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
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.