As an Irish parliamentarian, Edmund Burke once said that he owed his constituents not just his industry but his judgment, and that if he voted according to their opinions rather than his own judgment he would betray rather than serve them.
This failure to flatter his audience helps explain why he’s better remembered today as a philosopher than as a practitioner of politics. But the distinction he made gives us a key to mending our democracy.
Today, when push comes to shove, politicians’ allegiance is neither to their judgment nor their constituents’ opinion, but to their party. (It is worth noting that political parties were in their infancy in Burke’s time.)
It is not uncommon for legislative chambers around the world to have voted against the judgment of the overwhelming majority of their members and even against the people’s wishes — all at the behest of party bosses.
In this category I’d include numerous votes of the UK parliament regarding Brexit and various decisions of US congressmen and women culminating in the failure to find Donald Trump guilty during his recent impeachment trial — despite Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell describing then-president Trump’s conduct as a “disgraceful dereliction of duty”.
That conduct moved Trump’s political opponents to some genuine eloquence rather than the usual play-acting. As Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer put it:
Five years ago, Republican senators lamented what might become of their party if Donald Trump became their presidential nominee and standard-bearer. Just look at what has happened. Look at what Republicans have been forced to defend. Look at what Republicans have chosen to forgive. The former president tried to overturn the results of a legitimate election and provoked an assault on our own government, and well over half the Senate Republican conference decided to condone it. The most despicable act that any president has ever committed, and the majority of Republicans cannot summon the courage, the morality, to condemn it.
But in some respects Australia was a leader in this dismal story. In 2013 our parliament abolished carbon pricing. In addition to those in the Labor and Greens parties who suffered minimal tension between their consciences and their party lines, a hefty proportion of Liberal MPs voted against their better judgment. It stopped serious progress on carbon emissions, costs the budget more than $10 billion a year, and will surely be slowly reversed.
This degree of dysfunction is something we should ponder deeply. But we can start doing that while we act — with a practice which goes back to our roots: in the 19th century, Australia led the world in adopting secret ballots.
The legislators voting against their better judgment in 2013 in Australia, in the UK regarding Brexit, and in the US in both of Trump’s impeachment trials, did so because the alternative was career ruin. A secret ballot of the relevant chambers would have constrained the power of their parties and so protected the public interest.
Of course legislators should be accountable for their votes so their votes should be public. But there are reasonable exceptions. Thus, for instance, in Australia the election of presiding officers of both houses is held by secret ballot. This expedient aligns parliamentary procedure with the wisdom of Burke’s maxim to value MPs’ judgment first and foremost.
And if you accept that choosing the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate is MPs’ own business — not directly that of their constituents — it does no harm to the wider objective of accountability.
We could use similar expedients to erect additional checks and balances against party discipline dominating the judgment of elected representatives.
I’ve previously argued that a standing citizens’ assembly chosen, as juries are, by lot from the people could be given the power to raise the stakes for parties seeking to corral their representatives into disregarding their own judgment.
So where a chamber of the legislature voted against the considered opinion of the people — as represented by a substantial majority of the citizens’ assembly — that assembly could require the chamber to vote again, this time by secret ballot.
Had we had such a system in 2013, Australia would not have stumbled into the disastrous climate change policy it has today and, as I’ve argued, Britain would be navigating its numerous and ongoing Brexit dilemmas more conscientiously.
Meanwhile, in the US, the Senate might have structured its verdict on the 45th president as a procedural vote followed by a substantive vote. The first procedural vote would be by open ballot, and would determine by a simple majority whether the substantive vote should be by open or secret ballot.
I think a majority would have voted for a secret ballot and, having loosed the vice-like grip of party discipline, would have struck a blow for true accountability rather than its tawdry simulacrum.
Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics. He’s an economist, a consultant, a commentator and a former adviser to the federal government.