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Where 'wisdom' reigns: Rethinking the right to vote

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One Nation Leader Pauline Hanson (image by jfish92 via Wikimedia Commons)

Politics may be better served if a criterion of "wisdom" is imposed to render electors eligible to vote, writes Victor Kline.

I HAVE previously written in these pages about a powerful and truly democratic system of choosing our political representatives. It dates back to the classical era of Athens in the 5th Century BCE. In the modern world, it goes by the name of "sortition".

Under this system, parliamentarians are selected by lot. All citizens qualify to be selected on an opt-in basis. The benefits are many.

First, it takes away the power of media moguls to influence the vote with their propaganda. Secondly, it removes the ability of billionaires and multinationals to "buy" seats by pumping millions of dollars into advertising and party donations. Thirdly, it means that our parliamentarians will not be beholden to those same billionaires and multinationals for their political donations.

This, of course, has the obvious advantage that they can decide issues on their merits, not at the behest of party donors. Finally, it would see the disappearance of political parties altogether, with their divisiveness and corruption — something few, other than politicians themselves, would mourn.

One can imagine millions of television viewers across Australia, on day one of this new system, watching in awe as organised chaos ensued. As senators and House of Representatives' members strove to debate matters of national importance, unencumbered by influence or greed. Debating based on what was actually for the benefit of the nation. It would be organised chaos, reminiscent of the high-water mark of ancient Athens, the most refreshing sight poor tired old Canberra had ever seen.

There is, however, one shortcoming to this system. There are, in this country, a certain number of people – whether in the millions or the thousands, it is impossible to say – who actually think politics and government are, or should be, important for the future of the nation.

At the moment, the vast majority of them have next to no influence on how politics and government play out. But they do have one precious weapon: their vote. If sortition became a reality, they would lose that.

So, to keep these engaged individuals in the game, I would propose a limited voting addition to sortition. Athens itself retained voting for certain offices. We may want to do that too, say for the president of our new republic.

But the right to cast a vote would need to be critically overhauled. At the last Federal Election, while at the booths, I was blown away by just how many people complained bitterly about having to vote at all.

The solution to this is not simply to abolish compulsory voting. Notoriously, around the world, that just means only those with something to protect, as they see it, bother to vote, thus a dominance of right-leaning electors at the ballot box. Left-wing politicians have abandoned all else to the need to "get people out to vote".

No, a totally different, lateral approach needs to be found in the constitution of the electorate. In summary, that approach would involve limiting the electorate to those who want to vote and who "can" vote, in the truest and fullest sense of the word "can". Let me elaborate.

In the early days, when Western democracies were first developing, the franchise was invariably limited to people who possessed a certain level of property. Most attempts to extend that franchise were met with the argument that the unpropertied classes were too ignorant to be granted the vote. They wouldn’t know what to do with it. They wouldn’t be able to discharge their responsibility, well, responsibly.

If one looks at, for example, England post the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the underlying thinking was that only the aristocracy and the gentry had the necessary education and innate good sense to vote responsibly.

This idea persisted up until the 20th Century. Anyone who has seen The Remains of the Day will immediately recall the arrogant aristocrat humiliating the butler played by Anthony Hopkins. The pompous old "gentleman" asks the butler a series of abstruse economic and political questions, none of which he could answer, thus proving the limitations of the lower classes when it comes to "affairs of the state".

These days, at least in Australia, no one would dare to mount such an argument. These days, most would agree that education and privilege have nothing to do with common sense. Any given individual with money, education and privilege is just as likely or unlikely as anyone without those benefits to cast their vote wisely.

What would be ideal, therefore, is not to restrict the franchise by class, sex, race, occupation or age – all of which have been tried at one time or another around the world – but to restrict it on the basis of wisdom. I choose the word "wisdom" deliberately. And I deliberately avoid the words "education" and "intelligence".

These latter "attributes", whilst they might overlap with wisdom in part, more often than not are antithetical to it. Look at our current political class, most of whom nowadays are educated and most considered intelligent. But few, if any, possess wisdom. Or, if they do, their donors are not going to allow them to use it.

Like most things, psychologists can test for wisdom and wisdom itself has been shown to have a variety of positive outcomes for the individual, such as increased happiness, mental and physical health, and a personal sense of successful ageing. 

Of course, no psychological test is foolproof. And basing the franchise on proven wisdom via wisdom testing will inevitably lead to the occasional injustice of excluding some keen and deserving people. But, I believe basing our electoral system on wisdom is far better than the situation we have now.  

Currently, half the population resents having to vote. And half of the other half cannot see through the avalanche of propaganda thrown at them. They just "vote as they are told" by whoever has the most money and column inches.

It's also worth saying that if you have wisdom, that will certainly increase with age, although wisdom is not the exclusive province of the aged. In the last election, one of the candidates for The New Liberals was a young man by the name of Max Martucci. He was 19 years old and one of the wisest people I have met.

So, for me, a president, elected by the wise of the nation and a parliament drawn by lot, might just get us back on track, if on track we ever were.

Victor Kline is a writer and a barrister whose practice focuses on pro bono work for refugees and asylum seekers. You can follow Victor on Twitter @victorklineTNL.

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