Inside Story

Like Uber, but for politics

The false promise of digital democracy

Dominic Kelly 9 August 2018 3324 words

Democracy without the politics? iStockphoto

The earliest attempts to bring “digital democracy” to Australia came from an unlikely source. In 2000, Labor rising star Mark Latham was stewing on the backbench, having resigned from Kim Beazley’s shadow ministry following the 1998 election. Despite his carefully cultivated self-image as a political outsider, Latham found himself having dinner in Sydney with the American political strategist Dick Morris, an archetypal creature of the Washington establishment.

An associate of Bill and Hillary Clinton since the 1970s, Morris had become a senior adviser to the president following the Democratic Party’s disastrous showing in the 1994 midterm elections, when the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress. Morris urged Clinton to adopt his “triangulation” or “Third Way” strategies, under which the Democrats would move to the political centre, adopting the best policies of both the left and the right and appearing sensible and pragmatic to the mass of non-ideological voters.

Morris also encouraged Clinton to view voters much as a business would its potential customers. “I felt the most important thing for him to do was to bring to the political system the same consumer-ruled philosophy that the business community has,” he told Adam Curtis in the 2002 documentary The Century of the Self. “I think politics needs to be as responsive to the whims and the desires of the marketplace as business is. And it needs to be as sensitive to the bottom line — profits or votes — as a business is.”

This involved an altered relationship between politicians and voters, in which the techniques of market research became central. Rather than offering a political vision based on deeply held principles, politicians would simply ask the voters what they want and deliver accordingly. “Instead of feeling that you can stay in one place and you can manipulate the voters,” said Morris, “you need to learn what they want and move yourself to accommodate it.”

A sex scandal forced Morris out of the Clinton White House in the lead-up to the 1996 presidential election, after which he began devoting himself to a much grander project: bringing direct democracy to the world via the internet. In 1999, he and his wife launched the website and published a book of the same name. The concept was simple: the site would pose questions on contemporary political issues and provide rudimentary summaries of the opposing arguments, and Americans would log on and vote. would then email the results to members of Congress as evidence of the popular will.

Though Morris was prescient about the internet’s ever-increasing potential for political campaigners, his project demonstrated much of the hubris that defined the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s. “As everybody learns to log on,” he wrote, “internet voting will become the centrepiece of our democracy.” Morris’s belief that internet-powered direct democracy would undermine and eventually replace representative democracy proved to be little more than a combination of wishful thinking and shameless self-promotion. He persevered with the website for several years, but it never took hold, and updates ceased in 2013.

Back in Sydney, in May 2000, Morris was the talk of the town. Appearing as a guest of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, he was the subject of considerable coverage in the local press, though the media’s interest in Morris had as much to do with his scandalous past as his vision for the future of democracy. Latham, though, was already a big fan of the “political guru” and his Third Way politics. “Morris is the Machiavelli of our time,” he enthused in the Financial Review in August 1999. “His success as a political consultant in the United States is now matched by his dazzling insights and advice in printed form. He makes the rest of us look like flim-flam on the atlas of public life.”

When the two met for dinner Latham was eager to gobble up any ideas Morris had about the future of Australian politics. Having long bemoaned the state of the Australian political system, “riddled with public distrust, broken promises and phoney expectations,” Latham immediately shared Morris’s optimism about the potential of digital democracy. He was also excited that Morris saw as a lucrative commercial venture. “I’m keen to explore the potential in Australia,” Latham wrote in his diary. “Make a few bob and open up the Australian political system along the way. Sounds like paradise.”

Third Way Australia, Latham’s attempt at bringing digital democracy to Australia, launched in April 2001. Considerably less ambitious than, it was open only to voters in Latham’s electorate of Werriwa, and would not include important matters of state, such as economic management and foreign policy.

“The decisions best suited to direct democracy involve value judgments,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph on the day of the website’s launch. “They concern the relationship between people in some ethical or moral way. These are the issues on which people feel disenfranchised, where they have strong opinions but never get the chance to comment.” Examples he cited included online gambling, censorship, euthanasia, genetic engineering and human cloning, Aboriginal reconciliation, multiculturalism and the republic.

