Australian Lefty on Politics, Governance, Science and Info Management

Ostracism: a return to democratic traditions

Posted by Dave Bath on 2007-02-26

Ostracism was a key political institution of classical Athens, the cradle of western democracy.  We should re-instate a modernized version of the process.  While particular politicians mentioned are Australian, the same arguments apply to any western democracy.

Every year, Athenians cast their ballot, scratched on potsherds (ostrakoi), naming the individual thought most damaging to civic unity.  The most-nominated person was exiled from the city for between five and ten years.

A similar procedure, with the entire country as a single electorate, carried out at general and mid-term elections, with all members of both houses as candidates, using preferential counting, with the "winner" banned from any elected, judicial, ambassadorial or senior departmental position for a similar period, would serve Australia well, by officially quantifying public disquiet about individual policies.

This would decrease the ability of ministers to hide behind the anonymity of cabinet decisions when implementing unpopular policies that often lack a mandate from the previous election.  Instead, ministers would stand up within cabinet for better policies, and would suffer the consequences of incompetence they permitted within their own departments.  It is even likely that unpopular positions of cabinet members would be "leaked" by others during the lead-up to an ostracism, to avoid their own demise.  This would dramatically improve the openness of government, and focus ministers on responsible decision making rather caving in to domineering cabinet members driven by pure ideology and political short-termism.

Amanda Vanstone, for example, might have held to the more humane positions she traditionally espoused before she was "gagged by promotion" to cabinet.

Even without "winning" ostracism, unpopular policies and individuals would lose power within the party room.  Those coming second or third would certainly be put on notice, and take positions more appealing to the centre

Gradually but surely, ostracism would remove extremists, installed in safe seats by the too-oft stacked preselection committees of faceless party hacks, as well as independents elected to finely-balanced seats by accident of preference deals with the majors.  I imagine that, on facing ostracism in the middle of her first term, Pauline Hanson would have been removed before she could do much damage, thus limiting opportunistic subtle adoption of her inflammatory demagoguery by other politicians.

Politicians may even concentrate their efforts on being better representatives, rather than on self-promotion within their own party machine which might result in becoming a bigger target for ostracism.

Personally, my preferences would include people from both major parties, indicating displeasure at parliamentarians from my own preferred party who wield influence only through their abilities as back-room operators and actually prevent advancement of the causes I espouse.

Ostracism is the process most proven and able to "keep the bastards honest", ensuring that each parliamentarian is answerable to the entire polity.  However, I know there is little chance of its introduction because of rare unanimous opposition from all major parties to a constitutional change that would receive massive popular support.

Who would you nominate, from both left and right, either because they are incompetent, promote bad policies too effectively, or encourage ill-will between citizens?  Please indicate which country the politician is from.

3 Responses to “Ostracism: a return to democratic traditions”

  1. […] Annual ostracism voting would provide control over individual politicians, to avoid poor performance that would otherwise be encouraged at the start of their individual long terms. […]

  2. […] it’s time to point back at an earlier post that might have avoided this problem: "Ostracism: a return to democratic traditions" (2007-02-26). Pauline […]

  3. […] Cicero.  Besides, I’d just love the chance to participate in an ostracism election (see here and here).  Those folk were into participatory democracy – something we desperately need […]

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