Opinion: Anning proves the system needs fixing, politicians need the people’s input

Executive Director of The newDemocracy Foundation, Iain Walker, reckons a citizen jury is more likely to make policy recommendations Australians can get behind than a politician with vested interests.

The story of Fraser Anning’s path to parliament shows the flaws in our election process. He was elected for one party, then immediately left to stand as an independent, then joined a different party.

Senator Anning claims to speak for his community. But is he speaking for the One Nation voters who actually voted for him; or is he speaking for Katter Australia Party voters? Given most of us vote for a party – not a candidate – in the Senate, should a senator who received a tiny share of one party's ticket votes be able to switch to another party when they're in parliament?

Extreme views get TV views but good policy is rarely extreme. 

Here’s the problem as I see it. Politicians are expected to have a position on literally everything.

This is a criticism of an outmoded system, not our politicians. You may vote for the Right of politics because you agree with their economic philosophy, but in so doing, you sign up for a set of positions on social policies you don’t necessarily agree with. And vice versa if you vote for parties on the Left.

What Anning has done is electorally smart. Our electoral system favours candidates who take extreme positions because extreme views get TV views. And when your face is on TV you get votes. Dominating earned media time worked for Donald Trump. He’s the first candidate to win a presidential election despite spending vastly less money than an opponent – $600m vs. $1.1bn.

But media soundbites are no substitute for policy documents. If you’ve ever read a party’s policy on an issue, you’re part of a vanishingly small fraction of people. Or what about a policy from a party that doesn’t reinforce your existing belief? I didn’t think so. It’s OK. The system is geared for you not to do this.

To say that ‘elections = democracy’ is wrong. Elections divide us, but democracy should unite us. When we make decisions together, we’re more likely to commit to moving forward together.

The good news is that this can be fixed. We have a mechanism in society for making decisions which we broadly trust: the jury. A random mix of everyday people listen to contested evidence and are given a chance to think and discuss it before finding common ground.

A citizen jury isn't in it for the headline.

It's time we apply the jury process to how we make decisions about the way Australia is governed.  I’m talking about citizens juries.

A citizens’ jury brings together a cross-section of the community – rich and poor, old and young – to debate a given topic for 40+ hours. They are informed about the topic from academics, lobbyists, interest groups, activists; the list goes on. Everyone is paid for their time, so they feel valued. The jury’s ideas are then given to a governing body as a recommendation. For example, if the citizen’s jury was discussing immigration – the issue that sees Senator Anning in hot water – they would give their recommendation to the Immigration Minister and the parliament. Doing this adds a perspective that doesn’t come from a predictable “well they would say that wouldn’t they” special interest group point of view so doesn’t lead to predictable party-aligned responses.

In Australia and around the world, people trust these juries. If the public know that a bunch of their fellow citizens chosen at random have reached consensus around a decision, they immediately have more trust in that decision than if it were made solely by someone in elected office or the public service.

As a society hearing a jury’s verdict, we never think they did it for the headline or to help their career. Can we say the same of our representatives in parliament?

Iain Walker is the Executive Director of The newDemocracy Foundation which seeks to identify, test and implement better ways to do democracy.