Latham planned to put a question to his electorate every week. “I will then be obliged to act on the majority view,” he said, “ensuring that the Werriwa decision is advanced within parliamentary debates, the Labor caucus and the media.” The initiative was welcomed by the Daily Telegraph, by Kim Beazley, and even by the Liberal Party’s Peter Reith. But it drew ridicule from Latham’s fellow ambitious backbencher Kevin Rudd, who pointed out a handful of its flaws in a short opinion piece in the Daily Telegraph. “We have just had the disaster in the economy,” Rudd concluded. “Does Mark now want to deliver a tech-wreck on democracy?”

In any event, in what has since become a recurring experience, Latham failed. He had hoped for at least 1000 participants on each vote, but achieved an average of just 300. “For those who do vote, the results and feedback have been good,” he wrote in his diary in August 2001. “But we have a long way to go before e.democracy takes over from the traditional system. The interest is not there. Dick Morris’s promise of a political revolution has stalled at the gates of the Bastille.”

One of the problems that Latham’s experiment faced was his commitment to the Labor Party, and its requirement that he support the decisions of caucus once policy positions had been debated and resolved. Regardless of what a few hundred of his constituents might have told him to do, he remained bound by the rules of his party. The next significant attempt to bring digital democracy to Australia tried to avoid this problem in an innovative way. Senator On-Line, launched in 2007 as “Australia’s first internet-based democratic political party,” had no platform or policies.

Senator On-Line was the brainchild of Sydney businessperson Berge Der Sarkissian, a man whose background did not augur well for those concerned about the possibility of the electoral system being gamed. In 2002 the Australian Securities and Investments Commission found that Der Sarkissian had engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct in making hundreds of applications for Telstra shares under false names, and banned him from holding a financial services licence for two years. To potential supporters of Senator On-Line, Der Sarkissian simply admitted his mistake and asked for a second chance.

Rather than try to influence politicians already sitting in parliament, Senator On-Line aimed to send its own people to Canberra — people whose explicit directive would be to represent the views of the majority, as expressed through the party’s online polls. Every Australian on the electoral roll would be entitled to a vote on each bill or issue, and Senator On-Line representatives would be contractually obliged to vote in parliament in accordance with the majority view. All of this was announced before the party had even invested in a software package to run the process, but Der Sarkissian remained sanguine. “If we were fortunate enough to get a seat,” he told the Canberra Times, “we would have six months to get it up, which should be plenty given that there are some packages available.”

Senator On-Line aimed to “bring Australian politics directly to the citizens,” but its electoral performances suggest it has done anything but. Having run Senate candidates in every federal election since 2007, its best results came in Tasmania and Queensland in 2010, where it received 0.45 per cent and 0.36 per cent of the vote respectively. But even these results were boosted by the party’s having been placed first on the ballot paper. In ballots where this advantage was absent, Senator On-Line’s vote has never exceeded 0.2 per cent. In 2015 the party changed its name to Online Direct Democracy, but the rebrand did little to improve electoral returns, and with the rise of more Web 2.0–savvy competitors, its prospects look grim.

Senator On-Line’s failings seem to have done little to deter other digital democracy enthusiasts. Max Kaye, a software developer in his mid twenties, began thinking seriously about digital democracy in 2013 after his formative political experiences proved disheartening. He had been involved in protests against staff cuts at the University of Sydney in 2012, but was horrified when socialists and anarchists took the campaign in a much more militant direction than he was comfortable with. The following year he volunteered on the Greens’ federal election campaign in the Hunter Valley. Again he was left unimpressed. “I started to realise that a lot of these organisations really don’t engage deeply with how they want to achieve their goals,” he tells me. “And when their goals seem to conflict with reality in some way, they just ignore reality.”

