I spend far too much of my life thinking about the control of Executive power (70% of this is due to me having eleven thousand words on the topic due in a week so I am procrastinating hard). It is an extremely complex question that ultimately boils down to our basic intuitions about the relationship between the community and the State. That sounds more simple than it really is: the way you express that intuition in language affects the way you think about it.
Jeremy Waldron gives an example of this: should we talk about limiting the State, or should we talk instead of empowering the State? Well, that depends on what you think the State is and whether it begins its life omnipotent or impotent. Reasonable people can disagree on this point, and it’s not mere semantics. Back to Waldron: we can frame constitutions in ways that restrict the lawful use of State power or we can frame constitutions in ways which compel the State to use its power in particular ways.
I spend far too much of my life thinking about what the Executive power is and how we can control it. Every school child is taught the Separation of Powers like they’re taught triune theology. There’s God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. God the Father is the angry one from the Old Testament. God the Son is Jesus the hippy who liked fish. God the Holy Spirit is… the… other… one… maybe. Similarly, there’s the Legislature (which creates the law!). There’s the Judiciary (which interprets the law!). And there’s the Executive (which… administers the law? Whatever that means).
And then people map these three branches directly on to particular institutions. The Legislature is the Parliament, full of parliamentarians who create laws by passing legislation. The Judiciary is the Courts, full of judges who read the legislation and tell us what it means to resolve disputes. And there’s the Executive who is… like… maybe the public service… maybe?
Anyway, this all gets me to what a shitfully bad idea MiVote is.
MiVote stems from that curious kind of liberal white rage that hates the very idea of authority and expertise. In this fantasy, the Government takes the role of the Father against whom the fiercely intelligent, independent, and autonomous individual must rebel, must defeat, must castrate. This fantasy generates the idea of the ‘Nanny State’ — a distinctly gendered entity that wants to infantilise the intelligent, independent, and autonomous individual. It’s the sort of fantasy that finds expression in the sort of punditry that you read on Independent Australia.
The spirit of MiVote is an anger that parliamentarians don’t really represent the interests of the intelligent, independent, autonomous individual. The system isn’t really democratic. And the problem is money — politicians are bought by vested interests. And the problem is ideology — politicians don’t base their actions on facts (especially about the National Broadband Network). And the problem is the lack of equality — the elites have hijacked society and they don’t share information with the rest of us.
Digital disruption provides the solutions: what if we had constant voting all of the time courtesy of apps and blockchains and smart phones?
When the solution is ‘What if we had constant voting?’, you know something has gone wrong with your chain of reasoning.
The problem is the intuition about ‘democracy’ as something which can be intelligible in a ‘non-ideological’ sense. This is utter nonsense. Democracy has ideological commitments at its base: what is the State and what is its relationship with the community (more specifically, its relationship with voters).
Put another way, MiVote repeats a too-frequent trope in contemporary pop-politics that ‘ideology’ is something bad. It isn’t. Ideology is something necessary to meaning within a social order. We have to be critical of it, but we cannot abolish it entirely.
So what sort of State does MiVote envisage? Is it one where the State is all-powerful and needs to be constrained? Or is it one where the State only gets powers conferred upon it by the Will of the People (however defined)? MiVote appears to want a State whose power is identical to the current whim of the majority.
But we can see another way that their proposal is confused: the role of a parliamentarian is not only to vote on legislation. Parliamentarians negotiate, debate, and scrutinise. How do you run a Senate Estimates if you need to put every question before the app-using population?
The problem arises from strongly associating ‘Legislature’ with ‘Parliament’. Parliament has a legislative capacity — it makes laws — but so do the Courts. Parliament also has non-legislative capacities, such as scrutinising the Government, statutory officials, and other exercises of power. If you’re voting for a MiVote candidate, you’re voting for a parliamentarian who only wants to do part of their job.
But let’s get right back to the core of the issue: who looks at our current political space and thinks, ‘Yes, this would be a lot better if only every issue were constantly voted upon?’ Imagine running courts this way: ‘To vote guilty, press thumbs down on your app now!’ Imagine running the police this way: ‘To raid the drug lab, press thumbs up on your app now!’ So why do we think running parliament this way is any better?
Representative democracy is one of the strengths of our system. The real debate is whether our parliamentarians are representative of us, but we can’t deny that representative democracy solves a lot of problems that direct democracy entails. With representative democracy, we can vest a person with decision making power so that they get across the relevant issues and explain back to us why they voted a particular way. If we don’t like that explanation, we can vote them out.
Another real debate is whether political parties have a negative influence on our democracy. Lindsay Tanner once argued that the strength of parties was that they could vet candidates on behalf of the electorate, but we have far too frequently seen situations where that process failed. We might distinguish between political parties in the House of Representatives and political parties in the Senate — perhaps they’re fine in the House of Representative where they have to present themselves personally to the electorate, but toxic in the Senate where seats are gifted by the parties to candidates.
And a third real debate is the nature of the political media and whether it is failing to produce an informed and engaged electorate. Are profit motives inconsistent with the sort of media that democractic theorists require?
MiVote is for people too lazy to engage with the serious questions. It’s white techbro nonsense stemming from pathological fear of authority.