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All opposed: Is it time for citizens to shape policy?

All opposed: Is it time for citizens to shape policy?

Friday 2 September, 2016
As we know from the marriage equality issue, sometimes government just doesn’t work. It is time we citizens took matters into our own hands?
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The election of everyday citizens to office – something we are seeing more and more of during recent times – demonstrates a key lesson for those despairing of our systemic disengagement with the system: that participatory democracy works.

The participatory democracy movement is a throwback to ancient Athens, where a parliament constituted of citizens randomly selected in a lottery system debated policies that affected the community and decided how to allocate public funds. Granted, it was only those blessed with a Y-chromosome whose names were drawn out of the hat, but at least the rich and poor alike were given a shot at decision-making.

Now imagine what that model could achieve were it amplified to include all genders, ethnicities, sexualities and religions – all randomly selected to help decide the fate of their communities by sitting on a citizen’s senate. The senate would comprise citizens selected at random and rotated every two to three years, who would meet to deliberate proposals from a lower house of elected politicians, and who would be paid for their service.

Modern democracy is the antithesis of Athenian democracy. It’s the brainchild and income source of royals and rich landowners. The imbalance persists today: speculative property investors and multinational corporations are given tax breaks over working class families in the name of trickle-down economics. Socialism and its extreme cousin Communism were born of the disenfranchisement that modern democracy engendered.

As it stands, we’re not given the opportunity to understand the issues we face as communities – or as a country – in anything but a superficial way, nor are we given the opportunity to deliberate and collaborate to reach common ground. And that’s because the current democratic model promotes self-interest. The participatory model, on the other hand, promotes collective interest and social cohesion.

A group of 43 Melbournians from wildly disparate backgrounds came up with a policy that pleased everyone in only six weekends. And the council is now implementing it… Everyday citizens are consistently willing to step up to the plate when asked to do so.

Several countries are already jumping on the participatory bandwagon by experimenting with “citizen juries” as a way of reinvigorating waning interest in democracy. In Australia, citizen juries have been implemented to nut out policies on obesity, energy, transport, sustainability, food and alcohol-fuelled violence. They have also been used to mediate conflicts such as where an airport should be built or how cyclists and motorists can safely share roads.

In some cases, organisers place an ad in a paper and randomly select participants from the pool of respondents. In other cases, phone calls, letters and/or door-knocking are used to find willing participants. The selections are generally also cross-checked with the population at large to ensure the demographics of the “mini-public” are consistent in terms of age, gender and rural-versus-urban composition.

Jurors are given all the information necessary to make well-informed decisions about the policy question at hand, including access to experts who they can cross-examine, along with relevant information such as submissions and hearings, and other key documents. They are given time to debate the issues and to articulate their views. At the end of the process, juries are asked to reach a consensus verdict – maybe 80 percent or more.

Dissenting views are included in a final written report. Then it’s up to the elected officials to implement the jury’s recommendations. And in the majority of cases, they do.

Imagine what that model could achieve were it amplified to include all genders, ethnicities, sexualities and religions – randomly selected to decide the fate of their communities… Wouldn’t it be something if our politicians chose to leverage the demise of the two-party system to herald a new era of participation in Australian politics, rather than continue their plunge into the abyss where good ideas and policies go to die?

Recommendations that require intervention from state or federal government are passed on to the relevant parties. One notable example is that of Melbourne City Council, which selected a group of 43 Melbournians at random in 2014 to advise the council on a 10-year financial plan for growing the city, with a sizeable $4 billion budget.

You might think putting Joe Blogs and Fanny Shortpants in a room and getting them to battle it out for sensible policy is a bit of a farcical notion. Yet, these 43 people from wildly disparate backgrounds came up with a policy that pleased everyone in only six weekends. And the council is now implementing it. Our federal government couldn’t run a bath in that time.

Citizen juries empower ordinary citizens to shape policies that affect them and their communities, and provide a transparent viewpoint on community concerns, unaligned with any lobby or interest group and unpolluted by the machinations of the political apparatus. And the experiments to date have shown that everyday citizens are consistently willing to step up to the plate when asked to do so.

The current political system, by its very nature, attracts a disproportionate amount of crazed and power-hungry fringe-dwellers to its folds when compared to the population at large. It’s the responsibility of prioritising public trade-offs however which is a tangible exercise in egalitarianism, and this exposure to mainstream (or just different) viewpoints can teach extreme and fringe voices to value compromise and empathy. After all, the majority of us believe climate change is real and don’t harbour deeply offensive views about the First Australians and immigrants – but we would never pursue a career in politics, so we rely on our elected representatives to implement common-sense policies that will benefit us as a whole. When our reliance turns out to be misplaced, because there are myriad other powerful forces at play when it comes to party decision-making (namely, money), we act out by doodling on our ballot papers.

Participatory democracy initiatives like citizen juries or the citizens’ senate give more airtime to common-sense mainstream beliefs because of representative sampling, which situates racists and climate deniers rightly in their place as a proportional minority. Wouldn’t it be something if our politicians chose to leverage the grizzly demise of the two-party system to herald a new era of participation in Australian politics, rather than continue their plunge into the abyss where good ideas and policies go to die…?

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