The vast majority of contemporary liberal democratic states are representative democracies, meaning citizens choose people from the citizen body to represent them in a parliament. Candidates present their own, or their party’s, statement of policies and promises for what they would do if they were elected to govern the nation. Citizens consider these policies, and other information provided during the election campaign, and cast their votes for the candidate(s) of their choice. The party that has the most number of elected candidates forms a government.
The government claims that, by being elected, it has a mandate from the people to implement these policies and promises, and to enact the necessary laws. It assumes that it has the consent of citizens to do these things.
Some commentators have cast doubt on this assumption. “Voters rarely endorse the winning party’s manifesto because they don’t read it” Mclean (1989). Uhr (2005) considers the current situation is more one of assent – a nod of approval – than informed consent. Arblaster (2002) suggests “silence means consent”, hence tacit or implied consent.
An important point to consider in the matter of consent concerns events and issues which arise during the term of the parliament, which were unknown during the election. In these cases there could be occasions when the notion of implied consent was abused by the government.
In this paper the term “informed consent” is used to imply that there is a process of providing information to citizens before and during an election, to help them decide which candidate or party should receive their consent to govern.
It also applies to information being available to inform citizens of issues which arise during the life of the parliament. In this instance, some thought needs be given to the types of decisions that require consent, since this would not be required for every decision. The types of decisions which should have informed consent could be those where politicians are granted a conscience vote (as in Australia), on abortion reform or voluntary euthanasia for example; or on issues which have major impact on the majority of citizens, such as going to war.
A general principle is that citizens have the right to know about matters that concern them, and information on these matters should be freely available. The information to be provided will be different during an election from that required for specific matters during the term of the parliament.
Information during an election could cover such things as the parties’ manifestos, criticisms and commentaries on these manifestos, and profiles of candidates. The types of information required to cover matters arising during the life of the parliament would depend on the particular issue, but it could follow the model of the deliberative poll. In a deliberative poll the participants are provided with the arguments for both sides of the question, the levels of detail depending on the nature of the problem.
In our modern societies there would be no problem in providing enough information to citizens. This is not difficult to do with the traditional electronic and print media; and the use of information and communications technology (ICT), especially the internet and web sites, would provide other important means to deliver information. This would be one aspect of electronic democracy.
Whatever delivery method is used, the main problem would be the provision of complete, unbiased and relevant information. For example, public information currently provided by a government for community education is a good thing, but this must be distinguished from public opinion-forming material, which is more in the way of government propaganda, provided at taxpayers expense.
There will be some citizens who will wish to delve deeper into a particular issue, and investigate other government documents. Governments’ Freedom of Information (FoI) initiatives have a valuable role here, although the terms of exclusion of some documents may be rather detrimental to the spirit of FoI. Access to FoI services on-line would be another component of electronic democracy.
The parliamentary election process enables citizens to give their consent to the government. However, providing citizens with a means to exercise their power by giving consent for a particular course of action during the parliamentary term does raise some problems. Should the democratic system have some additional voting mechanism for citizens to express, or withhold, their consent on a particular matter. Perhaps an electronic voting system could provide this mechanism.
To require this consent to be provided on a regular basis is like conducting frequent referenda, and there are very few democracies which use referenda to this extent. Alternatively, the greater use of opinion polls to gain this consent could be considered, but there could always be the question as to whether the poll sample was big enough to be considered democratic, and such polls could always be open to challenge, eg. on the grounds that the people responding to the polls were not sufficiently informed of the issues. However, this type of challenge to opinion polls could lead to a greater use of deliberative polls. A more informed citizenry and the use of deliberative polling could be part of a bigger picture of participatory democracy.
The solutions to these problems will be related to the particular culture of the society in question. Each society has evolved its democratic processes over many years, and continues to do so. Future versions of democracy are likely to include solutions to this problem of providing citizens with greater power through informed consent. These solutions will probably include a version of electronic democracy.
Arblaster, A, 2002, Democracy, Third Edition, Open University Press, Buckingham, UK.
McLean, I, 1989, Democracy and new technology, Blackwell Polity Press,
Uhr, J, 2005, Terms of Trust: Arguments over ethics in Australian Government, UNSW Press, Sydney.