Plebiscites: Why Stop at One?

Photo by Chairman of the Joint Chief | CC BY 2.0

The same-sex marriage plebiscite is done, everyone had a chance to have their say and the verdict is in. The ‘Yes’ vote is elated and the ‘No’ vote is despondent. Prime Minister Turnbull has resolved the conflict between himself and his anti-SSM supporters within the Liberal Party, at the cost to the Australian taxpayer of $122 million. As far as marriage equality is concerned, the issue is settled, having been resolved in the affirmative.

But what of the exercise in direct democracy? Was there not a double victory? On the one hand, we had the vote for equality. But on the other, we had direct participation in the formation of policy. Was this not an equally significant exercise? A full 80% of Australians responded, an unusually high number for a voluntary plebiscite.

In the case of the same-sex marriage issue, the plebiscite went to a postal vote – so some speculated, to favour older Australians accustomed to snail mail who would also be more likely to vote in the negative. Despite the technologically wieldier options on the table, the government still managed to successfully collect the votes, count them and collate the data.

It could just have just as easily been processed on the internet; go to a web address, enter your tax file, Centrelink or driver’s license number, and vote. The plebiscite would have been easier on the internet; the system could have been set up to collect and tabulate the data automatically, as the ABS does during the Census (though attempting to avoid server overloads and the like).

For the speculative-minded, maybe there was another reason why the plebiscite over same-sex marriage was carried out via postal vote. Had the government gone to the trouble and expense of setting up an internet portal for the vote, this would have immediately begged the question as to why it could not be used for other issues.

Take the plight of the remaining men on Manus Island, for example. What if the Australian public was presented with a variety of options and given the opportunity to vote on the best avenue of recourse for ending their suffering? It would be best now of course just to bring them to Australia in line with our international refugee commitments, but what about similar scenarios in the future?

What about the extremely unpopular Carmichael coal mine, and the decision by our government to subsidize a rail link to a shipping port on the Great Barrier Reef to the tune of almost a billion dollars? Given the scale of the funds involved and the devastating effects of the mine on our global commitments to cutting carbon emissions, surely this would be an ideal issue to take to a direct vote.

If plebiscites are good enough for marriage equality, they’re certainly good enough for issues affecting the long-term sustainability of our natural environment. The Great Barrier Reef is already being bleached out as it is.

What about other social issues, like the idea of a universal basic income? Imagine a public debate spread out over a couple of months with a direct vote at the end over whether or not to make sure every Australian is able to receive a livable income? If there is not so much concern over the fate of the most economically vulnerable in the community, there certainly is in the community. A direct vote would make that clear enough.

But a plebiscite over an issue like the universal basic income would not just be a debate about that one policy issue, it would have the potential become a debate about values and the direction in which we as Australians and as a society wanted to go. Such a debate would be carried out on television, over radio, on social media, in schools, in the community.

In providing an avenue for regular people to become active participants in the moulding of specific outcomes, it would have an infinitely greater effect on political culture than the stage-managed campaigns that form the dreary stuff of the regular campaign cycle. If everyone felt they had a bit more of a say, it might even help to take the steam out of a lot of the angrier and more hateful political tendencies that thrive on negativity and destructive impulses.

But then perhaps we might be letting the genie out of the bottle, and having some participation in the development of specific policy outcomes would beg greater questions about the makeup of our political system. A taste of greater freedom and agency might become a powerful thing. The system of representative democracy was, after all, conceived of in the days when the height of communications technology was the carrier pigeon. In Australia, it was brought into being when the height of technology was the radio telegraph.

Today we have the internet, which tends towards the question as to why we have yet to organize a form of social organization and political decision making that takes proper advantage of our ability to move bits of information around the world at the speed of light. Why, in other words, do we need representing when we can communicate our intentions practically anywhere, at any time? This may well present as a dangerous line of thinking for those with an investment in things as they are.

It has been said that the attitude of the Turnbull government towards the NBN has been dictated by its relationship with Rupert Murdoch, and his desire to suppress the development of high quality internet services in Australia as a threat to his business interests. If this is so, maybe this goes some way towards accounting for why we do not as a society spend more time engaging directly in the formation of policy, despite the preponderance of means to do so. If Murdoch is afraid of the NBN, imagine how he would respond to the idea of regular plebiscites. But then again, whose democracy is it? Maybe this is one of the questions that instituting regular plebiscites should seek to address.

From a more banal point of view, we certainly seem to spend enough of our time ‘liking’ various things on social media. If we are so accustomed to seeking approval for social posts, why not social policy? If constantly seeking the approval of others is not the most appropriate approach to social relationships, maybe this unhealthy aspect of social media can be harnessed for the social good instead, in enhancing the relationship between political decision-makers and their constituents, at the very least.

This assumes of course that political decision makers want closer relationships with their constituents. A notable facet of the plebiscite over SSM was the way that the constituents of many of the more vocal opponents of the issue voted with it. Representatives who embrace positions counter to their own constituents might prefer the broader population to be passive, atomized, afraid of their own shadows, ignorant of anything outside of their own narrow world, and susceptible to, well, hot air. Some will always find the idea of greater freedom for others a threat to their privilege.

In this case then, ours is not a problem of ability, but of will. We could apply the old cooperative adage of the administration of things, rather than the government of people, becoming a far more self-managed society, far more mature, self-actualised and proud in the greater levels of personal autonomy we enjoy. We could learn to discuss issues patiently and respectfully, rather than attacking one another in the press and from behind the safety of the internet.

Some might object to the idea of direct democracy on the grounds of the capacity if the mass of the population; as Milton once pointed out, however, ‘they who have put out the people’s eyes, reproach them of their blindness.’ People who do not have wisdom and intellect sufficient for self-management still in theory have wisdom and intellect sufficient to choose their political representatives, or so the story goes. Clearly, if we can be trusted to choose our own political representatives, we can be trusted to vote directly on the issues that affect us, even if not the most wise depositry of the public interest. We can of course learn.

The only way to get better at taking control of the course of our own lives is to have the opportunity to do so. What better way to do so in the immediate term than through the introduction of internet-based, directly-democratic, issues-based voting? Most of us already use the internet for banking, or to access government services such as Medicare, Centrelink or the tax system. We could add a voting platform to the My.Gov website, a smartphone app, permanent voting areas in your local shopping centre.

Introducing regular national plebiscites could be a way of dipping our toes in the proverbial pool for a wider rollout at state and municipal levels. As the world becomes more volatile, as natural resources decline and climate change becomes more acute, we will all need to be more engaged in the issues of the day, and better informed to stay on top of changes as they arise.

Jefferson once observed that ‘men [sic] by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties”:

1, those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2dly those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them cherish and consider them as the most honest & safe, altho’ not the most wise depository of the public interests.

While those who fear and distrust the people, and who wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes have plenty to fear from the idea of regular, internet-based plebiscites, those who have confidence in them have plenty to like.

As seems to have been demonstrated by the example just gone, they offer people a reason to be engaged and informed, to be involved beyond the simple act of voting. As ways for the mass of the population to develop a sense of themselves as a united whole who can change society for the better, they could challenge the negativity, and vicious cycles of fear, blame and retribution that seem to characterize politics as usual today, all of which drives our descent into social and environmental catastrophe. Instead, through regular plebiscites as a first step towards more active participation of the populace in direct self-management, we might pursue a democratic renaissance powered by an active citizenry, encouraged into positivity and virtuous cycles of courage and compassion by the strengthening of our own individual and collective sense of agency.

Ben Debney is the author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).