Billionaires, Politics and Deliberative Democracy: Who should get a say?

The Australian Federal Treasurer has recently identified Australia’s emerging caste of mega rich mining magnates as a threat to Australian democracy. The argument is that they are exerting undue influence on politics because of their ability to mobilise resources to get what they want, which may or may not coincide with the public interest.

From a deliberative democracy point of view there is nothing intrinsically wrong with citizens’ expressing their opinion in the public sphere. In fact, that’s precisely what should be happening in a contestation of ideas. But it’s the disparity in the level of power that certain individuals have to push their point of view that’s the main objection. They reality is that the ability to tailor and widely publicise a message that suits a particular interest is influential (for reasons that I’ll have to explain another time). An important question then concerns whether counterarguments get an equal hearing.

But the question of equality becomes problematic. There’s been a lot of concern raised about the attempt to ‘balance’ arguments highlighting the threat of climate change with arguments from so called climate sceptics, and the potential effect that this has on public opinion where one of these positions is potentially less well founded (which for many, is a matter of opinion anyway).

And then there’s the problem of hypocrisy. There’s been more than a few people highlighting the inconsistency where the treasurer is pointing the finger at mining magnates (who in some respects are soft targets) while ignoring the influence of unions, or even clubs when it comes to the issue of gambling machine reform.

The implicit appeal for wider democratic discourse than sound bites from a few interests is a very worthy from a deliberative democratic point of view. But talk needs to be backed up with action, and consistency. For our part, we as deliberative democrats are working on ways in which the kind of ideals that the treasurer is appealing to should work in practice. There’s a little way to go on this front, but there are some clear approaches that could be adopted. Ironically, approaches such as the proposed Citizens’ Assembly might have helped in the context of the climate change issue might have helped, if conducted many years prior to when it was proposed, and under very different circumstances to an election campaign. Exactly how and why? That’s the subject of the next blog.

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