It was around this time that Kaye met Nathan Spataro. Both were involved in Australia’s bitcoin community, and were excited about the wider potential of blockchain: the technology behind the burgeoning cryptocurrency. Blockchain appeared to solve some of the security and privacy problems that had hampered earlier attempts to advance digital democracy, and in 2015 the pair launched the Neutral Voting Bloc. Described on its website as “a political party for the modern age; like an app, a political app,” the Neutral Voting Bloc’s initial aim was to win one per cent of the national primary vote, which, via a “Senate preference hack” akin to Glenn Druery’s infamous preference whispering, could be translated into six Senate seats. “Will you be part of the 1 per cent to take back democracy?” asked the website, oxymoronically.

In early 2016 the party changed its name to Flux, and a redesigned website set about explaining the concepts behind the project. Unlike earlier iterations of digital democracy, Flux does not adopt a simplistic majoritarian approach to politics, in which the majority view should always prevail. Flux prefers a model called issue-based direct democracy, or IBDD, which, according to Kaye, “comes at the problem of democracy from an entirely novel position: that democracy should be designed around solving problems, not ‘the will of the people.’”

The key innovation is that participants have the ability to trade votes, which Kaye and Spataro describe in their paper “Redesigning Democracy” as “the magic behind IBDD.” The Flux software allows users to trade away votes on issues they don’t care about, in exchange for credits on issues they do. Thus, it is argued, on each issue the best outcomes will be achieved thanks to the specialist contributions of those most engaged.

The desire to empower specialists is fundamental to the Flux vision. “Good policy is informed by policy expertise,” its website declares. “Flux will enable specialists and experts, with the support of the Australian people, to meaningfully impact policy in their fields, in a way they never have before.” Kaye believes that “all evils are due to a lack of knowledge… and that the progress of people (and prosperity linked to that) is essentially unbounded — it’s just a matter of creating the right knowledge.” While this approach raises questions about the potential for self-interested specialists to game the system, Kaye is quick to reject the notion that IBDD would amount to a technocracy, and expects that non-specialists will be just as keen to sign up to Flux.

Flux received plenty of uncritical press attention in the lead-up to the 2016 federal election, but the free publicity did little to help the party in the race for seats. Its best results came in New South Wales and Tasmania, in both of which it received 0.28 per cent of the Senate vote. In the 2017 WA state election Flux polled 0.44 per cent in the upper house, but Kaye takes issue with the view that this was an underwhelming result. Filled with youthful enthusiasm, he remains optimistic about Flux’s prospects in future elections. But with its planned Senate preference hack — rendered moot by the Senate voting reforms passed in March 2016 — and its attempt to game the WA election by running twenty-six independent candidates with the sole purpose of directing preferences to Flux, there are considerable grounds for scepticism about the purity of its democratic vision.

“Delightfully naive” is how Peter Chen describes Flux. A senior lecturer in politics at the University of Sydney, with a special interest in new media’s impact on electoral politics, Chen told Reuters, “They’re obviously guys who are really focused on the tech thing and that has always been the problem with the e-democracy people. They’re often really tech-driven and they need political scientists at the brainstorming floor to say ‘well, I don’t know if that’d work.’” Adam Jacoby went through such a process in the development of MiVote, and believes he has come up with the best model of digital democracy yet.

Jacoby’s background is in the sports industry, where he spent twenty years creating and managing sports travel, media and logistics companies. But after having children, he began to think more deeply about the world they would inherit, and didn’t like what he saw. He felt that democracy was failing to deliver on its promises, and his children were facing a world in which their voices made no difference. “So then I started thinking,” Jacoby says as he sits in MiVote’s spacious Melbourne office, “if you were going to recreate democracy as a product, what does it need to do, how does it need to behave so that it delivers on the promise, it has integrity, people want to keep buying it, people want to tell their friends about it and tell them to buy it — what does it need to be?”

Following a number of conversations with software developers about the possibilities of blockchain, Jacoby became convinced that it was time for a “big strategic intervention” into the democratic process. He was introduced to Richard Hames — “one of the world’s greatest corporate philosophers and strategic futurists,” according to his own website — whose Centre for the Future then agreed to fund the early development of MiVote. Jacoby gathered a team of developers, strategists, researchers and marketers to help create a political movement based on the MiVote smartphone app, which was officially launched in February 2017.

