Just suppose, for a moment, that every Australian taxpayer had an opportunity to distribute say, 10 per cent of their taxation payment to one or more of the following: education, health, welfare, defence, the environment, or infrastructure/research.
Would people respond to such an opportunity?
Would they feel that they, as individuals, had some real and direct say in the areas in which they wanted they government to direct their hard-earned tax dollars.
Or, would people think it was an onerous and unwelcome duty and it should be governments which decide where the tax dollars should go?
If discretionary tax allocation is a good idea, how could we make it policy?
How do we go about changing or making policy outcomes?
In most parliamentary-style democracies around the world politicians and political parties pull out all the stops at election time.
Babies are kissed, cross-country tours are undertaken, promises are made and stirring speeches are given.
Voters are encouraged to tick boxes and then we settle down to several years of political argy-bargy, amended or broken promises, and the same-old-same-old as bureaucrats attempt to keep everything ticking over until the next electoral festival.
Well, there are signs from around the planet that ordinary, educated and thoughtful people everywhere are feeling that they want more honesty and accountability from their government.
Perceived failures in economic and social policies by established governments has seen the rise of ‘strong-man’ populism in many countries (not the least, in the United States),
In places such as Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela, Hong Kong, Iraq, Iran, and Lebanon levels of dissatisfaction and anger over social and economic inequality and entrenched corruption have brought together people from all walks of life to protest against the apparent downward spiral of human rights and economic opportunity in their countries.
People everywhere are seeking answers and actions on a broad range of issues; jobs, civil rights, and corruption.
Other matters may involve concerns over environmental issues and the perceived increasing effects of climate change.
In short, people want a new deal from their political system.
The problem for ‘old guard’ politicians is that more people are educated and the world has been never so transparent, thanks to digital technologies and social media.
The 24/7 news cycle and the inability of politicians to as easily hide from scrutiny as once may have been the case means that public cynicism can quickly erode election-time edifices of trust and competence.
So, what is the future of democracy in any of its current forms likely to look like?
In contemporary Europe a remarkable range and scale of attempts to ‘fine-tune’ democracy is underway.
In one small city in Belgium (a country that only a few years ago went without a government for 589 days) an experiment is proceeding whereby ordinary citizens, chosen randomly, will have the opportunity to shape policy alongside elected members of the local parliament.
The governance of the city of Ostbelgien will thus have the first permanent citizens’ assembly in the world … well, a system of government that an ancient Athenian from around 450BC may have recognised (although the ancient Greeks allowed only free male citizens to have a say).
Elsewhere, the ‘sortition’ (citizens drafted to a parliament by lot) may be gathering popularity in a number of European communities.
Variations of the form may be found in places such as Iceland and Canada.
But, it seems that at the larger scale – the state and national level – it will be the professional or career politician who will continue as before.
‘Shouters’ and single-issue barrow pushers may not ultimately be the answer to democracy’s shortcomings.
While more consultative committees and public forums may rise in number in societies such as ours there is a view among those in power, and who want to continue to be in power, that ordinary folk simply cannot be trusted to make good decisions.
For our part a great many of us will also have a jaundiced view of our parliamentary representatives.
Ultimately, it may be the case that any person who wants to offer themself in the future as an effective and valuable full-time politician will have to develop a higher awareness that the job does involve responsibility and accountability – and that scrutiny of these things may grow, not lessen.
“Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others.” (Winston Churchill said it, quoting someone else, in the House of Commons, 1947.)
Democracy then, despite its perceived shortcomings we have from time to time, remains the best system to safeguard and guide the future of any nation and its citizens.
In this regard it may be that the best chance the modes of democracy we currently enjoy around the world will rest on the continued effectiveness of a free press in holding elected politicians and governments to account against their promises and performance – and a framework of a fair and effective judicial system.To order photos from this page click here