On 11 May, I had an opinion piece published in The Age under the title ‘How we can save democracy’.
On 12 May, in the Saturday paper, there were four letters in response. They took issue with different things the piece had said, or that they thought it had said. Here is a brief response, which, I hope, does justice to the concerns expressed by each of the four:
Spencer Leighton asserted that “the Western world is being brought to its knees by globalization” and that this means we will “need more than consultative processes” if we are to save Western democracies.
Tracey Bjorksten asserted that “Web-based algorithms to sift and aggregate the thoughts of the citizenry are utterly pointless if no one is listening to the result.”
John Topla argued that we should go back to the Greek notion of direct democracy, because representative democracy is fit only for barbarians and shows that the citizens are not taking responsibility for their own lives but are leaving this task to others.
And John Legge declared that, contrary to what I had argued in the piece, the voters of Europe have got it right and the “experts” have got it wrong. In other words, if I understand him, there is no problem with democracy; only with the elite makers of policy.
This is all interesting feedback on the proposition that we can revitalize our democracy by using new web-based tools to make it possible for citizens to participate in actual policy debates on an informed basis that enables us to discern the public mind better than mere elections or standard opinion polls. It would require considerable space to address the underlying concerns of each of these individuals, but the thrust of my response in each case is that I think they have charged in to criticize the proposed Yourview project without appreciating that, in fact, it is something that ought to serve their underlying concerns well, if only it can be set up to work robustly.
To begin with Leighton Spencer. The claim that globalization is bringing the Western world to its knees is highly contentious; but whatever the source of the current dilemmas facing the Western world, is it not likely that better consultative processes might enable us to build a more soundly based consensus for action? Tracey’s anxiety that such initiatives are pointless if no-one is listening is curious. Opinion polls currently make a very real, demonstrable difference to public policy and election outcomes. So, clearly, someone is listening. But don’t we want better outcomes and more engaged debate? Don’t we want a better kind of listening – and voicing of opinion? John’s bold notion that we should be going back to direct democracy, in the Athenian sense, is plainly impossible, given the scale of modern society. However, the idea of a web-based forum for direct participation is to try to recapture precisely some of the virtues of direct democracy in our large and complex kind of society.
Finally, there plainly is anxiety and confusion in Europe. Would John Legge assert that the extremist parties in Greece got it right merely because they are opposed to austerity? Does he seriously believe that Francoise Hollande’s platform is a prescription for growth and recovery in France? It could be that better policies than the austerity measures are called for, but it’s far from clear what they should be. A web-based tool of the kind we are developing is intended to sort out the pros and cons of policy proposals through the participation of citizens and the sifting of claims for clarity, credibility and informed consent. Why would he reject such an experiment in the name of the people?