Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Things that would help our democracy

Forgive the volume of my posting, non-existent reader, I have years of repressed blogging impulse to get off my chest.

Regarding my last post, I am in favour of democracy, specifically modern Western representative style democracy, despite my occasional gripes and frustrations with the realities of living in a society where its hard to make sensible policy decisions that happen to be unpopular.

I spend a bit of time thinking about democracy, its merits, its flaws, ways we do it well and ways we do it better. Some practical changes I think ours could merit:

1. Private political donations should be outlawed. People or corporations wishing to donate to a party or candidate should instead give their money to an independent body (possibly a sub-branch of the AEC), along with instructions on how they wish that money to be directed. That body would pool all money for the candidate / party and then doll the funds out in increments that conceal to the greatest extent possible the timing and size of the incoming donations, so as to create a reasonable mask of anonymity in the donation process. This would in my mind strike a fair balance between our democratic right to put resources into political causes we believe in, and our collective need to stop anyone using money to corrupt our political system in their favour.

Possible issues: It would require trust in the independent body to act in good faith, but this is already nessecary with respect to the AEC (not to mention the ombudsman, ACCC, the courts, etc.) Its going to be a difficult idea to sell to the likes of the NSW Labor Party, who are highly skilled at the money-making game and are unlikely to want to give up the doubtlessly large proportion of the revenue flow that will cease once donators no longer think they can buy influence. One final issue is, if you really believe in the scheme, can you also outlaw private entities spending money on political causes in other ways, e.g. by directly taking out ads in a newspaper promoting a candidate? What about the billionaire who buys newspapers or TV stations outright to promote a political agenda? Lacking the kind of protection Americans enjoy via the First Amendment, we must be mindful to balance the need for integrity in the political process against any limitation on our right to free speech.

An extension to this idea I have read online, that could perhaps make up for the reduced levels of donations this system would incur, is that all voters should receive a fixed government-funded voucher (for say $10) to be used as a donation to the political party of their choice.

2. We should switch to a voting system like Punchscan. For a start, the use of computer technology make election results (even in Upper houses) near instantaneous, and enable the use of better preference distribution algorithms like Meek's Method that are too complex to implement under hand counting. Much more importantlt, Punchscan, unlike the hopelessly flawed kinds of electronic voting systems often used in places like America, actually greatly increases the security and integrity of the electoral process.

Possible issues: Usability - although its not that much harder than numbering boxes, you should always endeavour for voting to be as easy as possible. Also, in its current form, Punchscan is only suitable for single-choice (first past the post) elections. I can envisage ways to extend it to preferential systems like ours, but only at the expense of further complicating the voting process. Nonetheless, I think its got to be a worthwhile tradeoff. Hundreds of hours of vote counting and scutineerling labour saved, much higher accuracy, instantaneous results, the freedom to use different proportional systems, and practically unriggable elections. My only regret would be the loss of Antony Green's election night analysis.

I had more suggestions to add, but they elude me for now. Perhaps another blog post later.

Any State or Federal MPs reading, by any chance?


James said...

Interesting... I'd outlaw any corporate donation while you're at it - if we're not giving them the vote, they should have no political power except through people interested in their fate.

James said...

Oh, and by the way, you've been syndicated:


With Respect to X said...

Sorry, the term private donation was unnecessarily confusing. I meant any donation made by a private entity, whether an individual or a corporation. Plain old 'donation' would have gotten my message across more clearly I suppose.

Alex said...

Do you think corporations would still find underhanded ways to fund candidates? At least now the donations are public knowledge.

Alex said...

This blog doesn't allow anonymous comments, so MPs can't let you know they've read it :)

James said...

"I meant any donation made by a private entity, whether an individual or a corporation."

Err, I think I understood that. I was just suggesting that I would not even allow corporations to donate anonymously... because I'm mean, yeah.

With Respect to X said...

@alex: Yes, corporations conceivably could still give politicians underhand donations. Just like I can in theory currently bribe the Minister for Planning to give me a multi-million dollar development approval. We have reasonably good (certainly not perfect) mechanisms in our current system to deal with this kind of outright, illegal corruption (which is what non-anonymous donations would amount to under my scheme.)
I just picked this particular blog because, well, I already had a Google account, it seemed easy... no anonymous comments is kinda annoying. Is it a setting I can change, or is it an inbuilt policy of blogger? I'll see if I can fiddle with it...

@james - I certainly would allow corporations to continue to donate; in general, I'm a pretty pro-corporation guy to be honest. Corporations pay taxes, have laws they must obey, employ people, may be parties in a lawsuit, etc. Ultimately, corporations just represent the collective (economic) interest of a bunch of people. Corporate greed and immorality can be detrimental to society, to be sure, but ultimately, you're just talking about human greed and immorality, that happens to be abstracted away to a collective entity (similar for example to a Government.) I see no need to place extra restrictions on the way corporations spend their money above and beyond those applying to ordinary people, unless a compelling case to do so exists.

James said...

It's more that I think allowing them to donate and not vote is half-arsed. If we think they belong in the political process (i.e. their interests are important independent of their members), we should work out a formal representative scheme rather than having them attempt to buy influence/ideological direction.

With Respect to X said...

OK, well, I can see where you're coming from here. Let the shareholders put their dividends where their votes are.

The problem is corporations are decidedly entrenched in the political process, whether we let them donate or not.

Corporations spend billions on law cases, trying to establish legal precedents that can have wide ranging consequences on our society. If Bill Gates can spend his money on lawyers like this, why shouldn't Microsoft?

The Business Council of Australia bankrolled an independent (although nonetheless partisan) advertising campaign trying to keep the Howard Government in power for the sake of preserving WorkChoices at the last federal election (this ties in to the point I made in the original post about non-donation donations...) If the Trade Unions had a right to run a campaign, surely the BCA did too?

Corporations routinely lobby directly on legislation and trade deals that effect their industry. I think theirs is a voice that should be heard on such issues (of course not to the exclusion of others.)

Corporations have an economic and legal existence, and thus economic and legal interests; by extension, they have a political existence and political interests. Let them use their economic power to promote political ends if thats what's in the corporations best interest, so long as they don't engage in corrupt conduct.

Really, this whole argument comes down to the problematic nature of allowing these entities called Corporations to exist (not that we really have any choice anymore - that cat is well and truly out of the bag. Overall, I think the experiment has proven to be more positive than negative.)

Do they or should they have rights, and/or responsibilities, above and beyond those of their individual members? These are deep and difficult questions, that can equally apply to other human associations that extend beyond the individual, from Families to Charities to Religions to Ethnic Groups to Sports Teams to Governments (one reason I can't give credence to radical Capitalists and Communists - they both advocate putting dangerously unrestricted power in the hands of a small group, and debate the semantic point of whether to call the group the State or the Board of Directors.) Perhaps I will come back to some of these issue in another blog post.