Can people power drive a democratic system?

Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump have humiliated political elites. But we led the pack in 2013 when the elites in Australia’s Parliament humiliated themselves – abolishing carbon pricing when a predominant majority of parliamentarians understood it was folly. Why did they do it? To meet the imperatives of political combat in our vox pop democracy.

Today democracy is synonymous with representation by election. But another way of representing the people enjoys far more community support and a far older lineage: Representation by sortition or selection by lot as occurs in juries. Injecting more sortition into our existing democracy could bring it back from what’s looking increasingly like the brink.

Conversation notes

  • What’s wrong with politics and why the world is sliding into the worst economic situation since the Great Depression?
  • The reason why we live in a VOX POP democracy
  • Australia’s leadership model
  • Why participatory and direct democracy will make things worse and not better
  • The origins of democracy and elections, those times when democracy was a dirty word
  • Citizen Juries, what are they? How do they work?
  • Example of citizen’s juries in the City of Melbourne, Switzerland and US and how they operate
  • A simple solution for our current complex democracy problem: an upper house elected by lot, a citizen’s chamber


“My vision is of a citizen’s chamber like the bull’s eye like the Athenian bullseye. […] Think of the House of Commons and the House of Lords in the UK. Think of the House of Representatives in the Senate in the United States. Think of the Legislative Council and the start of the Legislative Assembly and the legislative council in most states of Australia which was a property franchise and you get the picture. And I simply want to flip that around to an upper house or an additional Upper House elected by a lot which would, by the way, have stopped us abolishing carbon pricing and the system”.


What would happen if we allowed everybody a direct and equal say in how our country is run?

What would our policies and priorities be?

The concept of direct democracy looks great in theory. We could get rid of a lot of political red tape and get solutions to all the big issues such as global warming and immigration policies based on what most of the population wants. Wouldn’t we?

Nicholas Gruen is not so sure.

Can democracy be restructured to cater to our future needs?

Gruen is a policy economist, entrepreneur, and commentator on our economy, society, and innovation. He advised two cabinet ministers in the 1980s and 90s, taught at ANU and sat on the Productivity Commission (then Industry Commission) from 1993 to 1997. He is CEO of Lateral Economics, Visiting Professor at Kings College London Policy Institute and Adjunct Professor at UTS Business School, Chair of the Open Knowledge Foundation (Australia) and Patron of the Australian Digital Alliance. Gruen’s talk focused on democracy and how it can be restructured to better cater to the world it now needs to serve.

While a previous speaker, Adam A Jacoby, presented the MiVote platform as a way for people to vote directly on specific issues, Gruen argued that relying solely on public opinion or ‘vox pop democracy’ to shape policies will make things worse, not better. If the public is not fully informed on every issue, they are going to pick the ones that are relevant to them. So, the issues that get the most attention in the media or that get people charged up emotionally are the ones that will get pushed to the foreground. However, this would be at the expense of other areas like international relations or economic policies which the public are less likely to be informed about.

Is there an alternative approach to the current democratic model?

Gruen does give us a plausible alternative democratic model, though. His concept draws inspiration from the ‘election by lot’ approach used in ancient Athens. This system was similar to the jury selection process today. People were selected at random to represent a group of citizens and to cast votes on their behalf.

Today, we do have citizen’s juries selected this way to advise the government on certain issues, but they don’t have a say in the outcome. What if we could take this concept further and have a new parliamentary house called the Citizen’s Chamber that sat above the current House of Representatives and possibly above the Senate?

Gruen believes this would create a safeguard lacking in the current system. If the majority of the Citizen’s Chamber disagreed with the lower houses it would identify an area where the people’s opinion differed from that of its representatives. To resolve this, the system could force a secret ballot or a joint sitting until all houses reached a consensus.

What do you think? Could this be a way to ensure our democracy works effectively for everyone?


Nicholas’ LinkedIn: Nicholas Gruen

Nicholas’ Twitter: @NGruen1

Lateral Economics’ website:

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