Gruen: A pathway to sortition

Nicholas Gruen, an Australian economist, consultant, commentator and former adviser to the Australian federal government, has two lengthy articles in The Mandarin advocating introducing a sortition-based body into the Australian political system. Gruen’s proposal is to create an allotted body with 6 year terms and some measure of legislative veto powers.

It is unfortunate that as a background for his discussion, Gruen offers the familiar story of the failures of the electoral system stemming from the elite’s pandering to the voters’ uninformed whims. This explanation seems to never lose its appeal despite clashing both with the fact that in practice policy outcomes in electoral systems overwhelmingly serve the elites and with the truism that those in power tend to serve their own interests.

The articles are of the interest for being another step in sortition’s journey into mainstream politics, and in particular for taking a step beyond the ad-hoc issue panel setup that is by now familiar in Australia. But beyond those points, the articles are interesting for Gruen’s suggestion for how sortition can be promoted:

I’d like to go hunting for the funds – from philanthropists and from ordinary concerned folk like you and me via crowdfunding – to simply establish a people’s chamber outside our official constitutional institutions.

Operating either at state of federal level, can you imagine a body of – say 101 people chosen at random from the relevant population sitting as a citizen’s chamber? It would be given the resources for some research capacity and to call expert witnesses. One might sit four times a year for nine days – encompassing one week and the weekend on either side of it. Resources would have to be found for at least the airfares to a central location and accommodation, but ideally also for some pay for all that work.

And if that were beyond the resources of a fledgling social movement, a more targeted approach would involve creating the chamber on an ad hoc basis, perhaps to coincide with a looming election, though if I were in England I’d make it an issues based convention – on Brexit. The chamber would deliberate on the choices before the electorate at large in just the way the citizens bodies in Oregon do on specific measures.

They would deliberate on the parties’ policies, they would invite spokespeople for those parties or others to address them and help them deliberate on the merits of the choices to be made by the people. They would also, as occurs in Oregon, work on brief communiqués explaining the case for and against various options together with how the body voted on them. It would also be highly instructive if members of the body were asked to identify how they intended to vote at the beginning and the end of the process with the aggregate results also communicated to the public.

I think this could have an electrifying effect on political business as usual. No-go areas such as those I itemised above might start to become more appealing for politicians under cover of strong support from the people’s chamber, but the reckless policies like abolishing carbon pricing and resource rent taxation which were designed not to endure a decade or more in government, but rather to get an Opposition through a radio interview might be much more hazardous for vox pop politicians to propose.

At least that’s what I confidently expect. And if I’m wrong we will have lost very little.

The idea of setting up an allotted body on an independent, non-government initiative has a lot of merit, although successful execution will be quite challenging. Beyond obtaining the substantial necessary funds, it will be difficult to set things up so that the body is not controlled by an elite and serving narrow interests.

However, assuming that the constitution of the allotted body can be carried out successfully, tying the hypothetical body’s agenda to that of the electoral system seems like a serious mistake. This would be a recipe for having it manipulated by the elected and wasting its energies and credibility by becoming a piece in elite in-fights. It would be much better to have the allotted body focus on issues on which the citizen body has a broad consensus and on which the electoral elite and the citizen body are at odds: the way in which public policy and government rules and regulations are determined in ways that serve the elected themselves and the elite forces which they serve. In doing so, the body would establish itself as being an independent political force that represents the popular interest and sentiment against the elitism inherent in electoralism and in this way over time gain popular support and political power.

5 Responses

  1. “the truism that those in power tend to serve their own interests”

    That may be a tautology for Marxian political theory, but political science is an empirical, non-axiomatic discipline. The evidence is highly disputed — see, for example, the long thread on Gilens and Page on this blog. The British political establishment is currently pursuing a policy (Brexit) that it believes to be profoundly against its own interests.


  2. Your childlike faith in the goodness of the powerful is truly touching, Sutherland.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Political science is an empirical discipline that has nothing to do with the axioms of faith — Marxist, humanist or whatever.


  4. This has been my idea for sometime but Canadians are very passive and well institutionalized and I haven’t had the personal scope to overcome the inertia. But I agree that the best approach is simply a unilateral declaration of a citizens assembly and publication of its procedures and purposes and making policy directives on behalf of the citizenry as a whole.

    Sent from my iPhone

    Liked by 1 person

  5. >making policy directives on behalf of the citizenry as a whole.

    I’m a little nervous about abandoning the language of liberal democracy in favour of tropes that have been abused by all kinds of unsavoury dictators claiming to have such a holistic vision. The best that can be said of a randomly-selected citizen assembly is that, given certain strict conditions, policy decisions would be likely to reflect the considered preferences of a simple majority of citizens.

    Liked by 1 person

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