Monday, November 10, 2008

Think tank: Let’s all have a vote

I had an opinion type piece in the Sunday Times a few weeks back. It's a step up from my usual letter writing. I was mainly trying to talk about something that might be feasible rather than using the chance to have a crack at something that already exists. This is the slightly longer and somewhat less well edited version.

Think tank: Let’s all have a vote.

Are we seeing the emergence of a real democracy?

In the aftermath of the Lisbon Treaty campaign considerable attention has been devoted to the apparent disconnect between the electorate and the body politic. During the course of the campaign it appeared that the public were engaged in one type of conversation while the professional political class seemed to, many members of the public at least, to talk amongst themselves. The travelling road shows of the Forum on Europe and the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs, despite considerable expense to the public purse, failed utterly to engage the people drawing small crowds of political anoraks. And if I’m being completely honest I would have to include the likes of myself in that last grouping.

Yet the wider public were quite eager to talk about Lisbon or at least what they thought Lisbon was about. When they sought to do so, all too frequently, they were not so politely told to ‘Hauld your whisht’. Rather than be silent some decided to take their views elsewhere. They went on-line.

As European Commissioner Margot Wallström noted in a recent report the on-line discussion in Ireland had a tendency to be negative towards the treaty. Yet the EU and the state’s efforts in this area, again at cost to the taxpayer, did not provide for discussion not to mind dissension. Sites such as singularly failed to engage the voting public. They existed purely to carry a line to the public, much as posters and even television and radio ads to. No questions could be asked, in some cases not even the dead letterbox of the email us to contact.

In contrast there existed outside the state sponsored sector a veritable free for all. There the discourse was perhaps all too reflective of that taking place across the country. It mirrored in all its gaudy chaos the woolly thinking, messiness, unpredictability, bald inaccuracy, prejudices and tendency towards hyperbole, all the while exposing a broad spectrum of viewpoints both for and against the treaty. The general confusion in the public mind was manifest on-line long before it came to the notice of the mainstream media. That this was the case and that the mainstream media missed it is something they appear to be unable to forget not to mind forgive.

Though much of the discussion on-line has many, many flaws, it does demonstrate that we have at our fingertips the means to extend democratic involvement beyond what Americans term ‘the beltway’. We could if we so chose seek to move away from the stale binary mentality that sees people as either passive voters or active politicians. It’s a world of gray.

Pres. Jed Bartlet, “You know we forget sometimes, in all the talk about democracy, it's a Republic. People don't make the decisions; they choose the people who make the decisions.”

In a democracy, it’s not alone the citizen’s role to ensure that they are as informed as possible when casting their vote but it is their responsibility to continue to hold to account and to actively challenge those we elect to positions of power. This is meant to be an ongoing process not just saved for election time.

The ideals of democracy are rooted in the principle that all the people or 'demos' should be involved in both the discourse and decision making process. The parliamentary forms of representative democracy that we are used to were created in large part because of limitations in travel and communication that along with the lack of educational attainment meant that only a minority of citizens could gather in one place and understand the issues being debated. That is no longer the case.

Public participation in the political process as evidenced by voting, party membership and attendance at public meetings has entered a steady decline in recent decades. The focus in addressing this disengagement has primarily on making voting more accessible, simpler and easier. This is to address the wrong problem.

By and large voting is popular with the public. Participation by the Hoi Polloi in even in the most trivial reality shows such as Big Brother, X-factor, and Fáilte Towers demonstrates people have no problem with voting. Voting is not the problem; public participation in all that comes before a vote is cast is the crux of the issue.

What we need to do is extend the arena of the political discourse to embrace the general public. Our system of parliamentary procedure has changed little from the time of Gladstone and Parnell. A day in the chamber typically consists of ritualistic jousting with press releases. Most Deputies aren’t even present to listen to what others have to say. Genuine debate, a real contest of ideas or even limited constructive argument is substantially absent from the Dail.

The majority of the population have neither the time nor even the inclination to get involved but they could be afforded a significantly greater opportunity to be involved than at present. For example, why not allow citizens to submit parliamentary questions or to have ministers address their questions in committee? Or participate in the scrutiny of legislation? A broader spectrum of involvement would be possible especially to those who do not feel the party political format fits to their range of views. This is not to eliminate the final voting power of representatives but to instead embed it more directly as the penultimate steps in the decision making process. Those who vote must lead by convincing those who would support them that the course they will vote for is the correct one. The public similarly should vote for those whose ideas and votes reflect the course they believe to be the correct one.

In the mean time, online forums and group blogs such as, and appear to be hot housing embryonic communities that may evolve into more participative forms of democracy. If a potential transition is in prospect, it must be one that serves to underpin democracy rather than merely leading to a form of e-mob rule. It is all too easy to see technology means being used like the radio was by many in the 1930s as a means to whip up a crowd and for the leader of the mob to surf to power on this wave. Let a hundred thousand flowers bloom through experimentation. In due course the public will select what works best for them once the limitations in our broadband infrastructure are overcome.

This idea/exercise in thinking out loud is intended not a magic bullet to solve the problems democracy is faced with; rather it is a diet and exercise regime that can help it revive if there still exists the will that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

‘We have the technology, should we seek to rebuild democracy?’

Update: I mentioned e-mobs and a mate of mine asked if I was coining it. Little did I know that we were about to see the media overwhelmed by some e-mobs.

I think these chaps said it quite well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, Dan; now that I've read your unexpurgated version I see what you're saying, although I still would not be fully with you on all the suggestions you make for using the internet for greater public participation in the political process - I'm an old conservative at heart, I suppose, with perhaps an excessive fear of e-mob rule! Pity your original piece was edited so much by the ST, but they usually only have space for 800 words at most.