The main distinction between MiVote and Flux is its “destinational” voting model, which aims to break down the left-versus-right binary that dominates democratic politics across the globe. Rather than offering simple yes or no votes based on legislation before the parliament, MiVote follows a convoluted process to come up with four policy destinations on each issue: one from the left, one from the right, one from the centre and one entirely out of left field.

After being provided with an information pack, app users are asked to choose the option that “most accurately represents the direction you would like the policy to head.” They can choose as many as they like, or none at all. Unlike Senator On-Line and Flux, MiVote is not a registered political party and will not contest elections. Instead, it will offer its software to candidates for office who pledge to uphold MiVote’s constitution.

“Democracy without the politics” was Jacoby’s preposterous claim at the time of MiVote’s launch. The desire to move beyond ideology is a characteristic of many digital democracy start-ups, but is most pronounced in MiVote. “We’re trying, as much as is humanly possible, to reinforce that this is a place of objectivity,” says Jacoby. “Although we may as individuals have ideological beliefs, they don’t play a part in the way that politics should work. There needs to be a place where you can just get information and have your say.”

Jacoby wants to eradicate the inherently messy, ugly battles over ideas and interests that are the inevitable product of democratic politics. Like Dick Morris before him, he believes that politicians should simply ask what their constituents would like them to do, and then act according to the informed majority view. Essentially, Jacoby sees democracy as a marketplace, and more than anything else, he is a salesman. His well-rehearsed monologues about “re-architecting” democracy come across as an unconvincing combination of naive idealism and commercially driven bombast.

The technocratic urge to rid democratic politics of its inherent messiness is not new, and is especially strong in the United States. Probably the most infamous example of a technocrat in power is Robert McNamara, president John F. Kennedy’s surprise appointment as secretary of defense in 1961. Armed with an MBA from Harvard, McNamara had been part of a team of air force veterans who used modern research, planning and management techniques to turn the Ford Motor Company around in the 1940s and 1950s. As Michael Boyle wrote upon McNamara’s death, he “believed that the methods of the behavioural sciences could be applied to government decision-making, to rationalise its operation and minimise the chances for error, and to create a government that was ruthlessly efficient.” The horrific reality of this approach was the slaughter and destruction of the Vietnam war.

More commonly, there is a tendency to turn to technocrats in times of political or economic crisis. A fully fledged “technocracy movement” came to national attention in the United States during the Great Depression, but interest quickly subsided. The modern preference for central bank independence — whereby unelected economists and bureaucrats are free to determine monetary policy without political interference — took hold in response to the inflation crises of the 1970s. In November 2011, at the height of the eurozone debt crisis, economists from outside politics were appointed as emergency prime ministers of both Greece and Italy, tasked with rising above the partisan bickering and steadying their respective economies. All of these examples share with digital democrats a scepticism about representative democracy’s ability to meaningfully confront the most difficult and divisive issues.

British political theorist Bernard Crick argued in his 1962 classic In Defence of Politics that technology had become perverted into a social doctrine: “‘Technology’ holds that all the important problems facing human civilization are technical, and that therefore they are all soluble on the basis of existing knowledge or readily attainable knowledge — if sufficient resources are made available.” Crick’s words are especially apposite in our present age of technological disruption, in which “like Uber, but for politics” is not just a sardonic joke but an accurate insight into the intellectual depth of some digital democracy evangelists.

The Scanlon Foundation’s 2017 Mapping Social Cohesion survey found high levels of dissatisfaction with Australian democracy, with 30 per cent of respondents in favour of major change to our system of government. Many voters appear to be in search of political certainty, and digital democrats believe they can deliver it. But as Crick warned, “the passionate quest for certainty in matters which are essentially political” is one of the great enemies of politics. “The quest for certainty scorns the political virtues — of prudence, of conciliation, of compromise, of variety, of adaptability, of liveliness — in favour of some pseudo-science of government, some absolute-sounding ethic.” ●