Current Issue #488

The case for a higher form of democracy

Could South Australia emulate Switzerland’s embrace of direct democracy?

The proposal by the state government to shake up South Australia’s electoral system, in particular to introduce optional preferential voting, has brought a strong response from one of the state’s most experienced local government CEOs.

Former Playford CEO and current governmentappointed administrator of Coober Pedy Council Tim Jackson argues that such a fundamental change as this should not be made by our elected representatives in parliament but put directly to the community.

“There are certain decisions the community needs to make that I believe citizens should make,” he says. “Not the day-to-day issues, which can be made by an elected body on behalf of the citizens, but the really fundamental questions such as taxation levels or the voting system. These are significant decisions on the way the community is run.”

This concept of direct democracy is not new, having been practised in ancient Athens a couple of millennia ago, but it’s still a rare thing. Switzerland is one example, where at the levels of the municipalities, cantons and federal state, citizens have more power than in a representative democracy. Any law enacted by the nation’s elected legislative branch can be vetoed by a vote of the general public.

This year the OECD wrote a substantial report on innovative citizen participation (OECD:
Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions 2020) saying it had collected
evidence that supported the idea that citizen participation in public decision-making can deliver better policies, strengthen democracy and build trust.

“The increasing complexity of policy making and the failure to find solutions to some of the
most pressing policy problems have prompted politicians, policy makers, civil society
organisations and citizens to reflect on how collective public decisions should be taken in the 21st century,” the report began.

“There is a need for new ways to find common ground and take action. This is particularly true for issues that are values-based, require trade-offs, and demand long-term solutions.”

One way of approaching this is through the concept of direct democracy, where instead of
having elected representatives decide on initiatives or policies, every person in that community
or country has the opportunity to choose what happens.

Direct democracy has rarely, if ever, been practised in Australia, where political scepticism
and community disengagement is as much an issue as anywhere else in the world. With its history of failed referenda, there seems to be little political appetite to “take it to the people” – and be bound by the result.

Tim Jackson has been behind one recent exception, where in Coober Pedy he decided there were a number of issues he needed to put to the community directly.

Jackson determined there were four significant issues he wanted the community itself to
consider: the rate levels they were prepared to pay; the possible sale of the town’s electricity
and/or its water assets, if financially sensible to do so; and whether the term of the administration should continue until the next scheduled council election in November 2022.

Jackson says community consultation and education are fundamental requirements of any successful direct democracy process. He used the council’s monthly newsletter, public meetings – with average attendance of around 60 people out of a total community population of some 1800, and a number of one-on-one meetings with residents to sound out the citizen voice. Cases for and against the proposals were prepared as a result of the consultation process.

Jackson also ran the whole process past the state’s Electoral Commission and Office of Local
Government, whose feedback was also taken into consideration.

“I’m very hot on accountability,” he says, “and my view is that citizens also need to be accountable, especially on really significant decisions. It’s not just about holding government
accountable. Ultimately you can’t just walk away and say everything is someone else’s responsibility. Some decisions need to be made by the voters and not delegated to someone

What further convinced him of the value of the exercise was the response he had from his community.

“People kept saying to me, ‘Do you mean to say you will do what we tell you to do?’ And when I said ‘absolutely’ they were flabbergasted that I would be bound by whatever they decided.

“A lot of them thought this was just like another referendum, going through motions, wasting their time. I found that an indictment on our political system, so much scepticism they felt no longer engaged.

“This is a way to get people engaged again, to feel empowered, to put their hands on the levers at least for those fundamental issues. The community should definitely pull the big levers.”

Nigel Hopkins

See Profile

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox

Get the latest from The Adelaide Review in your inbox