One of the checks and balances in Australias system of national government is our bicameral legislature. Before a new law can be enacted it must pass through two separate houses of parliament. Laws are introduced in the lower house (the house of represenatives) but must also be accepted by the upper house (the senate).
The upper house was at the time of federation intented to safe guard the interests of the states. It has essentially failed in this regard. Many have criticised it for impeding the will of executive government, which may mean that it has perhaps at times safeguarded the interest of the people. In terms of representing the people of Australia it has likewise been criticised as unrepresentative. Most famously Paul Keating called it an “unrepresentative swill” but probably more because it impeded his personal agenda.
Our upper house is modelled on the British House of Lords. However the British House of Lords has certainly never being a particularily popularist body because members were appointed by herditary title and serve for life rather than by any system or election. This tenure allowed its members to obstruct governments without too much regard to popular sentiment. Arguably this has at times been a good thing in terms of limiting government power (and maybe sometimes a bad thing). Canada also modelled it’s upper house on the British House of Lords but rather than using heridary title its members are appointed by the prime minister and serve until age 75. Tony Blair reformed the British House of Lords to fill vacancies more along the lines of the Canadian model.
What I like about the Canadian and British model is that senators can be more fearless in their decision making. What I don’t like about these systems is that they are quite elitist. And appointment by a prime minister who is a product of a system with a centrist bias will probably tend to make the views of the upper house also quite centrist. I would not expect a prime minister to appoint many anarchist or hard core communist sympathisers. I suspect that upper house debates are more stale than they might otherwise be.
The point of representative democracy is that it reflects the breadth of values and interests within the society but that it also allows detailed consideration of proposed laws. Dictatorship represents the values and interests of one person only whilst direct democracy would never allow decision making about complex matters to be well informed. Unfortunately represenative democracy is in practice also a popularity contest with selection being undertaken by a largely uninformed public (probably rationally uniformed).
If we were to reform our upper house my suggested model would be to select senators by sortition for the equivalent of five parliamentary terms. This would give them a degree of tenure and the opportunity to become informed representatives. Whilst the lower house would be reappointed by election approximately every 3 years the upper house would replace 20% of its members on these occasions and members would serve for up to 15 years.
What does it mean to select senators by sortition? Sortition is an alternative to appointment (the British and Canadian approach) as well as an alternative to elections (the current Australian approach). Sortition essentially means to select at random.
This is how I envisage such a system working. Firstly candidates would need to demonstrate that they are motivated rather than merely acting on a whim. I’d suggest that candidates need to be at least 30 years of age. I’d also suggest that to do this they would need to gather signed nominations forms from 100 people which affirm something such as the following:-
“Having known Mr/Ms Candidate for at least two years I am of the view that he/she is of sound mind and good character and that he/she is motivated and capable to act as an Australian senator.”
Nominations would need to be dated and could not be used to support a candidates entry criteria if they were signed more than 5 years prior. Candidates would be registered prior to the occasion of sortition and would be assigned a number. The names and numbers of candidates would be published. On the day of sortition the senate positions would be filled by drawing numbers from a barrel (like lotto) where each number represents one of the digits in a candidates assigned number. Each vacancy would be filled in turn by this same procedure.
Would a more representatative upper house containing senators who had tenure and no incentive to act as popularists be more liberal in their decisions. Perhaps, perhaps not. However I believe that trying to be popular is a serious constraint on any persons attempt to properly decide on a matter purely on the facts.
The use of sortition is not common but neither is it novel. Aristotle considered it central to democracy. Apparently the managers of some Spanish savings banks are appointed by a committee which is formed from account holders selected by sortition. Sortition is a large part of how we appoint people to juries to consider very serious questions of liberty.