaking backgrounds compared to 23% for the rest of us. Woman may hold up half the sky, but they make up just 29% of the Reps and 39% of the Senate. Labor is 44/56 women to men, which isn’t too bad and has been achieved with a quota system, while the Coalition runs at an embarrassing 20/80.
Are we really surprised, then, that we are losing faith in our parliament, in democracy itself?
To try and improve things, Australians have been tinkering with the system that creates this massive level of unrepresentativeness. Using the tools available to them, they have been trying to break the two-party stranglehold on power and insert alternatives into parliament.
This has been somewhat successful, at least in the Senate, where proportional voting gives such candidates a reasonable chance of being elected in sufficient numbers to deprive the big parties of a majority. Even in the lower house, where preferential voting channels our votes back to the majors, we have managed to insert two independents and three members from minor parties.
Given the way voting is currently structured, however, such tinkering has limited chances of success.
So one thing we could do is change the voting system in the lower house, so that it, too, uses proportional representation (PR). One simulation of what this would look like, based on the 2013 election results, suggests that PR would’ve delivered 14 seats to smaller parties (most of them Greens) and 9 independents.
Good, but I think we can do better.
To really make our parliament representative, we need to introduce a system called sortition. That means that instead of voting for members of parliament, we simply appoint them from a random selection of the population. They would serve for a certain amount of time—maybe a year—and then they would be replaced by another random selection of citizens. It is similar to the way we appoint juries. It means that, just as everyone may be called upon to decide the outcome of a court case, under sortition, we could all be called upon to serve in parliament and decide upon legislation.
The idea sounds radical, but its roots lie in the origins of democracy itself. The Ancient Greeks used sortition rather than voting to appoint nearly all their office holders because they believed that it was the only way to actually achieve the self-rule that is the defining characteristic of democracy. In fact, Aristotle himself said that voting leads to oligarchy while only sortition enables democracy.
Look around you, at the narrowness of our political class: do honestly doubt the truth of what he says?
The knee-jerk response against sortition is something along the lines that you can’t trust ordinary voters to take their role seriously, or that they lack the necessary skills and expertise to run a complex thing like a nation.
Are you fucking kidding me?
Our actual governments, over decades, have imposed on us everything from privatisation and other forms of neoliberal dogma, while failing miserably to properly address everything from climate change to stagnating wages. The Morrison Government recently voted in favour of a white supremacist-inspired motion in the Senate, claiming their yes-vote was an ‘administrative error’.
These guys are hardly in a position to claim any form of governing superiority.
On the other hand, evidence from such things as citizens assemblies, deliberative polls, and other formal gatherings where random groups of citizens are asked to adjudicate on complex matters of policy, show time and again, that given the chance, and with the right structures in place, ordinary people do brilliantly (and I document examples of this in my new book, The Future of Everything).
The idea that we can’t handle the responsibility or the complexity is just another lie spouted by the political class to keep us in our place and them in charge. We shouldn’t fall for it.
Gandhi once said (allegedly) that first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. I suspect sortition is at the laughing stage, but for god’s sake, how much longer are we going to put up with the utter despair being wrought by our current system before we take back control from the clowns currently in charge?
We need wholesale, bottom-up reform to reinvigorate our democracy. Yes, sortition is a big change, but we are well past the stage where we can just fiddle at the edges.
Tim Dunlop is an author and commentator. His latest book is, The Future of Everything: Big Audacious Ideas for a Better World