Political and International Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher poses the question in The Age: How can we do democracy better?
He also highlights the ironic situation namely that with the same-sex marriage postal vote having worked so well, no one wants to see it used like this again.
Now, there are very good reasons for this.
Firstly, the issue that was involved and the campaign that followed, has been deeply damaging to the LGBTIQ community.
Secondly, the postal vote was prohibitively expensive.
Thirdly, the sophisticated pollsters already knew the answer.
Nonetheless, it did make the will of the people clear to politicians in an emphatically clear way, one which only the foolhardy or the about-to-retire would ignore,
Hartcher sees that part of the answer to bringing about improvements in the way our democracy works lies in the way question of marriage equality was resolved: through some form of plebiscite/referendum.
The issue was not that the will of the people was unclear.
The problem was that our democratically elected representatives were hamstrung when it came to legislating what was clearly the preferred option of more than 60% of the population. In other words, our democracy had effectively failed its constituency.
That was because the issue was being hijacked by a small group of right wing conservatives within the Liberal party. When this happens it has a slow corrosive effect on our democracy.
Hartcher quotes the keeper of the Australian Electoral Study, ANU’s Ian McAllister, “Trust in politicians is at its lowest at any time since we started surveying it, all the way back to 1969… falling from 51 per cent to 26%.”
Hartcher goes on to argue that methods such as the postal vote are very effective way of assessing public opinion, a far more effective way than electing a group of politicians every three or four years and letting them make up their minds on every issue that comes up, such as funding the Adani coal mine.
He then goes on to draw on the work of John Keane, professor of politics at Sydney University, who outlines the arguments for and against using referenda as a way of assessing public opinion on important legislative issues. It’s an interesting argument and worth reading.
In the case of the Adani coal mine, which appears to have very little public support nationally and very little economic and environmental rationale, there would appear to be a good argument for canvassing public opinion before the Federal government approves project, let alone puts close to $1 billion dollars into the project.
It is possible to conduct large-scale plebiscites electronically even allowing for the fact that a proportion of the population is not connected to, or cannot use, the Internet.
It is also clear that modern sampling techniques are statistically accurate enough to give accurate indications of much larger population samples.
Such techniques gave fairly accurate indications of the likely outcome of the postal vote on same-sex marriage. However, sampling may not be an adequate substitute for large-scale surveys given the requirements of democratic society.
Nonetheless, given that our Parliamentary processes are becoming confounded by inertia imposed by the vagaries of the electoral system, it is well worth considering a process whereby electronic and binding referenda are conducted on major policy issues.
For such referenda to be binding they would need a participation rate of, say, 70%+ etc.
The difficulty of such a system is that it would need to be legislated and would need to be legislated by politicians who would effectively be giving up some of their power.
But it is clear that democratic processes around the world are failing.
There has been a general wringing of hands at the process that led to the election of Donald Trump and the findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicated in the electoral process may have been deeply flawed and corrupt as well.
However, despite controlling both the Senate and the Congress, Trump has been unable to pass any major legislation.
The process of Britain’s exit from Europe appears to have be heading towards an economic disaster that political system was unable to control.
In Australia, as in Britain and the US, the influence of small fringe groups such as the Tea Party, UKIP, and One Nation is disproportionate to their support in the electorate.
All of this is a manifestation of the system that needs to be overhauled and it needs to be overhauled to make it more responsive and more reactive to public opinion.
This is happens the disillusion that Ian McAllister speaks will only deepen.