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IT IS HARD TO BELIEVE that Facebook has only existed in Australia since 2005. Along with other social media platforms, this technology has significantly changed the way many people interact with each other. There's now a whole generation who would think something was wrong if their phone rang rather than pinged with a message from a friend. No longer do you know you have a firm friendship when you enjoy someone's company; the new litmus test is whether your WiFi automatically connects when you visit them.

Here's the question I'm interested to answer: If advances in technology can have such a huge impact on our lives, can these same advances be used to improve our democratic process? It's an exciting prospect, relevant to the research ACF undertook to establish 10 principles for a healthy democracy (outlined on p.9). Existing technology could bring this vision to life. The principles of honesty and integrity, equity of participation, and transparency and accountability are particularly relevant.

Secure online voting

Voting is often seen as an obvious use of technology. There have been suggestions that blockchain technology (the technology underpinning the Bitcoin currency) could be used as a secure method of enabling online voting. Significant energy use impacts aside, would it improve it? It would certainly make it quicker and cheaper to both cast votes and count them. Even the Senate result could be known on the day!

But would it disenfranchise those who were less technologically able, or had less access? I think it would take a lot of convincing for online electoral voting to be accepted. I'd miss the fundraising sausage sizzles at the local school. And the election night parties, all sitting around the television waiting for Antony Green to pronounce the outcome. No more breathless waiting for key seats to fall while watching the shaking of political heads over the chaos a possible hung parliament would bring.

But what if, rather than using technology to vote for our representatives, we use it to vote on issues? Once we have the technological framework in place for secure electronic voting, the incremental cost of each vote is very small. So why not use it to allow everyone to vote on legislation? Our representatives in Parliament could put up legislation, as they do now, but instead of debating the issue on the floor of Parliament they would debate it on the internet. After a given period, perhaps variable if the issue is a difficult one, the vote would be counted. Of course, the result would have to be binding on the Parliament for it to be meaningful!

This would give pause to the section of the community who claim that politics is nothing to do with them and should engender a greater interest in the effects that policy has on our lives. It would certainly make for a more participatory society.

There may be much legislation that people don't want to engage in, through lack of interest or lack of knowledge. The political parties could fill a useful role here by offering themselves as proxies. A voting system could be designed where you could direct your vote to a trusted proxy if you didn't want to delve deeply enough into the issue to decide how to vote.

Making political donations transparent

There is a lack of transparency surrounding donations made to political parties. This results in the potential for corruption within our democracy. Political parties in Australia are only required to disclose donations over a certain amount and within a timeframe that is not helpful to voters. For example, donations received just before an election do not have to be disclosed until well after the election, robbing voters of the knowledge of who was funding which party's election program.

Timeliness of disclosure is not an administrative nightmare. It would be a simple task to enable political parties to add donations to their website as they add them to their bank accounts. Imagine how differently some politicians would behave if there was near real-time exposure of political donations!

A brief examination of political parties' websites shows that, currently, the Greens disclose gifts over $1000 on their website, but not anywhere near real-time. Labor also discloses gifts over $1000, but not on its website. The Liberals disclose gifts over $13800, but again, not on their website. The Nationals no doubt disclose gifts over $13800 to the appropriate authorities but not, apparently, to the public.

Knowing who has given how much to which party can make a difference.

Knowing, for example, that a lobby group has given $X to a party might affect one's interpretation of that party's policies related to the lobby group's interests.

Making access to politicians transparent

Who has access to our politicians? Which groups are talking to our politicians, giving them perspectives on issues? Are politicians speaking to people from all sides, seeing different perspectives? Or are they getting a biased view? How can we know?

Nowadays we almost all have digital diaries. Politicians could make their digital diaries visible to the public online. This could have the added benefit of educating us in what politicians do, how many community meetings they attend, how many constituents they see, how many hours they work. It might stop us whingeing about how much they're paid!

So, with these technological fixes, the public could know who's giving money to which parties, and who's talking to whom. Would this level of transparency about their activities make a difference to our politicians and their behaviour? Would it make a difference to us as voters? These ideas aren't new. They've been canvassed in numerous forums. But they are getting much easier to implement as technology changes and connectivity grows.

No matter which of the suggestions above you think would be worth implementing, it will take people power to get them in place. ACF is already using existing technology to grow people power. It's enabling community groups to get together, to communicate with each other and their communities and to run community events.

With a commitment to getting rid of the obstacles in the way of a healthy democracy, we can all work towards the reform efforts needed to shape a participatory democracy in the future. A democracy where decisions and decision-making are made in the interests of the community and the planet we call home.

By ACF Database Developer, Peter Falconer
COPYRIGHT 2019 Australian Conservation Foundation
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Author:Falconer, Peter
Publication:Habitat Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Apr 1, 2019
Next Article:Restoring bushland, re-connecting communities: IN CONVERSATION WITH THE 2018 ACF PETER RAWLINSON CONSERVATION AWARD WINNER, TODD DUDLEY.

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