Five not-so-off-the-wall proposals to improve the political process
1. Appoint your own representative. Shareholder style.
In theory, you are represented in parliament by the person elected in your electorate. But what if you didn’t vote for him or her? Do you feel you’re truly represented? Can you withdraw your representation? Of course not. You’re saddled with whoever it is until it’s election time again.
I don’t know about you, but I’d much rather choose my own representative than be stuck with someone I neither like nor agree with just because I live in a specific geographic area. How about switching parliamentary representation to the company “proxy model?”
When you own shares in a company, you can either represent yourself and vote those shares at a general meeting or appoint someone to vote on your behalf. Specifying whether it’s “yay” or “nay” on each specific issue.
Given today’s technology, there’s no reason why that model cannot be applied to parliament.
Elections as we know them would disappear. Instead, would-be representatives would seek our proxy. A proxy that could come from a voter in any part of the country instead of a specific geographic area; a proxy we could withdraw, switch or restrict at any time.
Assuming the number of members of the parliament remains unchanged, the members elected would be those with the most proxies. In the US House of Representatives, for example, the top 435.
But, as we can simply login and switch our proxies at any time, those 435 members won’t necessarily sit in House until the next election.
Say we gave our proxy to Bloggs who was the 435th elected ’cause we figured he was a good guy. But it turns out he’s a charlatan. If enough other people think the same way, Bloggs would be thrown and replaced by Smith—who was number 436. No need to wait until the next election, or organize a recall if such an option is available to you.
Or, if Bloggs was generally okay but you disagree with him strongly on a particular issue—whether it be climate change, abortion, same-sex marriage, or whatever—you could give your proxy on that specific issue to Jones, or someone else who agreed with you.
That’d sure as hell keep those pollies on their toes–and make “representative democracy” truly representative!
2. Referendums: when “we the people” speak—and are heard!
Supposedly, in a democracy, we the people are the rulers.
The reality of course is somewhat different. Every two to six years, depending on what country you’re living in, you get to cast a vote. Usually, we have only two choices, thanks to the way the political process works.
The aim of every political party is to secure a majority of the parliament or congress, which enables it to rule. Sometimes, of course, a coalition of two or more parties is needed to create a parliamentary majority.
Either way, as voters our effective choice is severely limited.
Switzerland offers a somewhat different model: the referendum.
If just 110,000 Swiss citizens—a mere 1.85% of registered voters—object to a law, they can call for a referendum. If a majority votes against the law, it becomes null and void.
That same (or another) 100,000 citizens can propose an issue for a referendum.
In Switzerland, the people are indeed the rulers.
In 1974 I met a Swiss banker in Sydney who commented that he had always thought there were just far too many referendums in Switzerland.
Until he came to Australia.
Two years earlier the Labor Party won the federal election after 23 years in the wilderness of Opposition. Led to victory by the charismatic Gough Whitlam, the Labor government attempted 23 years’ worth of what it believed were much needed reforms into just a year or two.
The result was destabilising and unnerving for too many people.
Had the Swiss model prevailed, many of those reforms would have been rejected by the voters—and Gough might have been re-elected instead of being thrown out of office.
3. Anyone who volunteers him- or herself for public office should be automatically barred
Politics attracts people who like to have power over others. Those others being us.
Politicians tell us they’re there to “serve the greater good.” If that’s really the case, they should be happy to ban any power-luster who is, after all, only out to serve him- or herself—at everybody else’s expense.
4. The Venetian model
An intriguing provision in the Republic of Venice was that every public official had to take an oath of office. From the Doge (equivalent of president or prime minister) to lowliest officeholder.
One of several reasons the Venetian Republic lasted for almost a thousand years—until Napoleon invaded it in 1797.
The oath was not just a formality. Far from it: more a contract than an oath. And any officeholder who broke his oath could be sued and fined for the equivalent of breach of promise or breach of contract.
Similar to the impeachment process in the United States?
True, the president of the United States takes an oath. And can be impeached for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”
But the impeachment process is cumbersome: initiated by the House of Representatives by a simple majority, which is the equivalent of an indictment, and then tried by the Senate, conviction requiring a two-thirds majority.
Only two US presidents have ever been impeached: Andrew Johnson (1868) and Bill Clinton (1998). Both were acquitted by the Senate.
In Venice, by contrast, there was a special attorney’s department whose primary function was to prosecute officeholders who had broken their oath.
And they often were. From the Doge to Admirals of the Fleet, the Venetian equivalent of Ministers and Congressmen—to the lowliest public official. Sometimes even bankrupted by the amount they were fined.
Adopting a similar procedure would certainly keep politicians and bureaucrats on their toes!
5. Negative votes
Another interesting feature of the Venetian Republic was negative votes.
Instead of just voting for someone, you could also vote against. The winner was the candidate with the most positive votes, provided that the total positive votes exceeded the total negative votes.
At the moment the only way you can vote against someone is to vote for someone else.
Imagine what might happen if you could cast negative votes along with positive ones.
For example, just prior to the 2016 American presidential election polls gave Donald Trump an unfavorable rating of 55%, slightly better than Hillary Clinton’s negative rating of 55.3%.
Had voters been able to cast negative votes they might both have lost. Fancy that!
This is hardly untypical. An Australian poll last September asked the question “Who would make the worse prime minister?” 54% of respondents nominated the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, for the “prize”—while 54% figured the sitting prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was worse . . . head to head in a race to the bottom!
And in Britain, a July poll measured the PM Theresa May’s personal approval rating at minus 12%, while the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn weighed in at minus 30%.
Given the option of negative votes along with positive ones (don’t hold your breath) an overwhelming majority would probably have voted for none of the above!
The implications of negative voting are fascinating.
Currently, a political party’s aim is to field a candidate who will receive more votes than the opponent. No matter that all the candidates have approval levels under 50%.
As the joke going around during the 2016 US presidential election put it:
What’s the good thing about Trump? He’s not Hillary.
What’s the good thing about Hillary? She’s not Trump.
Not very funny!
Certainly, Trump and Hillary (or the Republicans and Democrats, which aren’t necessarily the same thing) had their loyal supporters. But for most “swing” or independent voters the choice was between the lesser of two evils—or simply staying home on election day.
So from the political parties’ point of view the key to victory is not to have a candidate who the majority of voters approve of (though that’s a big bonus!) but to have a candidate whose disapproval rating is lower than the opponent’s.
Negative votes turn things around 180 degrees. When the winner is the one whose positive votes must exceed his or her negative ones, a low disapproval rating suddenly become essential to victory.
This list hardly exhausts all the possibilities for improving the political process. Any other thoughts or suggestions? Please comment below.
I admit, the chances of any of these entirely reasonable proposals being adopted anytime, anywhere soon is, while not zero, pretty close. After all, any one of them entails our “lords and masters” reducing their power over us, a proposition they will only be willing to accept under extreme duress.
So I’m not holding my breath and I suggest you don’t hold yours either.