Musings on plebiscites

blogThere is growing debate in the Australian parliament and media circles about the planned plebiscite concerning the potential legalisation of same sex marriage. Opinion is divided as to whether the plebiscite is necessary, whether it is worth the money, and whether it is likely to do more harm than good.

There is growing debate in the Australian parliament and media circles about the planned plebiscite concerning the potential legalisation of same sex marriage. Opinion is divided as to whether the plebiscite is necessary, whether it is worth the money, and whether it is likely to do more harm than good.

  • Influence: Citizen involvement can be substantial in terms of activity, output, feedback and connecting with each other; but it can hardly be deemed satisfactory without influence. A plebiscite does not guarantee influence (unlike a referendum), although it would be a ‘brave’ government that ignores the result of a plebiscite – even though some MPs have declared their intention to ignore the plebiscite on same sex marriages if they don’t like the result.
  • Representativeness: Public involvement in decision-making is considered weak if it is monopolised by powerful interest groups and individuals. Representativeness is about inclusion; about a statistically valid process, and where everybody’s contribution counts. Plebiscites are certainly representative, but representativeness on its own does not equal a good process.
  • Deliberativeness: This condition is about being able to weigh up options, or choosing a preferred solution. If an issue is a complex one then people need to time to think. They require solid information from a range of perspectives; time to discuss, reflect, and consider the implications. Deliberation is about forming a collective judgment. It not about gathering individual opinions with little time spent thinking about the issue. Deliberation is essential for complex issues. Some are making a compelling argument we don’t require further deliberation about same sex marriages. Is the issue really a complex one? If the issue was complex then plebiscites do not guarantee deliberation in any case. If it isn’t complex, then perhaps a plebiscite is suitable, though this brings in the question as to whether the expense is warranted.
  • Community strengthening (or at least ‘doing no harm’): Any process involving citizens has the potential to strengthen communities or weaken them. Even worse, processes have the potential to polarise, incite prejudice, and further marginalise certain individuals and groups. It is possible to have an influential process, have excellent representation and yet do damage. With regard to a plebiscite on the subject of legalising same sex marriages there is reason to believe, by conservative estimates, that the debate could do real damage. Plebiscites might meet some conditions for citizen involvement – community strengthening is unlikely to be one of them!

Plebiscites then are good at being representative; probably useful for influence. Not so good, on their own for ensuring deliberation over complex issues. They are weak when it comes to community strengthening. So, with regard to same sex marriage my conclusion would be this; it would be representative and perhaps not require a great deal of deliberation. However, it is the sort of issue that would lend itself to a political debate which could do adversely impact on the mental health of people’s whose sexuality and sexual preference is being questioned and debated in the public arena.

Some commentators, indeed several politicians, have argued the issue is too important for politicians to decide on behalf of all Australians. Are they saying that politicians therefore should only make decisions about minor issues? If we thought plebiscites were an expensive way to make decisions about straightforward matters it is odd that we would ever feel good about paying for them.

So where does this leave us? Are there alternatives? Fortunately there has been one innovation in democracy that is worth considering; the Citizens’ Initiative Review Process.

The Citizens’ Initiative Review is an innovative electoral reform first established in the state of Oregon in the United States in 2009. This is how is works; a random sample of 12 citizens gather to analyse a single ballot measure on which the broader public will vote. They study that measure for 3-5 days, while hearing from experts and advocates from diverse points of view. At the end of their deliberations, they write up a one-page summary of key facts and arguments on the issue, and those are then passed along to the rest of the electorate. Oregon has now held six reviews, two every two years, and three other pilots have been held in an Oregon county, the state of Colorado, and the city of Phoenix, Arizona. The latest research has shown that voters who read the report of the deliberative process find it helpful and instructive.

The benefits of such a process in my view are as follows:

  • It would be much cheaper as voting on the measure would coincide with an election; rather than being held on a separate date.
  • It does allow for deliberation to inform how people might vote on the measure.
  • The result would be binding; more like a referendum – therefore more influential.
  • It would not be sole focus of public debate, as many other issues would be discussed at this time. Hopefully this would make coverage of this measure less divisive and polarising; but this is something I am not completely confident about.
  • Coverage of the Citizens Initiative Review process could help build more awareness and understanding of the issues involved and the rationale for their advice to fellow voters (hopefully building more understanding and respect – much as the SBS series ‘Go back to where you came from’ did with regard to asylum seekers and the ‘stop the boats’ debate).

I believe this approach offers quite a lot around complex policy matters. But a question remains as to whether even this process is warranted. If polling confirms that the vast majority of people already support the legalisation of same sex marriages, and we are satisfied people have already thought about it for long enough, then perhaps a plebiscite or citizens’ initiated review process is completely unnecessary; where the potential risks outweigh the benefits. But if politicians really don’t think they can pass this legislation without a voting measure then perhaps the Citizens Initiative Review process would be more appropriate.


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