Julian Fell

Give Me A Draconian Government

The English word “draconian” stems from the bloodthirsty lawmaking of Draco, with his harsh laws requiring slavery and death for even minor offenses, but it is little remembered that he was also a pioneer of democracy. He was responsible for the first written constitution, considered one of the earliest developments of Athenian democracy. The early systems that grew from the Draconian seed were purer than the ones we live under today as they had not yet been muddied by capitalism and the complexities of our modern society. In designing a democratic system from first principles, equality was the central idea, and so the original system in Athens featured a yearly lottery to elect their public officials.

As we approach a federal election in Australia, it can be helpful to reflect and look backwards. The birthplace of democracy is a good place to start, but our society, economy and government are more complex than that of Ancient Athens.

Here and in the US, the sports-team like competition between the two major parties is deeply embedded in our conceptions of politics. Our system of representation has some glaring flaws though, and we don’t have to look far (or time travel) to find interesting alternatives.

We could look across the ditch at New Zealand, with their proportional system and Māori seats, or at a similar system in Germany. The Gallagher Index is a measure of representation in governments where higher numbers mean disproportional representation. Looking at the scores for the past five federal elections in each country demonstrates how different things are in other liberal democracies.

Australia New Zealand Germany
12.35 4.15 1.95
11.48 2.73 7.83
9.54 3.72 3.40
11.29 2.38 2.16
10.27 3.84 4.61

Source

The most representative of our past 5 parliaments (in 2013) performs worse on this measure than any of the past 5 in New Zealand and Germany.

As a concrete example of how this plays out and benefits the major parties, let’s take the most recent federal election in Australia. A full 10% of the population voted for the Greens in 2019 (that’s 1.5 million people), but they were rewarded by 1 solitary seat out of 151. That is 0.66% of the seats at the table that decides our national direction representing 10% of the population. And that’s only talking about party preferences, we haven’t even started talking about representation of gender, minorities, and education levels.

Anyone following Australian politics would have heard about the high-profile downfall of Gladys Berijiklian at the hands of the NSW anti-corruption commission. Despite the display at state level, there has been no movement on installing a similar body at the federal level. Without a watchdog on corruption, there is very little to prevent our lax political donation laws from being leveraged to accept money from corporate interests in exchange for favourable treatment. You don’t have to look far to see how that is playing out across the fossil fuels, property development and gambling industries.

This leaves us in a situation where there is no opportunity for an alternative party to have meaningful success, and where both major parties are systemically influenced by big corporate interests. There is plenty of evidence that the major parties are not representing large swathes of Australia, so can we do better?

The democracy in Ancient Athens was based on sortition, a lottery-based system, which while obviously a radical change, could solve a lot of our current problems.

We could ensure the elected government was statistically representative across any measure we like, from race to gender to education, remove the need for electioneering, break up party factions, and dilute power across more people. Removing the possibility for re-election (and career politicians), there would be no incentives for self-interest in the name of maintaining power at the next election.

We don’t have to go nuclear to benefit from sortition though. Why not create citizen juries, under the guidance of public servants, to deliberate on individual issues? There’s a party at the state level in Tasmania based on this idea, and we already have a similar mechanism for criminal trials.

If there is no shortage of possible reforms to make our government more representative, why aren’t we considering them? I say bring on a draconian government.