The success of the Greens and the Teal Independents in the recent Australian federal election has cultivated a sense of hope and courage. The past decade has deepened cynicism around electoral politics, not just here in Australia, but across the globe: Trump, Johnson and Morrison seemed like a triumvirate of celebrating ignorance and elitism. The federal election has hopefully reinvigorated us to continue the vital work all members of NENA are doing (myself included!).
Much has been said about this recent success, indicating a revival of Australian democracy (see here and here). In this article, I will examine how this success can be translated into a deeper transformation of our political environment. This transformation will sever sustenance to the confrontational, elite politics that have dominated the Australian landscape for decades. We can seize this moment by capitalising on and institutionalising the success of participatory democracy, which was a clear winner on 21 May.
The heart of the Teal, or Voices For, movement is the kitchen table conversation, where people come together to discuss what they want from their representatives in Canberra. It is a method of communicating within communities, which necessarily means communicating across divides on policy, perspectives, and priorities. What sets apart the Voices For candidates and Members of Parliament (MPs) is that their primary responsibility is not to an issue or a party, but to their constituency.
These practices — the kitchen table conversation and the direct, unmediated link to the constituency — are forms of participatory or deliberative democracy. Participatory democracy has seen a massive expansion internationally in the last decade. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) calls this expansion a ‘deliberative wave’, which is seeing a huge number of governments at all levels experimenting with different forms of citizen engagement in policy making. Deliberative democracy can refer to a range of processes, from the government-led processes highlighted in the OECD research, to assemblies and decision-making by the Occupy movement protestors, to the French Climate Convention convened by President Emmanuel Macron. What links these processes is the focus on informed discussion rather than partisan debate. People come together tasked with finding mutually agreeable solutions, rather than coming to a negotiating table to win as representatives of a particular agenda.
I believe we can build upon this movement and this moment in Australian politics to reinvigorate public life. We can create more spaces for the voices of people in our communities to be heard, and decrease both partisanship and the influence of the Murdoch-led mainstream media.
One place to start is with your local MP. Let them know that the politicians who retained their seats in the last elections weren’t those who thought they were ‘safe’, but those who spent time in their community and who listened to community voices. For example, in Canberra, Labor MP Alicia Payne has instituted the Canberra Forum. This is a deliberative democracy panel where a group of ordinary people — nurses, teachers, bus-drivers — will meet regularly and allow her more chances to “listen” to the people of Canberra, building on the previous work of her Labor colleague Andrew Leigh. A representative mini-public of community voices like this can ensure that our representatives aren’t just hearing from the most politically active in the community, but a genuine cross-section of the constituency.
Another place to start is your local council. In Victoria, local councils are obliged by state law to use deliberative democracy for the creation of community visions, along with council and asset management plans. Many councils use a form of deliberative democracy called mini-publics, for these processes. Mini-publics are selected in a similar fashion to a jury, but are representative of the demographic structure of the population including gender, age, geography and other criteria.
By putting pressure on your local council (and councillors) to use deliberative mini-publics, you can help to promote the ideas and practice of deliberative democracy, and help to bring more diverse voices into local planning processes. One strategy for a mini-public is to take an issue in your local area which seems intractable and draw the council’s attention to the success other places have had in overcoming division and finding a way forward when faced with the same issues. If you need inspiration, look at the Citizens’ Assembly on abortion in the Republic of Ireland.
Practices of deliberative democracy have been applied throughout South America, from Brazil to Chile and Bolivia, where a group called Democracy in Practice (with strong ties to the newDemocracy Foundation from Australia) are changing how student representation is carried out. By replacing elections, which are often no more than popularity contests, with random selection, deliberative democracy gives a wider range of young people the opportunity to develop leadership skills. It also increases the appreciation and participation of people whose skills lie in areas other than campaigning who might not otherwise have put themselves forward for elected positions. These candidates may have skills in managing, communication, or other areas.
Another exciting tool to engage communities in the democratic process is participatory budgeting, which was popularised in Porto Alegre, Brazil. In this process, the citizenry are allocated a small portion of a council or community organisation’s budget, or even the entire budget! Through deliberative mechanisms, the people then decide where this money should be spent in their community.
Here in Australia, there are also opportunities to push for local initiatives, whether for participatory budgeting of a local council budget, working with partners to build a Greenprints map grounded both in local place and local people, or lobbying MPs to engage in citizens’ panels within their constituencies so that they can accurately represent community views. Excitingly, at least two Australian organisations are working on ambitious proposals for a national climate assembly.
As these examples show, the gap between the current processes and what people want provides us with an opportunity. This next election cycle will be a great time for us, as a movement, to show that there are practical strategies for political reform that increase the public’s capacity and willingness to participate in politics.
Deliberative democracy does not guarantee that we will get change that is in line with progressive convictions. The outcomes of these processes are never guaranteed, as decision making power rests with communities. However, it does give people a chance to think about the reasons why people with different views or priorities hold those views, thereby humanising the debate. It gives a platform for all people involved to learn more about complex processes or ethical reasons behind a policy. It also encourages longer-term decision-making, not governed by either the news or the election cycles, so the decisions made tend to be better aligned with the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.
If you’d like to help move things forward, get in touch with the Democracy & Governance hub, or get in touch with NENA members, the Coalition of Everyone: we have this transformation at the core of our work.