In the really excellent French political drama “Baron Noir”, which I recently finished watching on Amazon Prime, one candidate for the French presidency advocates a policy of sortition, that is, the filling of public offices not by direct election but by lottery.
It’s not a totally new idea: Athens did something similar back in ye olde day, but on the face of it, it sounds loopy. God knows what we would get into office. Indeed, the biggest opponents to it tend to be convinced that extremes will end up in office, horrible old bigots or commies. It also threatens to leave you with a public body that voters look at and ask “who are those people supposed to represent? Not me!”
Certainly, when I first heard of the idea I thought it was nuts.
I’m not so sure there’s isn’t a role for it now.
Someone recently told me of an industry event they attended where a politician spoke at it, and was so ignorant of the subject in question that some of the attendants started laughing in the middle of the politician’s address. Just to be clear: they weren’t laughing in disagreement: they were laughing because the politician was so badly informed.
I’m not sure it was the politician’s fault: he has a reputation for being a very astute constituency operator. Politican goes Where the Voters Are! Shock Horror!
But it does raise the issue as to whether the skills and indeed personality needed to get elected are actually the same to govern the country reasonably well? Indeed, as a country we are disturbingly comfortable at handing over executive day to day decision-making power to appointed officials from NPHET to City & County Managers to judges.
On top of that, why would you run for office anyway? We’ve seen the abuse people get for running for election. Running for election is very very hard in Ireland. It can be expensive, and incredibly time consuming. Want to improve the quality of live in Dublin City? Don’t run for the council: join it and work your way up. You’ll have more power than most cllrs within five years. A democracy where candidates for political office become a sort of caste apart is not a healthy democracy. We need ordinary people to take part in public decision making.
Now, let’s not go mad. I’m not proposing we replace elections with lotteries. But consider an alternative.
Supposing if every half-term we appointed, say, a fifth of the county council at random by lottery. For a fixed two and a half year term. We’d gender balance it, and any eligible citizen could register, knowing that if they were picked they’d have two and a half years to make arrangements, and would be paid whatever their current salary was. If we applied it to Dublin City Council, it would mean 13 new cllrs appointed every 2.5 years. If it applied to Seanad Eireann, it would mean 12 new senators arriving fresh. Of course, there’d have to be some training, but after that let them at it.
I suggested this once to a party political activist and he actually got red-faced angry at the idea that people were “jumping the queue”. As if the political system was owned primarily by politicians.
But we could get crazy people! Yes, almost certainly. We’d get the odd racist, but also the odd transgender person. We could get some headtheball roaring and shouting about immigration and Travellers. We could also get our first black former asylum seeker citizen looking nervously at her family in the public gallery as she takes her seat in Seanad Eireann. Indeed, one thing we would get more than anything else would be people who never thought they’d ever hold public office in the republic. People who weren’t political insiders. Perhaps an awkward squad who asked awkward questions and made the professional politicians shift awkwardly. All to the good, I say.
But you could end up with some extremist holding the balance of power! Why? They’ll only do that if the other parties don’t cooperate.
They’d serve their two and a half years, and be on their way. Some will milk it, some will be corrupt, and some will be able to speak on legislation because it is what they do in real life. Some may find that the really liked being a senator or county councillor, and run for real. But you would almost certainly have families suddenly finding a senator or councillor in the home where as before it was a different world to them.
It would certainly be interesting to try it on a pilot scheme level, just to measure the public interest. Maybe nobody would register? But bear in mind one thing: it’s not that unusual. After all, we let randomly selected juries have the power to deprive their fellow citizens of their freedom, something more powerful than anything a member of the county council or Seanad Eireann currently does.