Senate by Lot in Australia?

[This item was pointed out by other Kleroterians as well.]

The first three minutes of this video commentary in “Business Day” of The Sydney Morning Herald  is a ‘modest proposal’ to choose the Senate as juries are chosen — but excluding members of political parties, or their families, from the lot.

The original concept of the Senate to be the states’ house of review has long since been betrayed. While the major parties in less divisive times might have done some horse trading, the reviewing will now be left to those much-maligned odds and sods with the balance of power.

So to bring balance to the odds and sods, it would make sense to have many more of them and no political parties. Yes folks, it’s time to introduce Senate duty – conscription to the upper house.

And that’s not nearly as outrageous an idea as it might at first seem. After all, we trust a somewhat randomly selected jury of our peers to decide matters of much greater individual importance – whether someone goes to jail for life – so why not extend that system to the Senate?

The usual basic checks that apply to jury duty would be required, plus the condition that members of political parties and their employees would be excluded. Specifically setting out to be a Senator would preclude that possibility. The Senate’s role would become one of genuine review by a broadly representative selection of Australians, rather than a scene of party and special interest shenanigans.

As a review mechanism, Britain’s House of Lords functioned reasonably well for a century or so working on a much smaller gene pool selected on a far less democratic basis.

For a couple of hundred grand a year, plus all the weddings they could handle, most citizens wouldn’t mind being called up for a single three-year term. We’d be spared the cost of voting for them and obtain a result that couldn’t be much worse.

As for the mechanism, we love a lottery, from a chook raffle through to Power Ball. Your Medicare number would do as an entry. It would require some modification, but in a dusty Canberra corner, someone must have stored the barrel from which were plucked the birthdays of hapless Vietnam-era conscripts. This time, those selected would be winners instead of losers.

The commentator ends with “Oh well, just a thought. Too bad it will never happen – the political parties wouldn’t allow it.”

It is said that the trajectory of Big Ideas goes from ‘unthinkable’ to ‘impossible’ to ‘inevitable’. I find it not that difficult to move people from the first step to the second. It’s that next one that requires … magic?

4 Responses

  1. Exactly the same thing could be written about the Canadian Senate which is in desperate need of reform. Unfortunately, due to a series of revelations over criminally padded expense accounts involving several sitting members of the chamber, the public wants to see it eliminated outright. This is really too bad because like the Australian Senate, it could be filled by lot without the need for a major overhaul in ether its constitutional powers or its internal workings.


  2. Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty published a book, The Athenian Option (Imprint Academic, 2008) suggesting a similar approach for the UK House of Lords, which generated some interest at the time of the Royal Commission into reform of the Lords (Wakeham commission). It’s an irony of history that the uber-democratic mechanism of sortition is now being suggested for the upper house, whereas members of the Commons are appointed by the aristocratic principle of election. But who cares — what’s in a name; the important thing is that the Senate should have the right of veto, so that the Commons would need to generate bills that are likely to receive the approval of an informed microcosm of the public.


  3. The comments at the end make for interesting reading — good to hear we can add Douglas Adams and Billy Connolly to the list of those who would exclude anyone seeking political office from actually obtaining it (Arthur C. Clarke and a feted South American novelist whose name escapes me are the usual ones cited). But the devil is in the detail, as one commentator observed:

    “What is stopping each new Senator from being offered a well-paid directorship in Mr Palmer’s company? It couldn’t influence any decisions that they make that could impact on his business empire, could it? What happens if the person fronts up with a Bible and just quotes chunks of text and refuses to pass legislation because it doesn’t conform to the fairly narrow tenets of their particular cult (or Torah or Koran or Dianetics manual or Gitas or Wiccan texts, etc). Considering that we pay so much to maintain the body, we can expect it to reflect our choices and act as our representatives.”

    All the more reason for insisting on secret voting and a judgment-only aggregative mandate (especially as the Senate is a reviewing chamber). It would reflect our choices in the sense that the statistical sample would mirror how the whole citizen body would decide under good conditions (balanced information and advocacy). It really is important to consider the views of the vast majority of citizens who would be disenfranchised by the lottery and a full-mandate allotted assembly could easily be corrupted in the way described above.


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