Seminar summary: Democracy beyond referenda: Four alternatives

Julia Büdler, Koi Tū Research Assistant and Masters Student in Politics and International Relations

The Koi Tū Seminar Series kicked off on Wednesday 9 June with Dr Matheson Russell, Associate Professor in Philosophy, Faculty of Arts. In a talk entitled Democracy Beyond Referenda: Four Alternatives, Dr Russell discussed reimagining and redesigning democracy, so it is fit for purpose in the 21st century. Here are four key insights taken from the seminar.

1. We should question the assumption that referenda are the purest form of democracy

There is a common perception that referenda are the most democratic way to resolve controversial issues because everyone gets an equal say. However, history suggests that referenda are not a reliable mechanism for resolving complex and contentious policy questions (witness Brexit). Referendums give us a voice, but despite what is often claimed, they do not tell us much about ‘the will of the people’.

2. We should prepare ourselves to rethink and reform our received model of democracy

What is democracy, really? Dr Russell asserts that it is “a conceptual mistake to define democracy as an inclusive and egalitarian method of collective decision (e.g. voting that follows the principle of majority rule).”  Rather, by aligning with the classical definition of democracy encapsulated in the 5th century Greek term demokratia, we understand democracy to mean the power (kratos) is with the people (demos). In the words of theorist Wendy Brown:

democracy is an unfinished principle—it specifies neither what powers must be shared among us for the people’s rule to be practiced, how this rule is to be organized, nor by which institutions or supplemental conditions it is enabled or secured, features of democracy Western political thought has been haggling over since the beginning. (Brown 2010, 45-46).

3. We should demand a more intelligent and robust system of democracy

Questioning normative conceptions permits us to open our imaginations and begin to think more expansively and creatively about what our democracy should look like. Are we satisfied with the way our existing institutions give expression to our entitlement to enable the direction of political affairs? If not, what institutional forms, practices, and procedures we might find more amenable?  Matheson proposed four alternatives, as follow:

Parliament; the delegation of complex policy problems to those we have elected to represent us.

Citizens Initiative Review; the evaluation of one or more ballot measures by a panel of randomly-selected, demographically-representative sample of citizens, where conclusions of the panel are published as a “Citizens’ Statement” to give voters a resource with which to inform their decisions.

Citizens Assembly; referenda would be replaced with a randomly selected group of citizens who will undertake the work of getting informed and deliberating about the issues on behalf of the citizenry as a whole.

The ‘National Conversation’; this bold approach would upgrade the Citizens Assembly into something more rigorous and trustworthy, implementing a multiphase deliberative process that promotes a better division of democratic labour. Examples from Aotearoa, such as the Matike Mai process of constitutional reform provide examples of effective national conversation.

4. This will mean a more effective division of democratic labour

What is clear from Dr Matheson Russell’s seminar is that we need to think innovatively about new, more robust mechanisms of democratic decision-making. If we assess theoretical problems, and learn from experimentation, we may well be able to reshape our system of government so that it is simultaneously “more genuinely democratic, more intelligent, and more robust in the face of the threats and challenges we face in the 21st century.”


This was the first of a series of monthly seminars hosted by Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures. To receive more information about upcoming seminars, sign up to our email list here.